Goldberg Variations, Secret Pianos, Cultural Revolutions and Camps

Title page of the Goldberg Variations (first e...

Title page of the Goldberg Variations (first edition) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations
by Zhu Xiao-Mei,


Ukgardenfiend‘s review

Feb 09, 13  ·  


5 of 5 stars false

bookshelves: alphabet-challengepersonal-challenge100

Read in January, 2013 — I own a copy

The author was born in mainland China just weeks before Mao declared the People’s Republic. She says that she wrote her story for all those who had not had her experiences and to initiate dialogue.
this is very important I think, because during my recent visit to China I was told that schoolchildren are no longer taught about Mao and the Cultural Revolution in particular. Is it that the authorities are now ashamed? do they want to hide it? No-one talks about this period there, perhaps it is too painful.
The author is a classical pianist now performing in Paris and Europe, who has a special affinity for the Goldberg Variations. There are 30 Variations and so she divided her story into 30 parts.
I have been fascinated by these Variations partly due to the mythology that surrounds them, but mostly due to the complexity and the versatility required of the pianist as well as sheer skill.
The author says that she hopes that readers will listen to Bach and also read Laozi – the Chinese philosopher much quoted in the book.
The piano was always in the authors’ life from the age of 3, and accompanies her throughout her life in China and finally gives her the freedom to leave many years later.
She was born in Shanghai and lived there until they moved to Beijing with her family. Her mother became a music teacher, but her increasingly embittered father was unable to find suitable employment and yet their family grew to 5 girls [no boys].
The author was sent to Music School during the period of the Great Leap Forward and Collectivism. Self-criticism and denunciation were key elements of their life. You not only had to find your own behaviour wanting, but that of others you knew and lived, worked and studied with. Clearly this meant that relationships with others often became fraught.
A Professor took Xiao-Mei under his wing at the Conservatory and assisted her in developing her technique.
In 1963 the Cultural Revolution began with its attendant instructions about what music and instruments should be played and how and when.
Xiao-Mei with her Professors and fellow students was sent to the fields to toil with manual labour alongside the peasants. Her sisters had already left the family home and scattered across China to work for the Revolution, one even going to Inner Mongolia. Conditions were very hard in the Camps. Food was short and there was a lack of warmth, heat, and water. The work was hard and the students also had no music documents or instruments on which to play which affected them emotionally dreadfully. everything in their lives was regulated and ruled by the Little Red Book and practice of the required self-criticism and denunciation of others.
The ‘peasants’ that they were sent to help were in many ways worse off. Their accommodation and food was worse for instance and sometimes the students shared what little they had with them.
on our recent Chinese visit we saw beggars, espeically around the temples and this surprised us. Surely in China at least, there was no need to beg? The State would provide to each what they needed. But we were told that these were most likely peasant farmers who had left their land. They were being paid too little for their produce by the big buyers to make a living (familiar story?) and their pensions were disastrously low and free health care was minimal too. All this in what I had supposed to be a Communist country. But then, the population is huge and often remote and how you look after everyone adequately must be difficult. Whilst we were there the English language Chinese newspaper we were reading reported some horrendous scandals about the family treatment of elderly relatives. In one case, the mother had been living in the pig pen for many years! The Government reacted by telling everyone they had a duty to look after the elderly but only provided words and no actual action.
Back to Xiao-Mei and her years in work-camps. She fell ill from the bad water and had to go to hospital but despite her continuing bad health she remained in the camp. She ran away to her family home in Beijing but returned to the camp.
She managed to acquire a piano – read the book to find out how…- and began her practice again.
After some years she was allowed to return home and after trials and tribulations went to Paris via America etc. She went back to studying and a late age for a concert pianist began her career.
You can find out about her work and a review of her playing the Goldberg Variations on…


2 thoughts on “Goldberg Variations, Secret Pianos, Cultural Revolutions and Camps

  1. Pingback: Bits of me are falling apart – or not…. « tiggerrenewing

  2. Pingback: Chinese heroes and heroines – a few bad men? « China Daily Mail

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