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COMPASS MAGAZINE > February 2012

Mr. Lai produces one exquisite
instrument after another.

The owner nails cases to
protect yangqin bridges.

The strings come in various

Wooden cases are positioned
to be painted.

Despite 40 years of experience
, Lai Ji-xiang is still careful hen

The ornaments on the body of
yangqin make them look more

A pair of steady. sensitive
hands is needed to make
a yangqin.

'Yangqin' maker Lai Ji-xiang continues his traditional methods 40 years on

Beautiful music from a very small alley

Words by Tang Guang-hui
Photography by You Jia-huan
Translated by Angel Pu

Without the assistance of GPS, perhaps only old patrons can locate the Huayin Instruments Store which sits inconspicuously on a small lane. This perhaps also expresses the down-to-earth, low-key character of yangqin maker Lai Ji-xiang.

Although he can be considered a national treasure, this maker of yangqin--Chinese dulcimer--instruments opens his door on a rainy winter day wearing only a thin shirt. Dulcimers in various stages of production can be seen all over the room--instruments with two bridges, four bridges, with strings, without strings, with wooden carved designs and Chinese ink designs--all placed beside wood cases and exquisite yangqin stands. This sight isn't surprising, as Lai has spent almost his entire life producing and living with these instruments.

Silently making high-quality instruments for decades
For almost four decades, Mr. Lai has continuously produced high-quality instruments, making him a source of pride for Taichung. He not only inherited his father's yangqin-making business and supported a family, but has also made Taiwan's yangqin production globally-renowned.

The Chinese yangqin, hammered dulcimer and santur are names for the same kind of instrument in three different parts of the world, with other names including the "foreign zither" and "butterfly zither". According to history, prior to the Middle Ages a string instrument known as a "psaltery" was popular in ancient Middle Eastern kingdoms like Assyria and Persia. As China and other countries in eastern and western Asia developed more trading links during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the psaltery began to become a well-known instrument, initially around the Guangdong area and later across China.

When it comes to the origin of the name "yangqin", the character "yang" refers to "foreign" in Chinese, in an allusion to this instrument's transmission to China from foreign countries, while "qin" can refer to any stringed instrument in Chinese.

In ancient China, the yangqin was a common instrument, but today is only used in religious events and festivals. However, its crisp, clear sound means that it continues to plays a very important part in traditional Chinese music.

Four-bridged yangqin developed by Lai father and son
Mr. Lai's father, Lai Qing-zhen, was a fairly well-known central Taiwan musician. When inflation soared in Taiwan during the 1970s, Lai Qing-zhen had no choice but to leave his hometown to work in Taipei, where he ended up as a musician at the Guanghua Temple, accompanying the chanting monks. Temple visitors were very impressed by the music and with the passage of time people from different parts of Taiwan came to hear the chants, listening to and sharing a love for the music.

It was also at this time that Lai Qing-zhen, who had never learned about the yangqin, started to study this instrument and eventually became the first yangqin maker in Taiwan. While serving his military duty in Hsinchu, the younger Lai would use his off-duty times to visit Taipei and help his father make and develop yangqin instruments. At that time, there were only traditional, small, two-bridged yangqins being made and used. However, after years of development, the father-and-son team finally invented a large, four-bridged one in 1980.

This innovation was praised by then-famous TV host Li Ji-zhun, who invited the Lais onto his program. However, their new yangqin variation was never as popular as they thought it might be, as it was twice as big, much heavier and more expensive than the traditional smaller yangqin. In addition, there were no music schools supporting these instruments, basically crushing the Lai's dream of promoting the four-bridged yangqin.

As a matter of fact, Lai Ji-xiang had no interest in inheriting his father's work, as he graduated from business school and wanted to enter the financial industry, and even passed a recruiting exam at a Taichung business bank. However, among all of his siblings, he was the only one willing to help his father in making Chinese dulcimers, and possessed skills and musical talent that surpassed his brothers. Also, whenever he would visit Taipei to help his father, the elder Lai's friends would constantly praise him as a good son and encourage him to become a yangqin maker.

The key moment that led him to stay in the family business was when his father asked him, "Is working in a bank better than becoming a yangqin maker?" That question finally led Lai Ji-xian to his decision to make yangqin instruments for almost 40 years.

Traditional methods assure quality
In 1981, Lai Ji-xiang opened the Huayin Instruments Store in Taichung to continue his work, only following traditional yangqin-making techniques. Every yangqin produced by Huayin has classic curvy, butterfly-like lines, with the butterfly's "eyes" visible on the front side. The butterfly shape became Huayin's signature and continues to represent its top quality. According to Lai, one Taipei customer even returned to the store on the same day he purchased a yangqin after noticing on the drive home that the instrument lacked a Huayin trademark, which he wanted in order to show others the quality of his new yangqin.

Because Lai Ji-xiang had not earlier studied wood-working techniques, it was fairly difficult for him to initially make the body of a yangqin, which required a significant level of such skills. The only thing he could do was to watch how professional carpenters made Buddha statues, thus learning the technique for making wooden tenons.

Making a traditional two-bridged yangqin is a very time and labor consuming job. First, you have to assemble the instrument body parts, made of treated Chinese parasol wood, carve a frame made of elm wood, and put them together. Then, after the rest of the parts including the bridges are assembled, the yangqin is painted several times. Weather permitting, the paint will dry in three days. Otherwise, it takes almost a week.

All this requires patience and experience from the maker, who must also tie the strings and tune the instrument. After the string position is first determined, holes are drilled and pegs are screwed in by hand. Lai slowly prepares the stainless-steel strings, connects them one by one to the yanqin and tunes them all before the yangqin is ready.

Turning difficulties into opportunities
Over 10 years ago, Lai's business was seriously damaged by low-priced yangqins imported from China, with business being so bad that even one of the most experienced yangqin teachers seriously advised him stop making the instruments. However, being the competitive person he is, Lai didn't back down and instead went all-out to develop new ideas and remove the disadvantages of traditional yangqins.

Although he had earlier failed to promote the four-stringed yangqin, Lai Ji-xiang decided to make improvements to the big yangqins by reducing their weight and making their sound deeper and broader. These all-improved instruments still retain their elegant appearance, but have a more distinctive sound by comparison to traditional Chinese dulcimers. Lai considers these newer creations his masterpieces, and ones that lower-priced, poorer-quality competitors from China can compare with.

Mrs. Lai, who has always supported her husband, says that she truly appreciates the patrons who have never stopped supporting the business. In order to show their love for Huayin Instrument Store, these customers continue ordering the exquisite products made by Lai Ji-xiang whether they need that many instruments or not.

However, Lai cannot hide his worries when discussing the difficulties of getting materials for his work, or the lack of someone to inherit his business. Despite past and present difficulties, he is determined to continue what he has done for most of his life--making top-quality yangqins.

賴基祥古法製揚琴40年 賴基祥古法製揚琴40年
Left: To generate the right notes, strings cannot be too tight.
Right: Mr. Lai produces one exquisite instrument after another.

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