Except for the government involvement, the piano-making scene in China today is reminiscent of that in the U.S. a century ago: Hundreds of small firms assemble pianos from parts or subassemblies obtained from dozens of suppliers and sell them on a mostly regional basis. The government factories and a few large foreign ones sell nationally. Most of the pianos sold in the Chinese domestic market are still primitive by Western standards. Primarily, the quality has markedly improved where foreign technical assistance or investment has been involved; only those pianos are good enough to be sold in the West.

Although in China the government factories have long had a monopoly on sales through piano dealers, that hold is gradually being eroded, and the government entities are experiencing great competitive pressure from all the smaller players. Combined with the inefficiencies and debt inherent in government operations, the current competitive situation is probably making the government think twice about continuing to subsidize the piano industry. Already, one of its factories, Dongbei, has been privatized through its sale to Gibson Guitar Corporation, parent of Baldwin Piano Company.

Besides the government-owned factories and Baldwin, the largest makers in China of pianos for the North American market are Yamaha (Japan), Young Chang (Korea), Sejung (Korea), and, for the Canadian market, Kawai (Japan) — all of whom own factories in China. Other foreign-owned companies that own factories in China or contract with Chinese manufacturers to make pianos for the U.S. market include Brodmann, Perzina, AXL (Palatino brand), Heintzman, Schimmel (May Berlin brand), Blüthner (Irmler Studio brand), and Bechstein (W. Hoffmann Vision brand). Many American distributors and dealers contract with Sejung, Pearl River, Dongbei, and Beijing, selling pianos in the U.S. under a multitude of names. Steinway & Sons markets the Essex brand, designed by Steinway and manufactured by Pearl River.

And one company, Hailun, is owned and operated by a Chinese entrepreneur, Chen Hailun.

For the first half of this decade, most sales of Chinese pianos in the U.S. were based on the idea of luring customers into the store to buy the least expensive piano possible. Dealers that staked their business on this approach often lost it. A growing trend now is to manufacture and sell somewhat higher-priced pianos that have added value in the form of better components, often imported to China from Europe and the U.S., but still taking advantage of the low cost of Chinese labor. The best ones are not just a collection of parts, however, but also have improved designs developed with foreign technical assistance, and sufficient oversight to make sure the designs are properly executed.

The oversight is especially important. Chinese piano manufacturers have been quite aggressive in acquiring piano-making knowledge, and are happy to use their alliances with Western distributors in furthering that end. There has been a tendency, however, for Chinese factory managers to ignore the advice and requests of Western distributors once their inspectors leave the factory, resulting in product that does not meet the standards or specifications contracted for. The distributors have gradually discovered that the only way to overcome this problem is to own the factory themselves, to maintain a constant presence at the factory, or to constitute such a large percentage of the Chinese company's business that they, the Westerners, can control production. Alternatively, a Western company can examine all the pianos in its home country before sending them on to dealers, but this is less satisfactory than stopping problems at the source. Western distributors of Korean pianos used to complain of a similar problem with Korean factory managers during the height of that country's piano industry in the 1980s and '90s. As in Korea, the situation in China is gradually improving as the Chinese become accustomed to Western ways of doing business and more focused on quality control.

Pianos made in China now dominate the North American market, constituting about a third of all new pianos sold in the U.S. At the beginning of this decade, most were just barely acceptable technically, and not musically desirable. Over the years, however, both the technical and musical qualities have taken big leaps forward. While some remain at the entry level, others rival the performance of more expensive pianos from other parts of the world. The jury is still out as to whether some of these pianos will hold up over the long term and in demanding climates and situations. Reports often suggest less consistency than with pianos from other countries, and a continuing need for thorough pre-sale preparation by the dealer (who sometimes must weed out the bad ones and return them to the factory), but otherwise few major problems. Prices on the better ones are increasing, but for many entry-level buyers, and even for some mid-level buyers, many brands are still good value despite their short track records. Certainly, as short-term investments, and in milder climates and less demanding situations, they should be fine.