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

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  2,405 ratings  ·  315 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
Paperback, 311 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by Amazon Crossing (first published 2007)
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Average rating 3.97  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,405 ratings  ·  315 reviews

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Clif Hostetler
Jul 09, 2014 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
Jul 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: finished-in-2014
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 rated it it was amazing
It’s almost impossible, in America, 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 her
Apr 23, 2012 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 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
Karolina Kat
Jun 30, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While I was a child, I lost everything, but music helped me to survive.

This memoir is a very delicately woven story of a young musician who is thrown into an unforgiving machine of Mao Zedong's revolution. It tells a story of an individual in the country that tries to break every sign of individualism.

The memoirs of Zhu Xiao-Mei, may not give too much details about the Cultural Revolution, nevertheless they offer a compelling story of a person who grows up soaked in propaganda and who regains a
Apr 30, 2012 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
May 14, 2012 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 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 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
Kay Pelham
Nov 01, 2014 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
Joood Hooligan
Dec 13, 2015 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
Tori Samar
A particularly captivating memoir if you love music and history, as I do. I've not read anything dealing specifically with the Cultural Revolution in China, so to encounter it through Zhu's lived experience was eye-opening. The level of brainwashing that she and so many others underwent is absolutely terrifying. I can't help but wonder how things might have turned out if not for the providential circumstances that allowed her to keep playing music in the labor camp and to pursue a music career a ...more
Andy Lopata
Oct 20, 2014 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.

Nov 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Thomas by: Amazon
Shelves: biography
This is an autobiography of a woman who was sent to a labor camp when her music school was shut down. She spent 5 years in these camps, but never gave up on her passion for playing the piano. She is now a world renowned pianist and lives in France.
The description of life in China during the "Great Cultural Revolution" of the 60s is striking. Many people were killed, others had their lives destroyed
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
A hotel incentive program we belong to sent me an email a while back. We were eligible for the perk of a free Kindle book. WOO HOO! I clicked through, only to learn to my chagrin that it wasn't any Kindle book, but one from a list they'd compiled. Most of the books there didn't especially appeal to me. Then I saw The Secret Piano. Well, I did have some experience with the piano, so I clicked on that. And so I read this amazing book that taught about something I knew little to nothing about.

Do yo

I listened to this book with Amazon audible. Since I played the piano at one point in my life, I found this to be an entertaining read. It also taught me some things about China during the Cultural Revolution. This autobiographical story begins with Xiao-Mei, a three-year-old girl in China, whose life was forever changed by her mother's acquisition of a piano. Her mother taught her to play and music became her passion. A child prodigy, she was admitted to a prestigious academy at the age of 13 i
Allison Anderson Armstrong
May 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Beautiful, hard-to-read story that really educated me about the cultural revolution in China. I loved the story of her musical journey and actually took away a lot of inspiring tips about playing and teaching piano - I'm now excited to practice more Bach, who the author nearly worships. The ending was a little sad as the author openly talks about Christianity and why she does not believe it, but it gave me an idea of how Chinese people view Christians and our religion and how you shouldn't try t ...more
Feb 15, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Worth the read

This is a powerful story if a time in history I have been unfamiliar with, hearing about it in passing but not understanding the magnitude until reading this book. I gave only 3 stars because the chapters where the author only discusses music theory and interpretation were kind of tedious for me. And I love music! Yet I understand the importance of sharing it as part of the author's journey.
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
Nov 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 09, 2012 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
Jennifer Fuller
Jun 09, 2012 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 tireless
Dec 31, 2012 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
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
Mar 22, 2013 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
Megan Highfill
Aug 14, 2014 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
Jan 02, 2013 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
May 12, 2012 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.
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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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