The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations
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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.
relative recovery to attempt to regain power. To do so, he understood that he had to isolate his political enemies and dismantle the Chinese state apparatus. He did so by calling directly on the people, in particular on the young, for whom he was a living god. In the midst of these political struggles, I was only a tiny pawn, easily manipulated. Why me? Because of my bad family background, or because I had been arbitrarily chosen—something characteristic of all totalitarian regimes? Whatever the
much do you need?” My supplier couldn’t have been less curious, and he gave me all sorts of lengths and thicknesses for free. I returned lighthearted and carefully replaced the broken strings. The result was mediocre, and even terrible on the piano’s upper register. But I was happy. Now I heard a sound where once there had only been the noise of the hammer. Even if it was wounded, my piano was here, with me. Our shared journey had begun again. As soon as surveillance began to lessen, I snuck
some?” Play the Yangbanxi? Thousand-Drops assented. Was this a trap, or was he really taken in? There was no way to know. Nevertheless, a few instruments began to appear at Dayu. Like was given a cello. He took it with him everywhere, and even played in the fields under the trees! Other comrades, including my friend Huang Anlun, managed to get hold of two pianos. All these goings-on intrigued the camp leaders, but they allowed it to continue. That was the important thing. I decided to bring my
concerts; this was at a time in my life when a concert ticket was a real luxury. I threw myself into preparing a delicious meal, and I even served it. They seemed to enjoy it. At the end of the night, I told them that I was a musician, and I screwed up my courage to ask them if I could attend one of their concerts. The answer was categorical: “If you want to come, you’ll need to buy a ticket.” Luckily, not all dinners were like that. One time, Dominique had two friends over for the evening.
someone who was there by mistake. “Dear colleagues, excuse me, but I do not agree with you,” he said. “I think she plays very well, and more importantly, there is something behind those notes. Let’s talk it over.” I left the room so they could deliberate. This professor, who had saved me by taking me into his class, was Pan Yiming. He had just turned twenty-five and a few months earlier had earned his diploma from the Beijing Conservatory. Inspired by some of his professors, he was drawn to