Zhu Xiao-Mei: The Secret Piano

by Rachel Baker on May 7, 2012

Summary: 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.

I found The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations extremely enjoyable. It was well written and engaging. There were a couple of places where the editing should have been a bit better – missing words, incorrect words, but not enough to make me put the book down.

What I found most fascinating was Xiao-Mei’s ability to translate what her piano teachers taught her into ways of dealing with life in general. I found ‘her story’ very interesting, as an American who knows nothing about the Chinese Cultural Revolution (I’m sure there are many of us ignorant to what really goes on in other countries) and I was moved by how little we, as Americans, actually know about world history. However, what really made me pick up The Secret Piano was the musical theme of this book.

Xiao-Mei truly seems to be an extraordinary woman. I’m not sure you couldn’t be if you’ve been through what she has and gone on to accomplish what she’s accomplished. She writes this book imparting both the wisdom of her piano instructors and the lessons she’s learned in her own life from her own experiences – most of the time these lessons are intertwining, though they are finessed and shared in the same voice as the Bach Goldberg Variations as played by Zhu Xiao-Mei.

Take a listen:

and The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Zhu Xiao-Mei is available from Amazon Crossing.
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