Perfect cultural harmony

China's love/hate relationship with Western culture

Here's something to make music teachers gasp: ten million Chinese children are taking violin lessons, and 30 million are learning to play the piano. This enthusiasm for western classical music has international impact: two of the most acclaimed young pianists in the world are Chinese - the flamboyant Lang Lang and his more contemplative compatriot Yundi Li, both 24 years old. Two out of the three most recent winners of the biennial Paganini competition - probably the most prestigious violin contest in the world - were Mengla Huang and Feng Ning, both young Chinese players.

At a primary school in Xiqiao, three hours' drive from Shanghai, I watched 40 eight-year- olds in uniform tracksuits playing "Twinkle, twinkle little star" on 40 child-sized student violins. It sounded like 40 cats being strangled, but the children's faces showed intense concentration and effort. Chinese families tend to have one child only, and are not constrained by the liberal, western fashion of laissez-faire child-rearing. If your son or daughter shows musical promise, he or she may be forced to practise five or six hours a day. "Chinese parents are quite strict," explained Lu Siqing, the first Asian to win the Paganini prize back in 1987. "If they let a child pick up an instrument, they make sure that child practises hard."

Lu Siqing is a role model for younger Chinese musicians. Brought up in the latter years of the cultural revolution, when western music was seen as decadent, he remembers people prac tising with a blanket over the piano so the Red Guards wouldn't hear. But his father encouraged him to take up the violin when he was four. In 1980, aged 11, while studying at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, he was singled out by Yehudi Menuhin and taken to London for further studies. He now lives in San Francisco, returning to China only for occasional concerts.

The stereotype of the Chinese musician is a virtuoso who plays with technical brilliance but no deep musical feeling. As in sports and many other fields, the Chinese urge is to win, and the government sets tremendous score by its citizens succeeding on the international stage. "The Chinese are obsessed with winning competitions. With so many people learning musical instruments, it's the only way to achieve recognition," said Malcolm Layfield, head of the School of Strings at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester, who held masterclasses and auditioned potential students in China last month. Increasingly, however, young Chinese are turning from technical wizards into real musicians after studying overseas.

Six years ago, Zhang Jia won a scholarship to the RNCM, where she now teaches, as well as performing with several orchestras and as a soloist. "I can't explain what happens exactly," she said. "It's not just about the music but about absorbing the culture - going to museums, reading, everything." Lu Siqing agrees that a combination of eastern discipline and western tradition can make Chinese musicians great. "It's very important to go to Europe where the music originated," he says. "When you experience that, it enriches your musical expression and makes you a more complete musician."

China is not only exporting musicians, but also musical instruments - six million guitars, one million violins and 370,000 pianos a year. The young violinists in Xiqiao live next door to the Taixing Fengling Musical Instruments Company, the largest stringed instrument factory in China. The cheapest violin retails for about £15, the most expensive for more than £1,000. "The violin has 400 years of history in Europe," says Li Shu, the company's president. "It only came to China 60 years ago. But in that short period we have gone from zero to being the biggest manufacturer of violins in the world."

Li Shu was once a humble worker in the factory, but by rising in the Communist Party and local government, he positioned himself to take over when it was privatised. His company now supplies one-fifth of Europe's violins and half of America's. Chinese violins used to be notorious for poor workmanship, but musicians say the quality is improving rapidly, and - echoing the success of the musicians - Chinese luthiers are beginning to win international awards. The best tend to be students of Professor Zheng Quan, who in the 1980s was sent by the Chinese government to study in Cremona, Italy, where the best violins in the world are made. Professor Zheng's violins - crafted from maple and spruce aged for at least 30 years - sell for £6,000 or more, and there's a four-year waiting list.

"We have a tradition of work with our hands, and we're very precise," he said as he supervised half a dozen MA students at the Beijing Conservatory. "Our problem was that, for 30 years, China was closed and we couldn't study abroad. But now everything is more open."

China loves and resents western culture in equal measure, adopting reality TV and McDonald's while railing against the erosion of Chinese traditions. Listening to Lu Siqing play both Bach and Chinese composers, I felt that I had found the perfect harmonious cultural fusion.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran