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The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations [Kindle Edition]

Zhu Xiao-Mei , Ellen Hinsey
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (383 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.


Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born in Shanghai, China. She began playing the piano when she was a young child, and by the age of eight was performing for Peking radio and television stations. She entered the Beijing Conservatory when she was ten years old, but her education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. After five years in a labor camp in Mongolia, she returned to China, before moving on to the United States and finally Paris, France, where she has lived and worked since 1984. She teaches at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and has performed for audiences on six continents. She is one of the world’s most celebrated interpreters of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

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Product Details

  • File Size: 451 KB
  • Print Length: 331 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1611090776
  • Publisher: AmazonCrossing (March 6, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0076PGFYW
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,044 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
145 of 149 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition
I am not a musician nor have I played an instrument, however, that really didn't keep me from appreciating this powerful autobiography. The hardships that the Chinese endured during Mao's "Cultural Revolution" have never been so vividly recounted in any of the many books I've read on this human catastrophe. Her personal sacrifices profoundly illustrate the cruelty of Mao's madness. Despite excruciating circumstances she was able to get her family's piano transported to her work camp and scrounged for scores to play surreptitiously.

I was so moved by her description of her beloved Goldberg Variations that I downloaded her first CD. I find it truly inspiring. I wish I could directly communicate my admiration and appreciation for her courage and the music she has left us. This book provided me with considerable insight into her extraordinary life, and I am grateful for her fascinating autobiography.
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75 of 76 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving account. March 20, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition
This memoir is beautifully written, especially it's passages on music. Whilst reflecting on her experiences of the atrocities entailed by the cultural revolution under Mao, the author keeps her account informative but refrains from graphic descriptions beyond the requirements necessary for understanding. Instead, she makes music the ever-present centre-piece of her autobiography, at times delving into the philosophical and psychological aspects of art, often referring to the teachings of Laozi. She explores the existential meaning of music that has helped her to keep her sanity under the communist regime and during its aftermath. In the latter part of her book she continues to return to explore the soothing impacts of Bach's compositions, especially the Goldberg Variations.
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57 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Secret Piano: Zhu Xiao-Mei's Aria April 16, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
When one first thinks of pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei, those familiar with her works immediately jump to her exceptional interpretations and performances of J.S. Bach and the Goldberg Variations. Finding her autobiography, The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations, was a pleasant surprise, yet autobiographies like this can sometimes be a disappointment to the reader. Happily this was not the case, as the author has presented her life in an interesting and fascinating chronological format, one that expresses the emotions that she felt along the way.

Born in Shanghai into a creative middle-class family during those turbulent years following WW-II, her family moved to Beijing when she was very young. Her first encounter with the instrument that was to shape her life is movingly remembered in her own words:

"I didn't know what it was, a piano. I was barely three years old, and I had never seen anything like it. I was fascinated. I wondered where it had come from, this object that spoke when you touched it. Strangely, my mother never played the piano. But every morning, she dusted it: her first act of housework. `Such dust! In Shanghai, there wasn't so much dust. Why did you bring me here?' she would add, turning towards my father."

And that curiosity sets the pace for this book in which she takes us on a journey in which we witness first hand a side that is usually veiled to most Westerners. Learning the piano during those young years, she was a prodigy who played the piano in radio and television in Beijing when she was only eight, and at ten, she entered into the Beijing Conservatory of Music in a program for unusually gifted children.
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67 of 70 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Better pianist than author October 23, 2012
Format:Paperback
The basic story here is indeed moving and powerful -- talented pianist growing up in communist China finds her education derailed by the cultural revolution. After 5 years in various labor camps, she is finally able to leave China and emigrate to the U.S., where she completes her music education, moves to France and becomes a musician of great renown.

The problem is, that much in the narrative is jumpy or poorly explained. I'm not saying that she's lying but, like another reviewer I would LOVE to know how she smuggled a piano into a labor camp (a camp clearly stated to be 'a prison') .. and then journeyed to dozens of near-by wire factories (how convenient!) to replace the broken strings. And how the piano stayed even remotely in tune.

She writes about her mother being diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live ... but her mother is still alive several decades later.

She writes about how she struggled for admission to university in China, and then never mentions anything about her time there except that she was able to meet some Chinese intellectuals. It isnt' even clear that she attended the university.

She writes about how she moved to the U.S. to attend music school in California, then changes her mind and attends in Boston, but makes no mention of how she filled the 9 months in between, and how she supported herself after quitting her first job, or what she had to do to get her scholarship.

She writes about her 'marriage of convenience' to a man who was presumably, but never stated in so-many-words as being in a gay relationship -- and then her husband is never mentioned again. (Did this 'marriage' cause her NO difficulties when she applied for a French visa and then French citizenship?)

She writes about being diagnosed with cancer and refusing chemo -- but a few pages later she is recovered.

An editor to help smooth out these awkward sections would have been very welcome.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars 50-50
Enjoyed the first half about living through the cultural revolution, but the second half about life in the west was boring.
Published 1 day ago by Randie
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Too much, and not even historically correct.
Published 3 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an amazing story of musical talent and determination
This is an amazing story of musical talent and determination. As a young girl the author lived through the Cultural Revolution in China. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Millie M
3.0 out of 5 stars I liked this story very much
I liked this story very much. Because my mother was a pianist, I was raised in a home full of music and could understand the musical terms. Read more
Published 6 days ago by Janice W. Parfitt
2.0 out of 5 stars secret piano review
The format of this book was strange. The first part gave a chronological account of Xiao_Mei's experience just before and throughout the cultural revolution and was very... Read more
Published 23 days ago by pickyme
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely recommend for those who want to know more about the MAO...
Have read man biographies from individuals who experienced the MAO resolution and would rate this book as one of the top reads. Read more
Published 23 days ago by enjoyment reader
3.0 out of 5 stars Eye-opening
An interesting and thought-provoking personal story. It did seem to drag in places but overall it was well-written and engaging.
Published 24 days ago by Deborah Leenutaphong
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful
I must say, I have failed in adequately learning about the communists revolution in China. After reading this book, I have a better understanding of what happened to individuals. Read more
Published 25 days ago by Aneika Dickens
5.0 out of 5 stars The Magic of Music
Listening and playing the piano have been an important part of my life. This book was truly inspirational. Music comes from within oneself.
Published 25 days ago by Lucia OBrien
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Amazing book!
Published 1 month ago by Bill T.
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More About the Author

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born in Shanghai, China. She began playing the piano when she was a young child, and by the age of eight was performing for Peking radio and television stations. She entered the Beijing Conservatory when she was ten years old, but her education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. After five years in a labor camp in Mongolia, she returned to China, before moving on to the United States and finally Paris, France, where she has lived and worked since 1984. She teaches at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and has performed for audiences on six continents. She is one of the world's most celebrated interpreters of Bach's "Goldberg Variations".

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