More on Chinese Instruments

Not infrequently we get requests from customers for a cello that is “not Chinese”. When we ask why, more often than not the answer is something like “nothing specific really, I would just prefer something that isn’t Chinese.”

Sometime in the early 1990’s a well-dressed young Chinese gentleman found his way to our shop and politely showed us his cellos. He was of a gentle nature, pleasant, bright, and his cellos were amazingly low-priced, but he clearly knew nothing about what he was selling and he clearly had no idea that the cellos he put in front of us were horrible.

This scene repeated itself throughout the country over the next several years as various Chinese shops sought a niche in the U.S., trying to dramatically undersell increasingly pricey new European instruments. Discount houses, general instrument stores, and some string shops began carrying this early Chinese fare, and the instruments quickly acquired the negative reputation that, in some respects, they are still trying to shake today.

But as the U.S. population learned in the 90’s, the Chinese are nothing if not smart, industrious and flexible. Realizing that they had entered a very specialized field that most of them knew little about, they began hiring European luthier school graduates to train and supervise the workers in their shops in Beijing and Shanghai. The fledgling Chinese woodworkers were quick onto catch on the skills being taught and willing to put in the time it took to bring these skills to the high level required for the Chinese to successfully compete in the American and European stringed instrument market. The Chinese luthier shops became, in effect, a microcosm of what was later termed the “Asian Miracle”.

Because of our high visibility as specialists in cellos, Melissa and I get to examine new instruments from all parts of the world. Yes, you can still buy really mediocre cellos from China and other places (for very little money), but for new cellos under $10,000, we feel that no one can compete with the Chinese in workmanship (a good Chinese cello is clean throughout the inside: blocks, linings, jointery), varnish (to augment their regular good varnishes, a couple Chinese luthiers have unearthed an antiquing method that one of my restoration instructors would have given his right arm for), good modeling (several Chinese luthiers have been able to get their hands on real Amatis, Gofrillers, etc. and make exact copies. All the important dimensions of all models are correct, the necks feel good in the hand etc), and they have great sound (cellists are entering college programs with cellos costing $6000 and less).

Recently we had the opportunity to examine what looked to be an attractive new German cello retailing at about $4500. When we looked more closely, the interior work was very rough, the glue was too-strong, rubbery and non-water-soluable, the wood was under some stress (not completely dry) when it was assembled, and although the varnish was an attractive color, it had started to flake. And it didn’t play all that well. This was one instrument from one company, but the salesperson had chosen it as a representative of the company’s product.

We can and do offer new cellos from Europe. But because of the quality in so many areas, much of our hand picked new stock comes from China.

If you look at the international violin-making competitions, it’s interesting to note the increasing number of Asians on the medal-winners lists. And by the way, the polite, young gentleman who came to our shop in the early 90’s has been, for the last 10 or so years, head of one of the largest instrument companies in the world.