The woman who taught the violin to 'speak Chinese'

It was not Yu Lina's first choice and when she was "assigned" to learn the instrument, it was not popular in China. But her perseverance and dedication changed all that. 
Ti Gong

Yu Lina has devoted her whole life to making the violin known and accepted by more Chinese people.

At a fan’s request for her signature, 78-year-old violinist Yu Lina drew a girl with two braids holding a violin on her left shoulder and a bow in her right hand. She then added her first name Lina beside the girl.

“This is me — a Chinese girl always with the violin,” says Yu.

The signature was designed by one of her musician friends years ago and became her favorite ever since. It just perfectly fits her image.

“As a musical instrument player, I did not have childhood, teenage or middle age, and nor will I be aged now,” says Yu. “I always feel young and energetic, with all those young lovely students around.”

Yu was the violinist who premiered the violin concerto “Butterfly Lovers” and helped make the melody known around the world. She was also a loving educator who spent 56 years with countless young Chinese violinists.

Early this week, the All-China Women’s Federation named her one of the 10 National Red-Banner Pacesetters for her outstanding achievements.

“Helping the violin speak Chinese” has always been her dream even though the instrument was not her first choice.

Yu says she was “assigned” to play the violin at 12 though she already had some experience in the piano.

“I was not happy. The violin is not an easy instrument to start with, and it was not a popular one at all in China,” says Yu.

As a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1950s, Yu took part in a number of public performances in factories and villages, yet they were rarely well received. It was not because they did not play well, but that hardly any of the audiences understood or appreciated the foreign instrument — a cause of great frustration for Yu.

She posed her dilemma to Premier Zhou Enlai during one of his visits to Shanghai. Zhou told her: “You young people should have the courage to think and act. There is nothing you cannot accomplish.”

Trying to connect the Western violin with more Chinese people, Yu established a Violin Sinicization Experiment Team, together with some of her classmates. They tried borrowing melodies from traditional Chinese music and folk songs and then adapted them to the violin.

The violin concerto “Butterfly Lovers” was a typical achievement of such trials. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang created the piece based on popular Yueju Opera “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.”

The piece, featuring Yu, was first staged at Shanghai Lyceum Theater in the spring of 1959. Finishing the final note, Yu was nervous when silence filled the air. But seconds later came thunderous applause. After that passionate response, Yu and her fellow musicians played “Butterfly Lovers” all over again.

With that success, 19-year-old Yu was much encouraged and had a feeling that they might have found the right approach.

And they certainly did. From that day forward, “Butterfly Lovers” was spread throughout China and recognized as one of the best-known Chinese melodies around the world. A recording of “Butterfly Lovers” achieved sales of more than 3 million, and Yu was awarded the first China Golden Disk Award.

“Butterfly Lovers was a successful case of ‘having the violin speak Chinese,’ not only because it was created by Chinese people, but that it was created based on traditional Chinese culture. Almost everybody in China knew about the romance between Liang and Zhu, and the Yueju Opera work was already popular,” says Yu. “You have to approach the ordinary people so as to create works appreciated by the people.”

Ti Gong

Yu Lina gives instructions to one of her students.

Just as Yu was enjoying performing on stage, she was given another task upon graduation — education. It was an even greater task, one that required more devotion and responsibility. Yu accepted the role as she saw it as essential in popularizing the violin in China, and thus “helping the violin speak Chinese.”

“I knew how to play the violin, but I did not know how to teach. I was aware when a particular student was not playing right, but I could not put it into words. All I could do was to play it for him or her at that time,” says Yu. “I was not a qualified teacher, but I was determined to become one.”

Different from ordinary schools, most teaching at the Shanghai conservatory is one-to-one, which leads to strong bond between teachers and students.

Yu knew most of her students since they were children and accompanied them until graduation. She kept a cupboard of notebooks on which she recorded the performances, weakness and improvement of each student.

Yu still remembers her first class with Huang Mengla, winner of the 49th Paganini International Violin Competition. The then 12-year-old boy had good ears but terrible intonation. Yu spent hours helping him adjust every note he played, and never had to worry about his intonation since.

It has been a tradition for her students to dine together regularly at Yu’s apartment, and Yu sometimes bought cakes to celebrate students’ achievements.

“Every student is like family to me. A good teacher, as I believe, cares for the students just like their parents, recording their growth and devoting all that I can,” says Yu.

Learning that her student Wang Zhijiong scalded her finger when preparing for a competition, Yu did all her washing and cooking to make sure the finger healed quickly. Wang won third prize at the 8th Sibelius International Violin Competition in Finland.

Students’ progress has always been a priority for Yu throughout her 56-year teaching career.

It was not unusual for students to see her lying on a couch teaching when chronic back pain proved too much. One of her students remembered being instructed by Yu from her hospital bed.

Ti Gong

For Yu Lina, every student is like family.

To minimalize the influence on her students, Yu had both cataract surgery and vocal cord nodule surgery done within five days in the summer of 2016 and resumed teaching as soon as possible afterward. Unable to speak, she made a series of paper labels on which such keywords as “color,” “speed,” “intonation” and “bravo!” were printed, which she would hold up as students played.

Though there were only two semesters a year at the school, students who played instruments usually had four. A vacation could often result in a deterioration in performance that could take at least a month to correct, so many students pay for extra courses during the holidays. But Yu refused to be paid for that.

“I told my students: ‘It is I who want you to take courses at vacations. I will never charge for that’,” she says.

Yu says there is an unwritten rule at her Yu Lina Studio — never make money from the students. It is strictly followed by all four teachers there.

In 2010, at the age of 70, Yu bid farewell to the stage at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center. “I was aware that my energy would decrease along with the age. It was time for me to focus all of myself on what was more important — my students. They are the future,” says Yu. “And of course, I was happy to leave my best performance on stage when I was still capable of it. I do not regret that.”

Apart from being a devoted teacher, Yu has always been a curious student. She studied English in her 40s so that she could communicate with overseas musicians about the latest trends in violin playing. She got her driving license at 59 so that she could drive to work to save time. And in the mobile era, she can shop online for all her needs, from groceries to electrical appliances, so that she can spend more time looking after her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“There is nothing so difficult that can beat a violin player like me. Even so, just do your best,” says Yu, “and you will be rewarded.”

Zhang Qian / SHINE

Yu Lin's artistic autograph features a girl with two braids holding a violin on her left shoulder and a bow in her right hand.

Special Reports
Top