Sawing, hammering, screaming wheels, and groaning elevators are all par for the course inside any of Guangdong province's thousands of factories. Plinking notes are less common: found only in the Pearl River Piano factory's tuning rooms, where upright pianos get five tunings and grand pianos no less than seven.
Visiting on Friday, I saw imported equipment from Korea, Japan, and Europe, manned by the industrious workers that have made this region famous as the world's factory floor. Some pianos bore the names of well-known European firms founded a century or more before Pearl River itself, with no trace of their Chinese provenance. Elsewhere the brand name was proudly featured: both Lang Lang and Yundi Li have made pilgrimages here, leaving behind signed photos of themselves playing on the signature product. Today, Pearl River makes one out of every four Chinese pianos, and lines of strings and woodwinds to boot.
For many middle-class families today, the piano is the next logical purchase after the refrigerator, washer, and car. Music lessons, which can add points on the notoriously daunting gaokao (nationwide college exam), are never far behind. Pianos are the only Western instrument produced for mainly domestic consumption. In 2008, China exported 88% of its (Western) string instruments, and only 21% of its pianos. Between the vast talent pool, the boom in piano production, and the celebrity of Lang Lang and his peers, a piano golden age might not be too far away.
Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China
Statistics courtesy of the China Musical Instrument Association.