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.
night, I was unable to sleep. I thought about the cockroaches. I was sure they were going to crawl into my ears and puncture my eardrums. The girl next to me, Ouyan, was also a pianist. Each time she shifted, I woke up. We finally decided to lie head to foot, so we could get some rest. The next morning at six, we were awoken by a soldier, and soon we were assembled on the square in front of our barracks. A fifty-year-old man with compassionate eyes approached us. He was Tian, the camp commander.
into it. A friend offered to help me. Her father, Zho Henli, worked for the Bank of China in Hong Kong. Since he was a good Communist and was respected by the regime for his competence and loyalty, he had more leeway and education to express what was going on around us. My friend assured me that he would be able to explain the more obscure points of Marx. Thus, I began an odd correspondence with a man I didn’t know, who lived far away in Hong Kong. My letters were sometimes ten pages long, but
Water is good, it benefits all things and does not compete with them. It dwells in lowly places that all disdain. This is why it is so near to Tao.’” I stared at her in astonishment. For me, life was a series of struggles. Above all, the struggle for success, and I was headed to the United States with precisely that in mind. I did not understand what Laozi meant: my goal was first place, certainly not “the lowly place that all disdain.” My seatmate must have intuited what I was thinking because
shall remain nameless: “After one of his concerts, the French critics wrote: ‘He gave a concert of music by Chopin. One wonders why.’ That was it. It’s a frightful country; all people care about is being clever. Don’t go.” No doubt there was truth in what he said. Sue Fleisher was the one person who offered encouragement. I had met Sue at the School for International Training—where she was working when I studied in Brattleboro—and we had hit it off immediately. She had lived under terrible
and not a day went by without him asking me about China or the Cultural Revolution. He went all out to keep me busy; on weekends he took me skating and on motorbike outings. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the motorbike excursions, but I reassured him that they were great fun. Meanwhile, Mary understood what I needed most—to have quiet time for myself. She was also an artist, and she understood the value of silence. If I was practicing when she returned home from work, she would slip silently