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

3.87  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,283 Ratings  ·  215 Reviews
Zhu Xiao-Mei was three years old when she saw her first piano, a cherished instrument introduced into her family’s Beijing home by her mother. Soon after, the child began to play, developing quickly into a prodigy who immersed herself in the work of such classical masters as Bach and Brahms. Her astonishing proficiency earned her a spot at the Beijing Conservatory at the t ...more
Paperback, 311 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by Amazon Crossing (first published 2007)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,476)
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Clif Hostetler
Aug 02, 2014 Clif Hostetler rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
This book attracted my attention because I have read about the Chinese Cultural Revolution (circa 1966 to 1971) but have never before read a first person account from a person who lived through it. I once had an extended conversation with a Chinese expatriate in which we talked about all sorts of things, but when I asked how his family managed to survive the Cultural Revolution I was met with stony silence. That experience only heightened my interest in a first person account.

This book is a memo
Jan 29, 2014 Jan rated it it was amazing
I have previously read a couple novels that took place in China during the Cultural Revolution, but being a pianist and musician I was drawn to this one by the title. I did not realize until I started reading it that this was a true story told by the author and was completely blown away by her story and experiences. I was amazed at how unaware I was of what was happening on the other side of the world while I was living my suburban American life. Zhu Xiao-Mei shares her poignant story with a gre ...more
May 24, 2012 J. rated it it was amazing
It’s almost impossible, in American, to imagine a totalitarian form of government. A regime that stays in power through an all-encompassing propaganda campaign, which is disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, personality cultism, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of speech, literature, music, art and mass surveillance.

But it happened in China, in the 1960s, and in “The Secret Piano,” Zhu Xiao-Mei tells her story: how, as a child, she met and fell in love with he
Apr 23, 2012 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 chronol ...more
Jan 05, 2013 Cecily rated it it was amazing
I happened upon this book in Kindle's Lending Library and read it, not knowing a thing about it. I am richly rewarded! It is the remarkable story of a Chinese woman attending the Beijing Conservatory of Music during the Cultural Revolution. Under Mao Tsedong's influence, the Conservatory first becomes a "conservatory without music," then a "conservatory without education," then a "conservatory without students." Although she is swept up by Mao's political aims and becomes a faithful revolutionar ...more
Andy Lopata
Oct 26, 2014 Andy Lopata rated it really liked it
If you want an insight into the history of 20th century China, there are better books than this; most notably Wild Swans by Jung Chang. But Xiao-Mei's story is fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure and, although fragmented at times, reasonably well told (3/5 as a biography).

Where this book comes into its own is both in the humility of the author and the blend of philosophy and insight into the mind of the classical artist. It makes you think, it challenges you and it educates you.

Joood Hooligan
Dec 13, 2015 Joood Hooligan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I picked this book to read because I saw it was a Kindle Unlimited whispersync available that was narrated by Nancy Wu. I had recently enjoyed a story she narrated, so I picked this one up without hardly reading the synopsis. I had no idea she was a real person and this wasn't a work of fiction. I have since listened to her playing, and she really is a beautiful player.

It is hard to put in to words my thoughts on what I read, especially about her first han
May 01, 2012 wally rated it really liked it
Shelves: zhu-xiao-mei
First from this writer, Zho Xiao-Mei...don't ask me to pronounce it as I am an ugly American...rotsa ruck with that one!

There is something called Aria to start out, some sort of prelude...then, part one is titled "China" with these chapter headings:
1.The Solemn Hour
2. Mother's Library
3. First Teacher
4. Downfall
5. From Mozart to Mao
6. This Piano Was Acquired by Exploiting the People
7. A Bonfire of Bach
8. A Revolutionary
9. Departures
10. Camp 4619
11. A Piglet and Five Kittens
12. A Friend Arrives
Jun 04, 2012 Sarah rated it it was amazing
Zhu Xiao-Mei's gripping memoir depicts, in horrifyingly vivid first-person detail, the little-known history of Mao Tse-Tung's decade-long reign of terror known as the Cultural Revolution. Sentenced to ten years of hard labor because of her "Bourgeois" background, the budding young pianist was forced to live in miserable conditions, reduced to near starvation. As Xiao-Mei puts it, her life was "reduced to a series of deadening tasks," to which were added regular brain-washing sessions, including ...more
Dec 31, 2012 Raquel rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, december
A fascinating look into China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Xiao-Mei studied the piano from a young age. Communist indoctrination almost literally beat the music out of her. While at a labor camp, her mother was able to secretly ship her her little piano and she rekindled her love of playing in secret. It was inspiring to see her try hard to reclaim her humanity along with the other artists at the labor camp. Through their actions we watch the whole of the Revolution unravel until sh ...more
Jul 15, 2012 Alesa rated it it was amazing
What a gem of a book. Xiao-Mei was a very gifted pianist, and still a student at the Beijing Conservatory when the Cultural Revolution hit. She was sent to labor camps, and practically starved to death. Through unbelievable courage, she went on to become a world-reknowned concert pianist.

