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Chinese Violinist Turned Violin Maker - 2002-08-13

English Programs Feature # 7-36598 Broadcast August 19, 2002

Just over twenty-five percent of the present-day population of the United States was born in Asia. This dry statistic translates into 6.8 million individuals from some 40 countries, each with a personal story that speaks vividly about our times. Today on New American Voices we will introduce you to one of these individuals -- Ma Yuzhong, called Master Ma, Chinese violinist turned violin maker.

Rows of violins, violas and cellos line the walls of Master Ma’s cramped studio in a suburb of Washington, some waiting to be repaired, others sold. A long table is cluttered with tools, spray cans and wood shavings. Master Ma works by himself - he cannot afford to hire an assistant. He describes himself as a craftsman with no business sense and no English ability. Yet some customers do find their way to his shop. And every day he assembles two violins which, he says, have better sound quality than German-made violins in the same price range.

“The soundpost is called the soul of the violin. It delivers the sound inside the body of the instrument. It can’t be too long or too short. Its position has to be exactly right. It can make the sound of the violin clearer or duller, hotter or softer.”

Master Ma started out as a promising young violinist in his native Shanghai, China. As a child in the early 1960s he studied with his uncle, See-Song Ma, considered the best violinist and composer in China. But when Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution struck out with increasing violence against all forms of so-called decadent art and culture, See-Song Ma was ridiculed and hounded. He managed to escape to the United States. His uncle’s escape, as well as his bourgeois family background, closed the doors to all music schools for Master Ma. Instead he was sent to a labor farm in remote Shin-Jung province, in the farthermost corner of northwestern China.

“That day in the winter of 1966 was extremely cold. We were told to walk ten miles to work on the other side of Kon-Lon mountain. On the road I did not have gloves. Gradually my hands were losing sensation and then had a burning feeling and finally became numb with cold altogether. When we reached our destination I knew that something was wrong with my hands. First I felt a tingle in my fingers and then the feeling of a thousand pins and needles all over my hands. I could do nothing but rub my hands desperately. Several days later the skin of each finger came off, like the fingers of a rubber glove.”

Master Ma spent 17 years in exile doing heavy farm labor, with only rare opportunities to play the violin. In 1983 he was released, and with his uncle’s help came to the United States.

“In New York I had to work to support myself. So I went to different construction sites and did all kinds of backbreaking jobs. I used to carry thousands of dry-wall pieces up and down stairs. My hands became numb at the end of each day. Then I found a job of rolling dumpling wrappers at a Chinese restaurant. I never did this before, so each day my palms swelled as thick as both palms put together and there was no space between my swollen fingers.”

This work put an end to Master Ma’s dream of becoming a professional violinist. With the help of a relative he began to repair and make violins, a skill he had started learning in China. In 1997 he opened his own shop, The Vienna Violin, in Vienna, Virginia. His business does not make much money as yet, he says, but for him it is a labor of love.

Every time he finishes a new violin, he tucks it under his chin and tests its tone by playing Chinese violin music, like his favorite, “The Butterfly Lovers”.