The results of the Violin Society of America (VSA) international competition in November 1998 came as a shock: The higher-than-usual judging criteria had cut the list of winners so short, that many hopeful candidates from Europe and America did not make it.
Three that won the certificate of merit for tone were listed alphabetically by their family names: Guangyue Chen, Jeffrey Robinson, and Baokang Xian. The first was an American-Chinese violin maker living in Huston. The second doesn’t look like a Chinese. The third, apparently a Chinese, was barely known among Chinese instrument lovers in the American-Chinese community.
In the meantime, the man by the name of Xian was taking his busy shift in the Radiation Department of the Hebei Medical University Fourth Affiliated Hospital in Shijiazhuang City, China. It was days later that he was told the news by a friend who had heard about it by chance while in the US. Months later, Xian sent out a letter of self-introduction to the US-based international society for instrument lovers.
Making the best violin for Mother
In 1955, Xian Baokang was born in a “happy family of intellectuals”. His mother, a graduate of the Central Conservatory of Music, had studied with the distinguished violinist Ma Sicong. His father, a proficient speaker of English and Japanese with some experience in painting and also violin, enrolled in what is known today as Hebei Medical University (formerly Hebei Medical School), before moving on to further studies in Japan. However, such talent genes did not await little Baokang to catch before he lost his hearing.
Over a year after birth, Baokang came down with measles and a persistent high fever. An overdose of streptomycin left the baby permanently deaf in both ears, as the husband of his father’s sister found out one day by tapping the chimney hard, to which the boy beside him paid no attention. “Oh no. Not deaf, I hope!” It was only then that the couple took their son to Beijing Children’s Hospital for an examination. It turned out that the boy had lost a considerable amount of hearing for high-pitched sounds and that only some parts of neurons for alto and low pitch were spared. It was a time when semi-conductive hearing aids had not yet been available in China. To learn speaking, the family tried everything they could: lip-reading, gesturing, and placing the young boy’s hand at the corner of his mother’s mouth to let him feel how much air flowed – all was to little avail.
Baokang’s childhood memory includes many a time when he watched his parents’ violin duet, the strings simmering in soft light to emit long winding sounds. Unhearing, the boy would turn attention to his own play, but the connection between him and the violin started very early. In 1964, the nine-year-old Baokang finally had hearing aids that his father bought from a Japanese friend. After that, he started to learn, speaking slowly, and to reenter the hearing world.
However, gloom and light may take turns on one’s life. The onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 was inescapable. Fictitious labels of “Japanese spy”, “reactionary academic dignitaries” and “the offspring of reactionary capitalists” embroiled Xian’s family in a thorough household raid. Almost everything was confiscated, and the most painful of all for both Baokang and his mother was the loss of a violin.
It was a precious Italian violin of more than three hundred years. Her father traded four and a half gold bars to get it. This instrument became her favorite, but even after the political redress in 1969, she was not able to find it back. Baokang sensed his mother’s emotional switch – She had become quieter and would very seldom play violin. The young man wanted to make his mother happy. The loss of hearing had led him to acquire more skill with his hands, eyes, and his mind. He had always enjoyed handicraft and thus started to try to make violins. Inwardly he vowed to himself that he was going to make a violin exactly the same as the one his mother had lost.
Opening a violin shop in the sun
In 1973 Baokang’s father, looking at his son’s unstoppable enthusiasm to balance his high school career and violin craftsmanship, hired a professional maker in Beijing. Having learned with the master for a while, the teenager completed his first violin on his own. With excitement, he showed it to his mother. “How do you think I did?”
“Quite good. Not bad.”
“How is it compared with that one of yours?”
“Haha! Not even one hundredth, maybe less.” His mother gestured the gap with her hands. “But your first one was no easy work to make.”
After graduation from high school, Baokang spent three years honing his skills as a violin maker from home. His parents, however, hoped that he would have a secure job for a living. They managed to get him three jobs in a row. By 1998, Baokang had worked in the Radiation Department of the Hebei Medical University Fourth Affiliated Hospital for 15 years. Despite the busy three work shifts, he still managed to make time for craftsmanship and competition. From 1986 onward, his violins started to be sent to compete in France, Italy, and the US as he wanted to have his work acknowledged by the most distinguished body of accreditation.
Finally, the 1998 VSA competition gave him a shot in the arm. After that, he resolved to quit his job at the hospital altogether and open a violin shop. What seemed to others a crazy move was only a natural step he felt he must take to advance further. Behind him lay numerous products he had crafted and all his violin-related memories, the fondest being of his parents playing duet, followed by the devastating Cultural Revolution at age 11 and a yet unfulfilled promise he made to his mother when he was 14.
