Once barely worth the pittance they sold for, Chinese violins are today winning international awards and gracing major orchestras - a development that has European makers, especially those in Stradivari's home town of Cremona, glancing nervously over their shoulders. 'There's something about Chinese motor skills and coordination,' says Sachiko Mori, director of Cremona, a US-based violin dealer recently on the mainland to showcase its masterpieces. 'The average manual skills are much higher in China.' Violins have been on the outskirts of Chinese culture for nearly a century. Mao Zedong championed the instrument as part of his 'two weapons' theory, claiming China needed both military and artistic strength. Factories started making violins in the 1960s, but they remained virtually unplayable for decades. Zheng Quan, a master luthier (maker of stringed instruments), says that during his student days in Cremona two decades ago, his school would receive regular shipments of Chinese instruments. 'They used to throw out the violins and bows, and just keep the cases,' he says. 'They were silk.' Their poor quality was hardly surprising - Chinese craftspeople were culturally, geographically and politically disadvantaged. 'You can't make what you can't see,' says David Morris, director of John & Arthur Beare, arguably the world's leading violin dealer. 'Artists can go to the Louvre and the Met and see great pictures. But because these violins are the tools of the trade, they aren't hung up in every museum. It's like a cartel, a closed shop.' So the mainland instrument makers relied largely on their imagination. About two decades ago, Chinese masters began to emerge. Zheng was one of three sent abroad for training in 1983, and the only one who returned. He single-handedly launched the domestic industry. 'The Chinese government gave me US$50,000 to buy wood and tools, and to open my own school,' he says. Today, he runs a violin making and restoration institute at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music, and his instruments sell for up to US$20,000 to groups such as the London, Boston and Lisbon Symphony Orchestras, as well as Chinese virtuoso Lu Siqing. Zheng and his students have won medals at prestigious competitions and institute graduates sell their instruments for US$15,000. 'They have long waiting lists,' Zheng says proudly. US-based Scott Cao is another award-winning local boy made good, whose top instruments fetch between US$10,000 and US$15,000 from soloists such as Nigel Kennedy and Gideon Kramer, ensembles such as the San Francisco and Sydney Symphony Orchestras and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. He says Chinese-made violins are no longer considered inferior. 'Before, when people said, 'It's a Chinese violin', it meant cheap, not good. Now, people might hold up a good violin and say, 'It doesn't look like a Chinese violin'.' However, the industry has yet to turn professional, with some violin factories closing for the summer so their luthiers, who are often also farmers, can tend their crops. Also, unlike most consumers goods, stringed instruments are better when they're old than new. 'Top professionals usually don't want a new violin, whether it's Italian or Chinese,' says Cao, because new instruments are risky. Musicians may buy a violin with a glorious tone, and then despair when the sound goes flat the next year. 'A violin needs some time for the sound to settle,' says luthier Vincent Gonthier of Orfeo Strings, a Hong Kong-based dealer and restorer. 'It needs maturing, like wine.' Despite these drawbacks, he's optimistic that things can only get better on the mainland. 'Every six months, something changes in Chinese violinmakers, and they improve,' says Gonthier. Eastman Strings, an American dealer with factories in China, says Chinese-made violin sales outpace those of their comparably priced Romanian counterparts by about 80 per cent. 'I attribute that to the Chinese violins' sound and the craftsmanship,' says its marketing director Sandra Ragusa. But what gives Chinese violins a distinct advantage is the low production costs on the mainland. The instruments are not only good quality, but also comparably affordable. 'Cremonese makers have a difficult time because of the euro,' says Michael Selman of Beare. 'A violin that cost US$8,500 a few years ago is now US$14,000.' Both materials and labour are cheaper on the mainland. Chinese workers make US$1 a day, compared with Euro20 (HK$210) earned by their Cremonese counterparts. This leads European and American makers to buy Chinese instruments, add some finishing touches, and affix their own labels. Those who make or sell instruments created in Cremona realise that their label may be the only edge they have. This was probably one of the reasons behind the Shanghai Exhibition and the four-city Legendary Violins, Great Soloists tour of the mainland last month, both of which displayed multimillion-dollar masterpieces. With newly status-conscious Chinese seeking flashy investments, it was a timely reminder that a Strad, after all, is a Strad, and that there's nowhere quite like Italy. But how long can today's luthiers ride Stradivari's wave? 'If you spend Euro1,000 for a European instrument, you can get through grade five of the Royal Academy [an international performance grading system],' says Danny Chen, director of Orfeo Strings. 'But if you spend Euro1,000 on a Chinese instrument, you can go through grade eight in Europe, and in China you can get your diploma.' For the millions who can't afford a Stradivari, that's an equation that's hard to resist.