This Letter is Very Well Written

the book: The Secret Piano by Zhu Xiao-Mei

published 2007, translated Ellen Hinsey 2012

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

[Aged 8, the author is already used to giving piano recitals on tv and radio in 1950s China.]

One time I was asked to play at the Imperial Palace in Beijing. I wasn’t scared, but a single question obsessed me. What was I going to wear? This time I wasn’t going to be playing for machines, microphones, and cameras but in front of an audience, more than a thousand people. I couldn’t show up in my patched clothes. The knees and elbows of my clothing were mended with pieces of fabric cut from my mother’s dresses.

I knew I was poorly dressed. Not long before, when we were rehearsing a play at the school, the teacher had said to me: “Xiao-Mei, you take the role of the beggar-woman. You won’t need a costume.”

…I didn’t want to go to the Imperial Palace dressed like a beggar-woman. When I asked my mother to find me something nice to wear, she answered that she couldn’t buy anything, that I was fine the way I was. But I kept pestering her until finally, with a heavy heart, she gave in and approached one of her students, a diplomat’s daughter: could she borrow something for me? I tried on the clothes. The skirt was red, and the white blouse with puffy sleeves was made out of such a fine fabric that it was practically transparent. When I went on stage that night I had only one thought: that I looked like a butterfly. I don’t even remember what I played.

observations: This is the memoir of a girl who lived through two momentous and often appalling periods of Chinese history: the Great Leap Forward (which started a year or so after the incident described here) and the Cultural Revolution. Many obstacles are placed in the way of her wish to be a musician, and many humiliations befall her and her family, who are always at risk because they are “Chushen bu hao” – people with bad family backgrounds.

Unlike some memoirs of people who have lived through horrors, there is no attempt here to manufacture pointless suspense – after all, bad as things were, we already know she didn’t die, because she is writing the book, and that she escaped to the West. We also know she ended up successful and quite famous as a pianist, but it’s fair to say her story is striking enough to have surely interested publishers even if she were an unknown.

The Western classical music Zhu Xiao-Mei wanted to play was still taught at China’s Central Conservatory by the time she was there in the 60s, but the Party’s attitude to it was always ambivalent. At one point a fellow student (a much “better” revolutionary than Xiao-Mei) writes to Chairman Mao, denouncing her fellow students’ elitist attitudes and excessive devotion to the music. He returns it with this annotation:
This letter is very well written. We must solve this problem. Western culture must be put to the service of our country. We must develop our own culture.

Mao Zedong

The whole thing rings totally true, and this is in no small part due to the fact that Xiao-Mei’s stories often present herself in a less than flattering light. She is sometimes mean to family (although no worse than most of us when we are young and uncomprehending) and to people who try to help her. And she is open about having done things she would rather have avoided, not so much to fit in as simply to survive.

The main picture was taken in 1959 in Hong Kong, which was not then part of China, but it’s too good not to use. It is called Afternoon Chat and is one of many sensational photos taken by Fan Ho. The other shows a coat that belonged to another poor girl who grew up in raggedy clothes and became a famous musician: it’s the actual Coat Of Many Colors, celebrated in song by Dolly Parton.

The children’s book The Red Piano, by AndrĂ© Leblanc, is a fictionalised account of Zhu Xiao-Mei’s life.

For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.


  1. Moira - Thanks as ever for hosting Colm.

    Colm - What an absolutely fascinating perspective on so many changes in China! And it sounds as though her writing style is crisp and easy to follow. I know what you mean too about not manufacturing suspense. I think memoirs work better without that. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. I couldn't agree more, Margot. I was thinking particularly of the contrast with The Pianist, where - despite this guy having lived through horrendous times like I can't even imagine - I never really cared, because I clearly knew he'd survived, and he never seemed to be very nice or to care very much about the fact that lots of other people were having a hard time too.

  2. This would be both educational and interesting to read, Colm. I know so little about music and musicians, I had not heard of Zhu Xiao-Mei. And for that matter, I haven't heard of Coat Of Many Colors by Dolly Parton either. I was still in Alabama when it was released, maybe I heard it and don't remember it, unless of course it was on mostly country stations. Also very interesting and I will find it and listen to it.


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