Published by AmazonCrossing, 2012
Synopsis: “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.” (adapted from Amazon)
The following review is written by my brother, William Hume, a classical pianist. Check out his website, williamhume.com:
As a classical pianist, I am especially intrigued by the power of music to unite others. Zhu Xiao-Mei’s story of hardship and destruction during China’s Cultural Revolution highlights the endearing capability of music and the arts. Despite the brainwashing, propaganda, and discrimination that divided friends and family, Zhu Xiao-Mei was always able to draw inspiration and comfort from the piano.
As Zhu Xiao-Mei explains, art is rich with human emotion and thought, and this is precisely why the Communist regime sought to eliminate Western music and literature. The freedom of expression and knowledge was dangerous to the regime, and as the Cultural Revolution struck down on students, teachers, and the education system, creativity and individuality suffered. Many of Zhu Xiao Mei’s peers abandoned the idea of pursuing careers in the arts after having been robbed of time and education and having faced constant denunciation and criticism. However, Zhu Xiao-Mei was more motivated than ever to discover her voice in the music world.
Through intensive study and reflection, Zhu Xiao-Mei would come to understand the power and responsibility of the artist – to express the composer’s intentions with truthfulness to the score, to inspire individuals and promote humanity, and to believe in oneself.
I find it fascinating that Zhu Xiao-Mei has turned her life’s challenges into extraordinary resolve. Even having endured such hardship and a repressive upbringing, she has sought to spread benevolence through music. As she explains,
“Humanity is the truth of music. What is important to me is that, this evening, I may be able to reach one person, someone who is not a musician. That I might be able to reveal a part of his or her humanity, of our shared humanity, of which he or she may be unaware. And one day, who knows, perhaps this may help that person to speak out when what is essential is threatened.”
Here, Zhu Xiao-Mei underlines the crime of the Cultural Revolution in robbing individuals of their very souls by denying education and art, and emphasizes the need to speak out against such atrocities. In Zhu Xiao-Mei’s case, she finds her voice through her music and strives to inspire others in each performance.
As Zhu Xiao-Mei believes, “Each person possesses a part of the truth, for those who can glimpse it.” However, she urges, “Success in itself is nothing. Once you have achieved it, the most difficult task still lies ahead – mastering yourself.” Ultimately, Zhu Xiao-Mei remains humble and in search of truth in music. Such an honest approach truly is indication of profound responsibility and confidence.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and music in general. I was so intrigued by the author that I searched for more information including recordings and videos of live performances. I immediately felt a connection to her playing and artistry. I am confident you will share similar thoughts after reading Zhu Xiao-Mei’s incredible story and memoir, The Secret Piano.