What makes a violin beautiful?
A cloud of dust swirled as I took down from the shelf the violin I crafted over the past two months. Bumping into an oily machine on the way, I squeezed through the dark workshop towards the farmland outside. The violin shined in the sunlight, and I admitted, reluctantly, that it looked good. But I knew it was a flaunting mockery of my failure to find beauty.
“What makes a violin beautiful?”
I first asked this question as a three-year-old child and now again as a 17-year-old teenager. When I listened to a violin for the first time, I was so stunned by its beauty that I imagined a fairy living within the wooden frame. But fairies faded when I grew older. I wanted a rational answer. In the past, I discovered the beauty of theater by writing scripts and producing shows. Perhaps the violin’s beauty could be found in a similar way.
I consulted Professor Ruan. My violin teacher and mentor since he introduced the violin to me 14 years ago, this 85-year-old man rhapsodized about the legend of Antonio Stradivari. “His violins are the most beautiful works humanity has ever crafted.” Captivated, I imagined a brightly-lit workshop with fine resin scents and a dedicated craftsman pouring his life’s passion into each violin. My excitement peaked when Professor Ruan introduced to me a violin workshop in the outskirts of Beijing.
“Make a violin with your own hands,” Professor Ruan suggested. “When you play it, you will know.”
What I saw though, was far from my expectation. The workshop was squalid, dark, and hot, its thick air pierced only by the machine noise. In front of me was a stout migrant worker, shirtless and sunburned, soon to become my master. “We produce fast. One hundred per month” he bragged, pointing at piles of wood reaching the rooftop. “All produced after Stradivari. Precisely.” Precise indeed, as I soon found that even two asymmetrical F holes, an accidental mistake of Stradivari, were meticulously copied. What shocked me most, though, was that the “master” knew nearly nothing about music. His rough hands had been tending crops, not instruments, for most of his life.
Two months later, standing outside the workshop, I was disappointed. Yes, I just finished, or more accurately, copied, a Stradivarius violin. But how could I answer my question in a place utterly desolate of beauty?
Then I remembered Professor Ruan’s mysterious smile when he said, “When you play it, you will know.”
I closed my eyes, and focused on where my fingers and strings touched. Music flowed suddenly, music so beautiful and so inconsistent with the violin’s humble origin that for a moment I doubted my own ears.
Slowly I opened my eyes, and with surprise found the fairy of my childhood fantasy dancing with my music – the two-year-old daughter of the master. Her dress drifted, her smile beamed in a shower of golden sunlight. When she looked up at me with her eyes shining with excitement, a strange sense of deja vu overwhelmed me.
我慢慢睁开眼睛，惊讶的发现，我童年幻想中的仙女正在我面前伴着琴声起舞 —— 她是我师傅两岁多的女儿。她裙边摇摆，步子蹒跚，她的笑脸在金色的阳光中熠熠生辉。当她望向我的时候，眼中闪烁的激动让我突然觉得是如此的似曾相识。
I was reminded of that fine morning when Professor Ruan showed me the violin for the first time, back when I was three. An instrument with elegant curves and amber hue rested gently under his chin. Music flowed. My eyes opened wide, with an expression curiously similar to that of the dancing girl 14 years later. Memories, vivid and overpowering, revived and flooded inside me. My wet eyes felt warm in the brisk autumn wind.
Professor Ruan was right. I didn't find beauty until I played music with the violin, because beauty is not in the instrument itself. It also has nothing to do with the surroundings, nor even the listener. When I caressed the strings, when the girl danced her spontaneous dance, when two souls met and inspired each other, beauty was incarnated. It’s just here, deep down, in ourselves.