Guangzhou violin maker crafts her dream into reality

Updated: 07 Apr 2012
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A partially made cello lies on the table in Yi Ying's living room. In 2010 Yi won a silver medal in the viola competition by young designers.


Violin maker works tirelessly at her passion in crafting instruments

In the living room of an apartment on the fifth floor of an old building in downtown Guangzhou, Yi Ying, 33, sits in front of a table, fixed to which is a cello's carved neck she is shaving with a thumb-sized plane.

She has been working on the cello off and on for almost one year. The luthier hopes to finish it before the opening of the Sixth National Competition of Violin Making in Pisogne, Italy. The competition, which runs May 17-31, is the only national contest in Italy, the origin of violins.

In the 2009 competition, Yi's violin won the Award for Acoustic for professional luthiers, and in 2010, she won a silver medal in the viola competition by young designers.

With a table, a stool and various-sized tools that hang orderly on a board nailed to a wall, Yi crafts her dream into reality.

Yi is the first daughter of an editor of a local TV station in Wenzhou, East China's Zhejiang province, and a student of Chinese painting master Zhang Daqian. In the first years of China's reform and opening up, the time- and energy-consuming painting jobs earned Yi's mother only a few cents per piece. Her mother decided that Yi and her sister would not learn such a futureless art.

When Yi graduated from middle school in 1994, the 15-year-old girl went to a technical school and studied computers. Four years later, she was successfully recruited by one of the big four national banks. It seemed like her life was going to flow smoothly in the following decades.

"It would be a boring life if I worked in front of a computer and counted money every day," says Yi shaking her head.

But the day that completely changed her life came in the summer of 1998 when she visited a violin-making class at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (SCM).

"When I saw the violins made there, I immediately fell in love with it. It's like I suddenly woke up from a dream. I suddenly realized all my life I spent and all the computer knowledge was a waste of time. I told my mother that this is what I am going to do," says Yi excitedly, her eyes sparkling.

In the following year and a half, Yi studied the art of making violins at SCM. She worked very hard, always the first to arrive and the last to leave the classroom. Although she was not good at carpentry, she got her artistic talent from her mother. On one occasion, when her teacher Hua Tianreng asked the students to comment on a violin, Yi told him that the design didn't seem good enough, which impressed one of the early violin-making masters in China.

In 1999, the 20-year-old woman decided she would go to the world's best violin-making school, Stradivari International School of Violin-making, in Cremona, Italy.

"At the beginning, my father thought I was not serious and it would be a waste of money and life if I was not able to learn it well enough," Yi says. "But after visiting the teacher, my father made up his mind. The teacher convinced him that I could do well."

However, Yi was refused a visa because at that time people from Zhejiang province were considered to have intentions of emigrating. Yi heard that a cook certification could help her get into the country. After 10 days of preparing for the cooking test, she gained a middle-level certification. Getting the visa cost 125,000 yuan in all, which was enough to purchase an apartment at the time.

"My mother took out the money and said: 'I give you the your and your sister's dowry. You know what to do', " Yi smiles.

In Italy, Yi faced another big challenge on the way to pursuing her dream. Because she could not speak Italian she wasn't admitted to the school.

To support her life in Italy, she had to work as waitress, barista, nanny to babies and pets as well as teach Chinese. In her down time, she was still learning skills at a local violin-making studio.

To learn Italian, she attended free literacy class offered by the local government. Later, to give herself a better language environment, she quit the waitressing job at a Chinese restaurant and applied for one of the top restaurants in Cremona, Hosteria 700, whose requirements for being a waiter are very demanding.

During a summer night filled with heavy rains, Yi knocked on the door of the closed restaurant. The owner opened it and agreed that she could come for a test the next day.

"I will never forget that night. I was so grateful to the boss who was willing to give such a precious opportunity to such an inexperienced applicant as me who speaks little Italian. To thank him, I worked very hard and the guests were very satisfied and recommended me to the boss," Yi says.

Yi's diligence helped her beat two other applicants who had attended a three-year waiter school. Her salary doubled to 1,000 euros overnight. One year later, she passed the examination of the violin-making school, skipped the first round of classes and was placed in second year courses.

She continued to work at the restaurant while taking classes, sometimes only have an hour to eat dinner, do laundry, iron clothes and do homework.

She remained determined in the classroom as well, because she had to.


Yi Ying, 33, makes a violin. With a table, a stool and various-sized tools that hang neatly on a board nailed to a wall, Yi crafts her dream into reality.


One of Yi's teacher Giorgio Ce, whose cello was used to record the soundtrack for the Oscar movie Departures (2008), did not like the inconspicuous Chinese girl, who could not even understand her own name in the first class.

"He arranged me a seat in the corner of the classroom. He seldom talked to me until the end of the semester of the first year when he was amazed by my scroll. I was immediately sent to the best seat just beside the teacher's desk," Yi recalls.

From then on, Yi became the star of the class. She received nine points for designing and constructing a violin as part of her graduate work, which her teacher said is bestowed upon future masters.

"He once said that 10 is for Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) of Cremona, the acknowledged master of masters, eight is for top students and nine is for the future master and I am honored by the points he gave me," Yi says.

After graduating from the school in 2005, Yi continued studying and working in Cremona for four years. In 2009, the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou opened its violin-making class and recruited her as its first violin-making teacher.

"She was a great teacher. She often took the students to choose tools and became good friends," says Li Aiqun, secretary-general of the Guangdong Musical Instrument Association.


In modern day China, women are expected to marry in their 20s. Many refer to older, single women, such as Yi at the age of 33, as "leftovers". But when asked why she is still single, she says smiling, "I haven't met the right one."

"A single woman's life should be rich and colorful. Recently, I have been learning fencing, studying English, making pottery and practicing yoga," she says, adding that "You should try whatever you want, too. Don't hesitate.

"That's also why I love violin-making. There is no better thing in the world than combining your work with your interests. Violin-making supports my life and offers me much free time to do whatever I want."

The lively teacher has made less than 30 stringed instruments, including four violas, two cellos and more than 20 violins.

"I love the cello the most because it sounds very warm and quiet. So I made myself a cello for my 20th birthday," Yi says.

One violin takes her three to four months. All the materials are natural and Yi prepares the lacquer by herself.

"The lacquering process will be repeated more than 40 times in order to achieve an excellent result," Yi says.

Yi's violins are popular among players. In some cases, her violins have sold for as much as 60,000 yuan. She continues to improve her skills by returning to Cremona every summer to study for three months.

"When I was young, my mother always criticized me that my passion for one thing only lasts five minutes. But making violins always fascinates me."



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