From then on Kangbao started to absorb every minute detail he needed to know about making violins. He would study each and every fine violin he had fabricated. Whenever he got the chance, he would lose himself in it, dissembling, taking notes, and mulling over data from each part and hues on each surface. In the world of violin making, he had found the source of a desire for self-realization.
In 1999, the Xians’ Violin Shop was officially opened to the public, marking the earliest establishment of its kind along what would be gradually taking shape as the Street of Musical Instruments in Shijiazhuang.
The northern Italian city Cremona is known as “the hometown of violins” producing the world’s best string instruments. Pretty much like a child, Baokang is fascinated by the old Italian violin shops and sun-basked streets. In his own shop hangs a painting that depicts a few violins dangled under the sun in a courtyard. When he came back from Italy, he set off to make his shop a replica of its Italian counterpart.
A step into the shop would immediately shun out the noisy street. About 30 square meters, this store is divided into two parts. At the front is a neat exhibition space where the sole protagonist is a violin hung up high. At one corner sits a phonograph with a display of violin making books and vinyl records. Towards the back is a smaller work studio with a wall of tools attached in a haphazardly looking but well organized manner. On the right hand is the owner’s workbench. Such an exquisite and affectively alluring design it is.
Most visitors come to get their violins fixed. They bring their instruments in, reporting the problem as they take them out. Baokang fixes his gaze on their faces as his way of showing respect and reading the lips. Sometimes he gets it all wrong, but he loves to share anything about violins time and again. He would repeat his answer exactly to the same question as he did minutes ago, refusing to leave out any particulars.
Each violin is a child in his eyes. He would wag his finger at once whenever he found the client holding the instrument in a wrong position. When in high spirits he would take out his violin and play; the hearing aids behind his left ear would look as if it was hiding away.
Austere, classical, rigorous, neat
“Austere, classical, rigorous, neat, clear-lined, not to show the traces of a rigid workmanship, but rather a spirit of flexibility,” reads a motto that Baokang handwrote for himself and placed in the studio. ”By way of these competitions, I hope to make more people understand that there are also good violin makers in China.”
The winning violin of 1998 became the subject of a generous offer, which Baokang declined. The VSA upholds the rule of anonymity throughout the competition with such rigor that even the labels of the competing violins need to be covered up with brown paper. The performer is asked to play the same musical piece with these violins. Judgement is to be made on workmanship and tone for the commendation of gold and silver medals as well as certificates of merit for workmanship and tone. People who had learned about his hearing conditions could not believe it. “You have something up your sleeve, don’t you?”
Baokang’s possession includes a French violin labeled 1798 – as old as the Italian model his mother used to have. His father bought it and fortunately, it survived the Cultural Revolution. “I have opened it twice. French violins have their own style and I examine and feel it every day.” About each observable piece, he keeps a detailed record. With these close observations, the violin seems like the craftsman’s primary teacher who would, inevitably, influence his caliber of making violins. From the very first beginning Baokang had an up-front view of “high standard.”
As a Western musical instrument, tuning the violin can be difficult: the very fine nuances of each sound can easily go off course. Following the general framework, adjustment is essential when the assemblage of more than 100 parts has completed. Because of his hearing problems, Baokang has taken many detours in this respect. Many things need to be taken into account, such as a shift of the local weather and the selection of the strings and bow. To determine if he hears it right, he has made himself acquainted with many violinists. “I will sort out my violins by tone and then ask the professional violinists to do the same after a go. If they put the instruments in the same order as I did, it means that my judgement is accurate.” To ensure authentic and precise tones, Baokang has relied on this kind of external support for 40 years.
The violin maker had his own breakthrough when he finally took a leap out of mimicry as to what type of wood to use, what makes up a paint, and how much precision the tools should allow. With bare hands he could tell a 50-gram difference between two wood boards. An ill-fitting tool, he would tinker to his satisfaction. Over time through research he has figured out one thing or two about Italian paint formula. In his trade, Baokang believes that God disposes. Prior to work, he would be fully prepared and wait until he completely settled down with the sun in its prime. Whenever such moments came, it would feel as if the Cremona sun had shone through his studio. All these years Baokang has kept driving towards an unwavering goal: To make the finest violin and win the VSA gold medal.
Father loved Beethoven’s D major and Mother, Tchaikovsky’s, two pieces which Baokang often plays on the phonograph, though he can’t hear the higher pitches. All sounds higher than the fifth position, he is unable to hear, but he has examined and observed the structure, running-in, and change of over 100 parts in a violin. He has seen fine instruments that produce extraordinary sounds. In his heart a violin has long been made and it is exactly the same as the Italian one his mother once had.
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine