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.
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.
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.
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."
on 15 August 2012
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.
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.
on 5 January 2014
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.
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.
on 5 November 2014
An amazing story set during the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong. It tells the story of a young girl whose mother teaches her to play the piano. The girl has amazing talent as a concert pianist even in her early teens, but pianos are a luxury and Western music is forbidden. So the piano is hidden for many years. The girl and her family members have to go to the labour camps where they work long hours for the benefit of China,"improvement" of themselves and very little food or comfort.
This book revealed what, to me what seemed an horrific existence, and yet the girl manages to maintain her love of music, and her musical skills.
This is a very long story and sometimes seems very slow moving ,but perhaps that is necessary in order to illustrate the long-suffering of the Chinese people at that time.
on 1 June 2013
The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations - Zhu Xiao-Mei
There are times in your life when you find a book and are not sure why you feel obliged to read it. Then you start and you're immediately sucked into the story, this may be because of what the story is, or maybe because of the words. In the case of "The Secret Piano" it was firstly because I'm fascinated about anyone who has managed to survive Mao's oppression and survive but once I got through the first page, I was totally hooked by Zhu's words, tales and life. The words are like listening to the most beautiful music ever written and you get so involved that you can't but help to just absorb each chapter and feel them washing over you.
Her early years were so traumatic, so inhumane, yet she survived, (like Li Cunxin who wrote Mao's Last Dancer and Jung Chang Wild Swans). We westerners have absolutely no concept of how brutal the labour camps were in China under Mao's Great Leap Forward. Even reading these stories and sharing their tales just can't bring the pain that they went can only be imagined by us.
I found these words of Zhu Xiao-Mei particularly moving:
"The Cultural Revolution scarred me for life. Each morning when I get up, I wonder how I can go on living, how I can find peace after what I have experienced. The legacy of that period has left me with a severe psychological handicap.
The Cultural Revolution was debasing; it turned me into a perpetrator. At one point, it even extinguished in me all sense of a moral life. I criticized my fellow human beings, accused them of grave misdeeds, investigated their pasts. I took an active part in a process of collective destruction. How can I ever be free of such things?"
But then she's entitled to feel this pain. She's survived it and unlike millions who died while Mao ravaged China, she's found some kind of peace by playing the piano. This was the one thing that kept her alive and with some kind of hope while being treated like a criminal for wanting to play and have an education.
A truly beautiful tale and I'm just so grateful that this extraordinary lady shared it with us.