What makes this book truly remarkable is a mixture of many things: a) Insights into classical music, as seen by a non-Westerner; b) Acquisition of a Taoist point of view, but not from living in China; c) Triumph
An autobiography of another person's struggle to live through Mao's Cultural Revolution. At age 10, Zhu Xiao-Mei went to the Beijing Conservatory to continue her piano studies, but by the time she was 17 she was sent to a Mongolian work camp to be "re-educated". Her love of music helped her live through that difficult time and contributed to her recovery when the Revolution ended. Today she is a concert pianist living in Paris. I've read many stories about the Cultural Revolution and this one is ...more
Book Concierge
Subtitled: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Zhu Xiao-Mei was just a little girl when Mao Zedong took power in China. Her family moved from Shanghai, where her father ran a clinic, to Beijing, but were tainted by a family member’s having fled to Taiwan. Still, Xiao-Mei was accepted at the Conservatory of Music to study piano and became a boarder there at the age of eleven. When the Cultural Revolution began in earnest, the teenager struggled with her beliefs – or lack of beli ...more
Megan Highfill
Aug 23, 2014 Megan Highfill rated it really liked it
This memoir is touching and interesting, exposing the terror of Mao's cultural revolution from Xiao-Mei's personal account. I found the first half riveting while the second half was lost on philosophical rants about history and music that were hard to follow (and I'm a musician familiar with the works about which she was speaking). Though I think many would enjoy her philosophical and spiritual struggles, mixed with how she chose to convey and explore music, I found this part kind of lost me and ...more
Kay Pelham
Nov 30, 2014 Kay Pelham rated it really liked it
I really don't like that Goodreads makes the 5-star rating mean "It was amazing." Without that description I would have rated this book 5 stars. Just not amazing. What it was was a very thorough story of the life of Zhu Xiao-Mei, including life with family during the first years of Mao's takeover in China, her beginning piano studies with her mother and then on to conservatory, 15 years in re-education camps, and then life outside of China in the US and France. Her story was very inspiring to me ...more
I learned a lot about China and the Cultural revolution, labor camps, the suppression of knowledge and how an entire nation could be swept up in group think in a very negative way. The story is told by Xiao-Mei during the time she was a child up until young adulthood in China and then her years in the West once she was able to leave China. The first half of the book was eye opening especially how everyone was supposed to criticize themselves and others in order to be "good" citizens and revoluti ...more
May 09, 2012 Grady rated it it was amazing
Redefining Culture

Zhu Xiao-Mei autobiography (courtesy of Ellen Hinsey's elegant translation) is not only a fascinating story of a family, a piano, a gifted child, and the impact of teachers on children's futures in the changing climate of China from the 1940s to the present, but it is also a story about the transformative effects of music - that nearly intangible manipulation of sound waves initiated by human hands on a man made instrument. While every passage of this book - from the history of
Mar 22, 2013 Beth rated it really liked it
Another eye-opener! The autobiography of an exquisite pianist, Zhu Ziao-Mei, traces her story during life in the "Cultural Revolution" of Red China. Sure, I had heard of the Cultural Revolution. But I had never realized what all it entailed. Interestingly, this young woman was born in 1949, just like me, but what a different experience across the globe in a communist country, not a democracy! She tells of learning the piano as a young girl; then being forbidden to play--as were all Chinese--and ...more
Jan 11, 2013 Barbarac rated it really liked it
I keep coming back to China. In books, I mean. It is fascinating and horrifying to read about life during Mao’s regime, and the Cultural Revolution. Zhu Xiao-Mei’s story is a little bit different because due to “brain washing” at a very young age, she was an active participant in the Cultural Revolution. There was no other way for her, really. It was becoming the bully or dying. No wonder that as an adult, even while a successful and famous pianist, she seems to lack emotions, self-esteem or con ...more
Jennifer Fuller
Jun 29, 2012 Jennifer Fuller rated it really liked it

