The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to  Bach's Goldberg  Variations
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating

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

3.86 of 5 stars 3.86  ·  rating details  ·  685 ratings  ·  156 reviews
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, lay...more
Kindle Edition, 331 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by AmazonCrossing (first published 2007)
more details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Secret Piano, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Secret Piano

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,355)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  rating details
Clif Hostetler
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...more
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
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...more
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
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
Megan Highfill
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
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...more
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
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
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
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
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
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...more
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...more
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
Not something I'd normally really, but I'm so glad I read it.
Zhu Xiao Mei was a young girl during the Cultural Revolution of China. As a student at the Beijing Conservatory, she was subjected to 5 years of "re-education". During this time, she says... "every Saturday morning we attended a session of self-criticism and denunciation. The principle was simple: our thoughts did not belong only to us, but also to the Party. We had to submit them, even our most private ones, for judgment, because only the Party knew what as good or bad, right or wrong." During...more
Pretty good book about woman who survives Cultural Revolution. One thing I really liked is her story after--seems like many books leave off close to the end of that period. Also the musical aspect was interesting.
A moving, shocking education for this reader

Some books change you as a person and become guideposts for points along your life. "The Secret Piano" is undoubtedly a new and unexpected mile-marker for me. I find myself simultaneously humbled by Xiao-Mei's incredible experiences, embarrassed I didn't know anything of Zedong's horrors yet also emboldened by this beautiful author's gentle tenacity at reaching for her dreams.
I was moved to tears at many points of the book, sometimes by gruesome event...more
I stumbled upon this book, and I'm so glad I did! Her life during the cultural revolution was both horrible and fascinating. This book deserves to be read - I learned
so much!
Having heard about the Cultural Revolution and all of it's diametrically opposing ideas that were anathema to me, this book was an irresistible choice of book to read. The harshness inexplicably poured on the lives of millions of people and the systematic destruction of talents in artistically gifted youth left me astonished that those youngsters could mete out forgiveness while such destructive diatribes were being forced from them. The piano, which was very much a character in this book, had a...more
Born in 1949 Zhu Xiao-Mei tells the story of her life before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. She had the gifts and the opportunity to become a promising concert pianist, but the Cultural Revolution robbed her of years of her life. Though continuing to be plagued with self-doubty, she finally began to fulfill her dream at the age of 40.

Some of what captured me most was the way Xiao-Mei's exceptional teachers, ones she denounced while brainwashed, emphasized the soul of the music and h...more
An excellent autobiography, and fascinating reading experience. Zhu Xiao-Mei grew up in pre-communist China, and was a teenager when Mao Tse Tung rose to power. She and most of her generation were sent to labor camps where they worked from sunrise to sundown and were "reeducated" (read: brainwashed). She was finally released after 10 years, during which she lost the years that for most artists is the foundation of their careers. After her release, she immigrated to America and later Paris, Franc...more
This is not the usual type of book for me. I usually read fiction. This is the type of book my grandpa would have loved though, so it makes me happy to read something he would have liked.

The Cultural Revolution is not something I'm very familiar with, so this book was quite an eye-opener for me. I am a musician though. I've played in orchestras and bands during my school years, but haven't gone on to be a professional musician. I absolutely understand the power of music, especially when you are...more
From a very talented woman, this inspiring memoir of growing up when the Chinese Communist Party was controlled by Mao Zedong and rebuilding a childhood dream trampled by the Red Guard, provides a unique perspective on the Cultural Revolution by one who experienced it first-hand. Born in 1949, Xiao-Mei first met her piano at the age of three. This instrument “spoke” to her and she quickly learned to expertly evoke the melodies of Bach and Brahms in such a way that by eight she was performing, an...more
Bar Shirtcliff
This is an amazing story. Zhu Xiao-Mei's honesty, in discussing the very nadir of her life, when she denounced her own teachers and friends as necessary to preserve herself, is admirable. Her story of her long years in labor camp is heart-wrenching. I cried.

This book isn't great literature. Some of it is just self-indulgent - there are notes addressed directly to dead people, for example. But it seems to me that she might have written it as much to clear the air as anything else. The Chinese Cul...more
Gypsy Lady
St James book club April 2013

Page 288
I think, however, there is a deeper source for this attitude, which is the concept of life. It can be found in the first great book of Chinese philosophical thought, the I Ching. Its title known in English as The Book of Changes -- says it all. Life is a continual process of transformation, and it is this process of change that we should honor, rather than a return to the past.

Page 292
Music brings people together, in ways that politics or religions cannot.

Kathleen Hagen
The Secret Piano, from Mao’s Labor Camps to the Goldberg Variations, by Zhu Siao Mei, Narrated by Nancy Wu, Produced by Brilliance Audio, Downloaded from

The author at the age of three in Beijing, was introduced by her mother to the family’s greatest treasure, a piano. She started playing it immediately, and her mother taught her music. At the age of eleven she was enough of a protégé so that she was accepted into the Beijing Music Conservatory. But even before the “great leap forwar...more

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 perio...more
Jennifer Fuller

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...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 45 46 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Quest to Free China's Daughters
  • Old Town
  • Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage
  • Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing
  • The Greenhouse
  • Farewell
  • You've Gone Too Far This Time
  • Memoirs of a Gas Station: A Delightfully Awkward Journey Across the Alaskan Tundra
  • Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America
  • Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus From Egypt
  • Home is a Roof Over a Pig: An American Family's Journey in China
  • Daughter of the Bamboo Forest
  • When I Married My Mother: A Daughter's Search for What Really Matters - And How She Found It Caring for Mama Jo
  • Elephant Girl: A Human Story
  • Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization
  • Unspoken Abandonment: Sometimes the hardest part of going to war is coming home
  • Postcards From Nam
  • Thirst
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
More about Zhu Xiao-Mei...

Share This Book

“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.” 1 likes
“When you think you are descending, you are climbing, but you do not know it. When you think you are climbing, in reality you are descending. Keep working and one day, without expecting it, you will achieve your desire.” 0 likes
More quotes…