The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations

I have been captivated, to the point of losing sleep, by The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the autobiography of Zhu Xiao-Mei, a pianist who was born in Shanghai in 1949, the year Mao declared the People’s Republic of China. Because her family had wealth and education, they were stripped of employment, home, and possessions by the new PRC. They moved to Beijing, living in a tiny 2-room dirt-floor apartment in a siheyuan, once home to honored citizens in in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.), now slums in the 1950s. (I took these pictures in 2011of the outside walls of a siheyuan in Beijing’s hutong area, which has been revitalized in the past few decades.)

Zhu Xiao-Mei begins her story when the piano was brought into their cramped living quarters when she was three years old. She speaks of the thrill she experienced in making the piano “talk” under her mother’s tutelage. She tells, without romanticizing, of her family’s sufferings and of her experiences at the conservatory where she was formed into an accomplished pianist by age 10, but where she was also mistreated (to the point of abuse) because she came from a “bad” family (i.e., bourgeois — educated and prosperous even though they had lived in abject poverty for years).

She tells, in straight-forward narration, of her horrific experiences at the labor camps during the Cultural Revolution and her transformation into a Revolutionary who revered Chairman Mao and denounced her bourgeois family. (This is as far as I’ve read.)

This short video shows Zhu Xiao-Mei playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (There are longer videos on YouTube if you wish to experience more of her genius.)

When I made my first trip to China in 2011, I was fearful and apprehensive. I toured the ancient sites of Beijing, including the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The huge visage of Chairman Mao, which overlooks the square, was an unsettling sight for me because of the stories surrounding the man and the horrific treatment of the Chinese people for decades as he rose to power. Over the next two summers as I worked and lived in China, my fear and distrust was replaced by a genuine admiration for and love of the Chinese people.

I am now drawn to historical novels of 19th and 20th century China and to historical accounts of the PRC, the Cultural Revolution, and Chairman Mao. Lisa See’s historical novels (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy) and her nonfiction narrative of her ancestors, On Gold Mountain, introduced me to the lives of the Chinese people over the last 200 years (including the turbulence of the last half of the 20th century). Zhu Xiao-Mei’s autobiography now deepens my understanding of the strength and grace of the people who survived the Cultural Revolution.

If you are interested in reading more, here is a list of historical fiction about China.