I am not a musician, and I knew nothing of the Cultural Revolution before reading this book. I admit that I bought a 99 cent deal and hoped that it would be ok. I found so many ideas in this autobiography relevant and important. First and foremost was the passion and devotion the author felt for her music. So often we try something for awhile and then move along to something else. I was inspired by the single minded focus of her life. Finding something that stirs your soul and working tirelessl
Jan 02, 2013 Shannon rated it liked it
A story about young musician, Zhu Xiao-Mei's, coming of age during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It explores the loss of Xiao-Mei's sense of self as she endures the intelectual re-education and physical hardship of the labor camps of Maos political regime. More importantly it tells the story of her relationship with the music that helps Xiao-Mei find herself again.

I found the first half of the book to be a poignent, emotional, and fasinating telling of Zhu Xioa-Mei's experiences growing up i
Sep 13, 2015 Cara rated it really liked it
I had a huge knowledge gap concerning Chinese history and the cultural revolution. This was an important read.
Aug 04, 2014 Danica rated it it was amazing
Not something I'd normally really, but I'm so glad I read it.
Apr 30, 2015 Dschreiber rated it really liked it
Born of bourgeois grandparents in China in the same year that Mao took control, Zhu Xiao-Mei was not likely to find life easy. Not only had both her grandfathers been businessmen before losing everything in civil war, but both were also Westernized, one fluent in English, the other a former resident of an elegant home in the French Concession of Shanghai. Zhu’s mother grew up with a taste for French perfume and the paintings in the Louvre, which she loved and knew well from books. To such disadv ...more
Marilee Johnson
Feb 05, 2015 Marilee Johnson rated it liked it
For the most part, I enjoyed this novel/memoir. Probably the first half of the book was the most interesting and compelling part of the story. The events just prior to the cultural revolution and the description of the trials and tribulations of the Zhu family as Mao came to power was compelling. My difficultly with the book came once Ziao-Mei made her way to the US and then to Paris. Many elements were left out or perhaps omitted on purpose. She got married to "Tom" in order to get a green card ...more
Nov 15, 2014 Linda rated it liked it
Zhu Xiao-Mei was introduced to the piano at the age of 3. She quickly became a prodigy who won acceptance to a prestigious music school. Zhu Xiao-Mei was at this beloved school when the Cultural Revolution began and her life changed drastically. As students and teachers learned to tell on each other in order to prove that they fully believed in Mao and his teachings Zhu Xiao-Mei often crossed wires with people who had the power to break her. When she would not break easily she was sent to Inner ...more
May 01, 2016 Eileen rated it really liked it
Review to follow
Jean Poulos
I have a few friends that survived the intellectual and Cultural Revolution in China so when I saw this memoir I grabbed it so I could understand more about what my friends went through in China.

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle class parents in post war China and her musical proficiency became clear at an early age. She quickly became a prodigy. She was Ten years old when she began rigorous courses of study at the Beijing Conservatory of Music. In 1966 when she was seventeen, the Cultural Revolut
May 12, 2012 Phoebe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This will open your eyes if, like me, you don't really understand what happened over the last forty years or so in China. The author endured the Cultural Revolution when Mao essential threw the arts out the door, even supporting the draconian changes for awhile. It's not particularly well-written, but the story is so compelling one can forgive that. Recommended if you want a first person look at the great behemoth to our East.
Maria Paiz
Jan 23, 2015 Maria Paiz rated it really liked it
When Zu Xiao-Mei was three years old, her mother bought a piano. After hearing the first few notes of Schumann's Reverie, she was mesmerized. From that day forward she began learning from her mother, who taught her using the names of relatives on each key instead of letters, to make it enjoyable. By age eight, young Xiao-Mei was playing for radio and TV stations, and performing for powerful people.

Then, when she was 12, Beijing bowed to Mao's Cultural Revolution, which demanded the "re-educatio
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Chinese pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei is one of the world's most celebrated interpreters of Bach's "Goldberg Variations". She began playing the piano when she was a young child, and 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 moved to the United States and finally Paris, France. ...more
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“Montesquieu wrote: "I have never known any distress that an hour of reading did not relieve." If one substituted the word music for reading, the exact same dictum applied to me.” 2 likes
“Acknowledge diversity and you will achieve unity. (Rabindranath Tagore)” 1 likes
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