The Secret Piano by Zhu Xiao-Mei is an autobiography or true-life memoir of a talented Chinese pianist. It deals in detail with the Cultural Revolution in China which took place between 1966 and 1971 and how extreme it was.
Mao Zedong’s vision was of a China fee of Capitalism, Imperialism and with a victorious Communist way of living; no rich, no poor, only well fed workers and peasants. The reality was very different.
Xiao-Mei’s family pre-revolution were given opportunities, her mother was a music teacher and at times the sole bread-winner. A change from traditional Chinese upbringing where wives were often seen as being “useful wife” or “wise mother”. Ziao-Mei’s mother had gone to school and been the best student, she stood up to the proposal of an arranged marriage and married the man she loved. They had five girls and no sons which was disapproved of in Chinese society.
As a child Xiao-Mei fell in love with music and her mother taught her to play the piano. she got a place in the Beijing Conservatory a music school where she was intensely taught piano. However Mao’s Cultural Revolution soon caught up, a campaign against culture, and anyone seen as having any connections to a once privilege lifestyle. The people were forced to look inside at themselves and self-criticise first themselves and then others in daily self-denunciation and enforced brain-washing. It seemed that no one was allowed to feel more important than the lowest person in China.
Demonstrations, public humiliation and violence spread out of control, splitting up families, pitting everyone against each other. Millions of Chinese were uprooted and sent to re-education camps which in reality were imprisoned labour camps. Xiao-Mei spent five terrible years suffering in such prisons.
With Mao’s death the harsh grip on China dissolved, but the people were left dazed and disoriented years behind other world cultures. Throughout it all Xiao-Mei’s love of music kept her strong enough to survive. She left China, first for Hong-King , then America and finally found a home in France. The second half of the book tells of her struggles to understand the “free” society first in America and then in France, but she found many helping hands and her music saw her through. Xiao-Mei’s renditions of Bach’s Goldberg variations are very well known in the music world and this book is her life-story.
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