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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving and illuminating
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...
Published on 24 May 2012 by David B

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51 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book of two halves...
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...
Published on 6 Oct 2012 by Sinbad


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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving and illuminating, 24 May 2012
By 
David B "Piano David" (GOUROCK, Renfrewshire United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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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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51 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book of two halves..., 6 Oct 2012
By 
Sinbad (UK) - See all my reviews
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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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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to survive with a piano, 15 Jun 2012
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Book fiend "Enthusiast" (Petersfield, Hampshire) - See all my reviews
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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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent example of perseverance, 5 Jan 2014
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This review is from: The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations (Kindle Edition)
For some individuals the road of life seems smooth and an endless party. For others it is littered with disappointment. Not everyone manages to withstand misfortunes in life and not many are able to pick themselves up when they fall on the floor. Ms Xiao-Mei provides evidence that the only place where success precedes work is only in a dictionary. Her story struck a chord with me. A wonderful touching story which leaves one wondering why some people have to suffer so much before reaching freedom.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and sad book despite the happy outcome, 15 Aug 2012
By 
Darren Simons (Middlesex, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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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. Perhaps this is how the author's approach developed as a result of the Cultural Revolution (she mentions refusal to accept tips for playing the piano in a restaurant), but for me the reader is left with a not entirely positive reflection of author. This in itself is sad, as Zhu Xiao-Mei has clearly managed to succeed in her dream to be a top pianist despite efforts beyond her control to stop her - it was interesting to see how so many of her friends and peers did not have the dedication and self-determination to see it through.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely fascinating, rare account of life in Mao's China., 21 July 2012
By 
A. I. McCulloch "Andrea" (Co Durham) - See all my reviews
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Zhu Xiao-Mei is a pianist and professor at the Paris Conservatoire of Music and Dance who is a renowned interpreter of Bach (particularly the Goldberg Variations) and Mozart.

Born in 1949, she was a gifted student who was sent to a labour camp in her teens under Mao's drive to destroy the arts and artists due to the inability of artists to restrict themselves to the unquestioning obedience that life under the regime demanded.

Her account provides explanations of how the regime destroyed the free will of those living under it, forcing people to denounce friends, neighbours and even members of their own family. Xiao-Mei's own father suffered as a result of the actions of his nearest and dearest.

Yet these bonds were not broken - one of the most touching passages in the book is when Xiao-Mei's father reveals he never misses the daily hour of Chinese radio devoted to France, because his daughter lives there, even taking a portable transistor along with him if he has to leave the house, so that he can feel close to his beloved daughter.

How Xiao-Mei kept her talent and spirit alive through the deprivation of the camps is a sometimes harrowing but ultimately uplifting story. First leaving China for the States, then moving to Paris, Xiao-Mei's wonderful talents were gradually recognised by the West, and today she occupies a position of honour within her adopted country. Recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another life to ours, 1 May 2012
By 
Dr. K. E. Patrick (England) - See all my reviews
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Zhu Xiao-Mei has written an autobiography that tries to mimic one of her favourite pieces, perhaps one she's most known for in the musical circles, and that's Bach's Goldberg Variations. As it has 31 short parts to it, her book has 31 chapters. She has also copied it in terms of her final chapter serving as a summation, or "return", to the beginning, much as Bach's composition returns to the first aria, and yet, having experienced the full piece, the reader/listener hears the original story/song in a new way.

It's kind of twee, to have tried to make an analogy between her life and the musical composition she loves so much.

I suppose it sort of works.

The book is split into two parts, halfway along. What life was like in China during the Cultural Revolution, when she was thrown into a labour camp for the only reason that she was a music student, and then the second half, what her life was like once she immigrated to the West.

The first part is the more compelling, simply because it's a candid look at life in a totalitarian regime. She shows how weekly denunciations and the demoralizing survival instincts nearly turned everyone into beasts, but -- almost at the brink of losing their humanity -- music blew on the spark and revived them. "Totalitarian regimes," she writes, "underestimate a human being's resources [and] always forget" about this instinct to stay human.

The latter half is less satisfying. Most of it is about her transient existence as she tries to settle somewhere (California, Boston, Paris) and make a living at her passion for music. There's a brief but succinct explanation of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism; there's a brief glance at a battle with cancer; there's a brief section where she talks about how venues are important to her, their spirituality or aura; there are no less than six brief sections in the last chapter, mainly about meeting up again with her acquaintances from China, many of whom survived the labour camps with her.

For me, this latter part of the book is really bitty, and so, I'd really like to give it a 3 1/2 - the tight, focused, and forward-moving narrative in the first half became more episodic and the tone became strangely desperate, even though life seemed to be finally settling down and achieving what she had always aimed for.

Some reviewers have complained that she didn't seem an admirable person because of her behaviour during the Cultural Revolution, and yet, there is something totally amazing about her work ethic, her perseverance, her single-minded despite all kinds of obstacles in her way. Having read about the de-humanizing effect of the culture, the reader has no doubt that she's telling the truth when she says "I was saved by music."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and anew angle on Mao's years., 7 Jan 2013
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This review is from: The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations (Kindle Edition)
Like many books set in China during the Cultural Revolution, we hear of terrible hardships and apparently unfair treatment. However, the focus on a musician and music school offers a new perspective. Here we really see how what most would call 'high culture', ie classical western music, becomes forbidden fruit.

The main character does succeed in her ambitions to become a pianist I the USA and in France. Worth a read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Revealing, 7 Jan 2014
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This review is from: The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations (Kindle Edition)
Rather pedestrian and mechanical writing style but I gave it four stars for the story. Honestly, who needs to read fiction when you have such riveting first-hand accounts? It's inspiring to read about how the author overcame such horrors in her young life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goldberg Variations, 21 Jun 2013
By 
HJK (Gomersal UK) - See all my reviews
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I have a CD of Wanda Landowska playing Bach's variations on a harpsichord which is just lovely - it has 32 parts - an aria to start, then 30 variations and then an aria to finish. This book has the same layout - an aria/intro - 30 chapters and an aria/epilogue to finish. It is the autobiography of Zhu Xiao-Mei, a classical pianist - told in these 32 parts - not a full biography - the essence of her life distilled into the 32 most important elements.

I have visited China in the 1990s and did lots of reading about its history before I went especially the rise of Mao and the Cultural Revolution so the history of those times was not new to me but still very interesting.

I love music and much of the music mentioned in her life story I know and this gave me a great deal of connection to this book as did knowing some of the places that are described in the book.

Zhu Xiao-Mei went from the Beijing Conservatory to 5 years in a work camp in Inner Mongolia to America and then France.

This book covers sadness, brutality, brain washing & the power of music - a wonderful book to read - I could hardly put it down.
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