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.
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.
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 André Leblanc, is a fictionalised account of Zhu Xiao-Mei’s life.
For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.