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.
eleven families. Badly washed diapers hung from the windows. The floor was black and eternally damp, and the noise the mice made each night gnawing in the ceiling terrified me. Still, we were not the most unfortunate. The other residents of the siheyuan were even worse off, like the widow whose ten children all slept in one big bed. We had lived there since my parents moved to Beijing to be with one of my father’s sisters, nicknamed “Momo,” which means “aunt” in Shanghai dialect. She suggested
room with the scores, he shined his light at the transom over the door. “I’ll give you a leg up. You can climb in there.” Flashlight in hand, I wiggled my way into the treasure room. It was indeed filled with scores. I rummaged around near me; I picked one up, flipped through its pages, and then took another, and another… “Well? Have you found what you were looking for?” I didn’t respond right away. On the other side of the door, the violin professor started to lose patience: “Can’t you hear
of about fifty. He gave off a feeling of strength that was, one felt, mixed with a certain anxiety. His hair, pushed back untidily, heightened the intelligence and depth of his melancholy, handsome gaze. “What have you prepared?” “Schumann’s Fantasie.” “Please begin.” I threw myself into the work’s first movement—which is a monument to passion—and flawlessly executed the challenging displacements at the end of the second movement that are every pianist’s nightmare. Then I played the third
father was forbidden to do the shopping. My grandmother also passed on to me what was important to her. This is why, one day, she got it into her head to introduce me to the Beijing Opera. “To broaden your musical culture,” she told me. But perhaps also as a way for her to escape her daily life. The Beijing Opera is the height of accomplishment in the Chinese theatrical arts. The performers act, sing, dance, mime, and do acrobatics amidst magical sets. They devote their lives to their career,
concerts. None of this made sense. The next morning, when Thom came to get me, I barely had the courage to go with him. But there was a surprise waiting for me at the church. Thom’s and Gregg’s families were there, along with countless friends and total strangers who had heard about my situation. They had all turned out to “lie on my behalf,” their arms full of gifts, which could be used as hard evidence of the legitimacy of our marriage. I was overwhelmed, but also galvanized. We entered the