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China's violin city spreads string message

By Emily Chang, CNN
  • Donggaocun produces 300,000 violins, violas, cellos and basses a year
  • That's about one-third of the world's violin production
  • City children are encouraged to learn to play the instrument
  • The reputation of Chinese instruments has risen dramatically in recent years

Donggaocun, China (CNN) -- The sound of novice strings fills classrooms and hallways in Donggaocun almost every day. At Pinggu Elementary School students are practicing Beethoven's ninth symphony.

For the past three years, the local government has been encouraging students to learn how to play the town's biggest export.

"At first there were a lot of violin factories but not many violin players," said teacher Wang Yanping.

"We started a violin project to educate teachers," the teacher said. "It would be a waste if you were born in a town that produces so many violins, but didn't know how to use one."

On the eastern outskirts of Beijing, Donggaocun claims to be the violin-making capital of China, the largest exporter of stringed instruments in the world.

It is home to at least nine big factories and more than 150 workshops that churn out about 300,000 violins, violas, cellos and basses, according to Chinese government figures. That includes about one-third of the world's total violin production.

Video: China's city of strings

In fact, Donggaocun is one of a few such manufacturing hubs across the country. Xiqiao town in Jiangsu province is also well known for its violin production.

Fifteen years ago, Chen Zuhua was running a timber company in Donggaocun when he says the idea struck him to use the wood to make instruments.

He traveled to Italy where he bought books about violins, drawing sheets, and an Italian violin.

"I brought back a violin and so many manuals," Chen said. "Workers in my factory had never before made a single violin."

Now his Beijing Dual Joy Instrument Company crafts 60,000 stringed instruments every year. Most of them are exported to the United States, France and Germany.

American Aaron Reilly has visited the factory three times to hand-pick instruments for his own music shop, Guarneri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

He says "Made in China" violins have come a long way since the Chinese got into the instrument-making business. At one point, they were known among industry insiders as "no better than firewood."

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    "They were terrible," said Reilly. "I mean, to be honest, they were just really, really bad instruments. Now, they're very good. The attention to detail is pretty amazing."

    All of the instruments at Beijing Dual Joy are made with wood from Tibet. The entire process from the carving to the bending to the varnish is completed by hand.

    Reilly said the quality of Chinese instruments now rivals those from Italy and Germany, and the price can't be beat.

    "We actually have a lot of people come into the shop and say, 'We want anything but Chinese,'" Reilly explained. "I'll show them all the other stuff we have and say 'Why don't we try a Chinese instrument?' They try it and nine times out of 10, we end up selling them a Chinese instrument because it's a lot less expensive."

    For Reilly, it is good business. He can sell a Chinese-made violin in the U.S. for up to 10 times the purchase price, that is after he adds his own personal touch. He adjusts every instrument significantly before making a sale.

    "We all have a different opinion of the way an instrument sounds or how it's going to sound," Reilly said.

    If the international market is any indication, Chinese-made stringed instruments are sounding pretty good.

    The violins made in Donggaocun and the rest of China end up in the hands of students around the world, and right next door.

    At Pinggu Elementary school, the melancholy notes of Beethoven's ninth symphony sound out in sharp contrast to the students' enthusiasm for it.

    "I've been studying violin for a year," said little Feng Ai excitedly. "It's difficult to play at first, but easier if you keep learning. The sound of it is beautiful."