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The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations [Paperback]

Zhu Xiao-Mei , Ellen Hirsey
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Mar 2012
Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post-war China, and her musical proficiency became clear at an early age. Taught to play the piano by her mother, she developed quickly into a prodigy, immersing herself in the work of classical masters like Bach and Brahms. She was just ten years old when she began a rigorous course of study at the Beijing Conservatory, laying the groundwork for what was sure to be an extraordinary career. But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever. One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei was on her way to a work camp in Mongolia, where she would spend the next five years. Life in the camp was nearly unbearable, thanks to horrific living conditions and intensive brainwashing campaigns. Yet through it all Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music and her sense of humor. And when the Revolution ended, it was the piano that helped her to heal. Heartbreaking and heartwarming, The Secret Piano is the incredible true story of one woman’s survival in the face of unbelievable odds—and in pursuit of a powerful dream.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: AmazonCrossing (6 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1611090776
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611090772
  • Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 13.7 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 402,439 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born in Shanghai, China. She began playing the piano when she was a young child, and by the age of eight was performing for Peking radio and television stations. She entered the Beijing Conservatory when she was ten years old, but her education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. After five years in a labor camp in Mongolia, she returned to China, before moving on to the United States and finally Paris, France, where she has lived and worked since 1984. She teaches at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and has performed for audiences on six continents. She is one of the world’s most celebrated interpreters of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving and illuminating 24 May 2012
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is the autobiography of a talented girl living through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution as a young music student. A first-hand account such as this sheds important light on that period of China's history. So much for equality - the imagined sins of the fathers (and mothers) were very much visited on the sons (and daughters) in this period. The writer's parents were reckoned to have come from a somewhat bourgeois background, and this was held against her.

The description of the music conservatory degenerating under Mao's ideologies is chilling. First to a music institute where you had to be completely politically correct, then to a music school with no music, and finally to a music school with no music and no students. Here we have a first-hand description of what it was like in that period when as we know from history, talented professional people were taken from productive work and study and made to live in vile circumstances doing vile tasks. It is difficult to see that any benefit whatever came to the Chinese people though this. The writer's description is vivid. Later in the book she reflects on the period, and gives her opinion of Mao and his ideas and his refusal to admit any mistake.

The descriptions of the power of music as a rock in her life are moving, and music triumphs in the end, along with the writer's spirit.

Tribute must be paid to the translator for a "transparent" translation which, it seems to me, never intrudes between author and reader.
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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book of two halves... 6 Oct 2012
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Having read accounts of other totalitarian countries such as Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea I was intrigued by this book and keen to learn more about China's period under Mao, and his 'Great Leap Forward'.

The first half of this book does that well - we learn what it was like to be swept up in the unstoppable tide of the Cultural Revolution; the labour camps, the public `self-criticism' and the other awful hardships that many had to suffer during this time. I found this half of the book fascinating.

However, the second half was less appealing. It follows the author's move to the US, and later France, and becomes an account of a struggling pianist, trying to make a life outside of her native country. There are long detailed passages about different classical pieces which didn't hold much interest for me and I found myself skimming over some of them. If you're a classical musician yourself, you'll probably get more out of this than I did.

If you're after insight into China's Cultural Revolution, this book is an interesting starting point - but be aware that only half of the book is actually about China.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to survive with a piano 15 Jun 2012
By Book fiend VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is a quite remarkable story told by Chinese pianist Xiao Mei (unpronouncable as are most of the Chinese names encountered in the book). Xiao Mei's family was originally perhaps what we would call middle class living in reasonable conditions and sufficiently well-off to own a piano. Following the turmoil of WWII and the complicated politics of such a vast country, the Cultural Revolution began ultimately leading to Chairman Mao's rise and total control of the population. Xiao Mei lived through this unfortunate time, suffering greatly because her family's background was not proletarian enough. Although she began her musical life at the Conservatoire in Beijing her story reveals the gradual, and eventually complete, breakdown of educational life and social life during the Revolution with graphic descriptions of her experiences in labour camps and amongst people who were gradually being brainwashed to believe solely in Mao's way of life at the expense of common humanity. Some of her experiences are truly horrifying and it is in itself an education for us to understand what life was like in the 50's, 60's and even 70's in China - in our recent memories. It is something of a miracle that not only did her piano survive but that she herself eventually became what she set out to be, and without losing her sanity, although she herself clearly feels she was permananetly damaged by her being part of this appalling time. She is to be greatly admired for her courage and determination.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By Darren Simons TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This book is a translation from a book originally published in French describing the life of Zhu Xia-Mei. In it the author tells the story of her life to date and how the Cultural Revolution almost robbed the world of a fantastic pianist.

As a child Xiao-Mei studied music at a top Chinese music conservatory. However, the coming to power of Mao and the Cultural Revolution stops her studies in their tracks, and results in Xiao-Mei and her family being sent to separate labour camps across China. Here she is encouraged to undertake regular self-criticism and denunciate her family and peers. It is easy to feel a lack of sympathy for the fact that she did this, yet this is a child who has clearly been brainwashed. Thereafter Xiao-Mei moves to America and settles in France where she is finally able to live her dream. In this second part of the book Xiao-Mei reflects on all that was wrong with Mao's rule, asking perhaps the simplest question of all... Why? It is very well written and surprisingly detailed (despite this definitely not being a literary masterpiece).

The author's spiritual beliefs are touched upon, although I found it to be overly politically correct in avoiding any belief suggestion to the reader. In fact, I found the very style of the book the saddest thing of all. Personal relationships are not detailed at all (there is a little too much detail of the individual pieces of classical music she studied for my liking), and despite the continuous thanks for the kindness received throughout her journey, there is no indication of any kind of thanks given at the time.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A very moving and thought provoking book
Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Music for the soul
Published 1 month ago by MR R A WATTS
4.0 out of 5 stars A must read for anyone interested in China/ history
Interesting, at times harrowing true life account of a gifted person who lived through one of the worst times in Chinese history. Now I would like to hear some of her recordings.
Published 1 month ago by Mrs. S. J. Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars I enjoyed this book depicting the amazing story of how this ...
I enjoyed this book depicting the amazing story of how this woman survived a labour camp to become an internationally reknowned pianist. Read more
Published 1 month ago by S. Strawbridge
5.0 out of 5 stars stunning.
A very powerful and moving book. Utterly shocking in a plain simple manner at times and desperately beautiful at others.
Published 2 months ago by P. Thomson
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Really interesting account of life in Mao's China for an artiste.
Published 2 months ago by Arthriticdonkey
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing
This is a marvellous book, written by someone who has first hand experience of the brain washing and atrocities that took place during a period of turmoil in her native country. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Mrs. G. Maher
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
good read at the beginning but then gets too technical
Published 2 months ago by rita
4.0 out of 5 stars A gripping testimony to the courage of many during the Great Cultural...
The book is most interesting and often most affecting. It is not altogether well-planned, tails off disappointingly and sometimes is too obviously a translation from a French... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Professor Roy Bridges
5.0 out of 5 stars What a book
What a great read, what a story, very hard to think that this was so recent that things like this could happen, fantastic.
Published 3 months ago by Oldsparky
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