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 you remember hearing about Mao Zedong? I remember hearing my 7th grade social studies teaching talking about him in the mid-late ’70s. Really, the only thing I remember here was my teacher pronouncing his name as Mousey Toong. I can’t recall whether Mousey was portrayed as good or bad. He was the chairman of the Communist Party in China until his death in 1976 and after reading this book, you’ll have no doubts at all that Mousey was a bad, bad dude.
The Cultural Revolution
In The Secret Piano, we meet Zhu Xiao-Mei, a girl who has had an auspicious start as a pianist. Unfortunately, she is coming of age just as Chairman Mao is starting his “Great Leap Forward.” Maybe it was a great leap in his mind, but for the Chinese people his policies ended up with 20 million starved to death.
Zhu goes to the conservatory, but thanks to Mao, the students have sessions of denunciation and self-criticism. Leaders encourage rivalry among students, with the best getting more classes and more to eat. Thankfully, Zhu has a wonderful piano teacher, Professor Pan. I was impressed by his wisdom in choosing composers for her that corresponded to her personality and strengths (for instance, since she had small hands, not choosing works by the romantic composers that required huge stretches). She warmed up by playing Hanon exercises — in every key! For each lesson, Pan asked her to play a Bach piece and two etudes by memory and with no mistakes. As a piano teacher who often despairs over a student showing up having never opened a book during the week, this sounds wonderful.
One day, while out with friends walking on the top of a building, 14-year-old Zhu jokingly says, “What if I jumped?” A student tattles about this to a leader, and Zhu is isolated. Her piano lessons are stopped, and others are forbidden to associate with her. In order to gain forgiveness, Zhu writes a letter to the authorities in which she apologizes for her behavior. She blames it on her “bourgeois and capitalist family,” her reading (particularly Anna Karenina), and Western music. She promises to follow the Communist Party and become “a true musician of the proletariat.” This means no playing of the greats like Bach or Beethoven, but only music approved by Chairman Mao (a pretty narrow selection). For reading, only Mao’s Little Red Book is acceptable. Professor Pan even abandons Zhu, telling her “You cannot play the piano well if you are hostile to the regime. Self-criticism will be more useful to you than piano lessons.”
I could go on and on with all the notes I took on this book. Basically, Zhu spends a decade in Mao’s labor camps, playing piano only when she can sneak to find one. She escapes to America around age 30 and attends a conservatory there, where her talent is recognized. She moves to France, and gives her first professional recital at age 40.
Zhu writes that Mao’s Cultural Revolution “scarred me for life … the legacy of that period has left me with a severe psychological handicap. The sessions of collective denunciation I endured rendered me perpetually afraid of criticism, unable to trust either myself or anyone else.” She mentions attending a Bible study in America, and was tentatively enjoying herself, but when someone in the group said, “Thanks to Jesus …” it reminded her of her cohorts years back saying “Thanks to Mao” and she couldn’t continue with it. She lives today with Buddhist, Eastern beliefs.
As I read this book, I honestly had to wonder why Hitler is held up as the universal worst-guy-ever. Because Mao was pretty horrendous. Ditto Lenin. Ditto Stalin. And I’m wondering why the Holocaust has dibs on worst thing ever — not denying that it was indeed awful. But here Mao had more people killed, and I feel pretty ignorant of that — how did this happen? Maybe it’s because Hitler is closer, geographically and Western culture-wise.
Zhu writes that “nothing like the Nuremberg trials organized in the West in the wake of World War II (happened in China). No doubt this is because the truth of Mao’s disastrous reign has yet to be precisely established, due to a lack of well-researched historical studies. How many deaths were caused by the Cultural Revolution? By the Great Leap Forward? The full extent of the catastrophe remains unknown.” Consider that next time you hear someone extolling the wonders of socialism or communism.