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Mao, Tao, Bach and a Piano

I’m embarrassed, as a lover of classical music, not to have heard of the classical pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei, until very recently, coming by chance across her wonderful autobiography, The Secret Piano. Perhaps, given her history which is a history of her country in the latter half of the twentieth century, this is not so surprising

Zhu Xiao Mei was born in 1949, to an artistic, bourgeois, intellectual family. From a very early age she showed an extraordinary musical aptitude. However, the possession of a piano in a family home was at this time yet another indication that the family was not ‘a good family’ Bourgeois, revisionist, not revolutionary.

She was however born just in time to have some years of training at China’s premier classical music college, before the launching of The Cultural Revolution in 1966 changed the lives of her generation. Bourgeois thought was to be rooted out. The young, impressionable to exploitation, something totalitarian regimes of left and right have capitalised on, became the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution, condemning any who showed individualist, critical thinking towards Mao Tse-Tung thought, as deified in The Little Red Book.

Intellectuals were sent to work camps for ‘Re-education’ This happened to every member of her family – sent to different camps. She spent 5 years in a workcamp, which seemed to have a remarkable similarity to some accounts of the gulags.

Her destiny, which had seemed, from her early prowess, to indicate a life as an exceptional concert pianist, was far from realisation. After Mao’s death, when a thaw in relationships between East and West began to happen, the flame that music was for her, could only express itself in lowly ways. She finally managed to complete her interrupted musical education, and began working as an accompanist for the training dancers at Beijing’s Dance Academy.

I often wonder whether I should hate Mao Tse-Tung for what he did to me. On a purely theoretical level, his analyses were not incorrect. The Chinese people did need to be liberated. How could I forget the documentary they screened for us at school,, which showed the sign the English erected at the entrance to Waitan Park. On it was clearly written “Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted”

She left China for America, determined to try and study her art further, and supported her studies by various jobs – some completely unconnected with her musicality, such as house-cleaning.

Things began to change for her in the eighties. She moved to Paris (where she still lives) and where her ability was recognised so that, as she continued with her studies, she was at least able to get work teaching the piano.

This book (beautifully translated by Ellen Hinsey) shows Zhu Xiao-Mei to be an exceptional human being, as well as musician. She has, of course, been scarred by the experience of the Cultural Revolution, where idealistic and impressionable young people were brainwashed into acts of betrayal because they believed they were acting in the common good. She does not spare herself from culpability. The experience has left her not quite able to trust. However……..she is a deeply reflective, modest, spiritual individual, and indeed, one of great generosity of heart and soul, great authenticity. SHE does not say these things of herself – but this listener found these qualities in her work


There is a poignant moment, on a plane, on her way to America where she learns, for the first time, about the philosophical and ethical inheritance of her country, as exemplified by Lao-tzu – of whom she had never heard, as all this was hidden, regarded as deviant and retrograde, when the doctrine of her country was the one religion of Mao Tse-Tung Thought.

Before playing a work…I need to be peaceful, to empty my mind.

The Chinese are well acquainted with this way of seeing things; they often use the image of water to illustrate it. To see down to the bottom of a lake, the water must be calm and still. The calmer the water, the farther down one can see. The exact same thing is true for the mind – the more tranquil and detached one is, the greater the depths one can plumb….it is precisely by following this path of self-effacement and emptiness that one attains the truth of a musical work. Without attempting to impose one’s will, without forcing something on the listener. Without struggling with the self. By disappearing behind the composer

Quotations and reflections from Lao-Tzu,and Confucius – and Jesus, clearly inform her way of being, and the Tao infuses her understanding and interpretation of Bach, in particular, whom she describes as the most Chinese of composers, the composer closest to comprehension and inhabitation by a Chinese person

Only now I am able to understand the extent to which my experience of the Cultural Revolution taught me to never use music’s power to impose anything on my audience. I suffered too much under the yoke of servitude, and I prefer to speak rather than to compel

This is a wonderful, moving, soulful book, very humbling to read.

Strongly recommended.

As are her handful of CDs. She clearly is an exceptionally gifted communicator using the language of words. What she does with the language of music is something else again

The Secret Piano UK
The Secret Piano USA