A Place Without Music

Imagine you have a special talent for music; imagine with hard work and dedication and long hours you’ve become a skilled performer. Imagine that you and your family have a history of loving the most beautiful creations of Western Civilization—its art, its poetry, its literature and most of all its music. Now imagine that everything you love is forbidden; imagine that even playing the music you love makes you an enemy of the state.

Now imagine that the state has the power to imprison you, to deprive you of your freedom, to put you in a labor camp and work you and others like you to death. Imagine that even what you think is controlled. Imagine that instead of music all you hear is verbal abuse, frequently in the form of indoctrination and part of that indoctrination is the rite of publicly criticizing yourself, your “failures” in the eyes of those who have violent power against you, and you must also find fault and criticize others.

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Imagine that you are imprisoned in a barren world where betrayal of strangers, friends, and family in the service of the state is your duty and obligation. Imagine your humanity being stripped layer by layer, as if you were emotionally flayed alive. Imagine this torment going on year after year. Imagine losing the very memory of who you once were and becoming someone else, someone who is a stranger.

But then imagine after the passing of long, long arduous years finding yourself again, regaining your true self and your art and gifts and being able to do what you were meant to do. Imagine freedom…but discovering the truth that the scars you suffered heal but remain with you for the rest of your life. The Secret Piano: From... Zhu Xiao-Mei Best Price: $2.63 Buy New $1.99 (as of 06:05 EST - Details)

This story I’ve described is very real and even more gripping than anything I can describe in a few paragraphs. It is the story of Chinese pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei, one of the millions of victims of the Cultural Revolution. I suspect very few Americans—including myself—were aware of its true horrors. Thankfully, Zhu Xiao-Mei has written her story. Her book, its English title is The Secret Piano, is structured to follow Bach’s Goldberg variations, that is beginning with an aria followed by thirty chapters and concluding with a final aria. In the initial aria she writes:

My grandmother liked to tell this story: “The evening you were born, I looked out at the sky over Shanghai. The setting sun was breaking through the clouds. I had never seen such a beautiful sunset. I remember thinking that your life would be a resplendent tapestry, just like that palette of reds. I was sure of it.”

That was a few weeks before Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. “Never again will the Chinese people be enslaved,” he had declared on that occasion in Tiananmen Square. Rarely has a prophecy proved so true, and at the same time so false.

I hesitated a long time before telling my story.

My father often reminds me how useless it is to speak of the past:

“What does it serve, Xiao-Mei? When you die, you shouldn’t leave a trace. Even if you want to, it’s not possible. Your footsteps along life’s path are always erased by the sun, snow, and wind.” He likes to add: “Think of wild geese—they fly high in the sky, covering long distances without landing or leaving any tracks. Take them as examples, not the sparrows, which settle on the earth. The sparrow will never understand the dream of the wild goose.”

He’s right. For quite some time I thought I didn’t have any particular reason to write—don’t I express myself through music? I even thought that I didn’t have the ethical right to do so. Among the Chinese of my generation, my suffering was not the worst, far from it.

But, as is the case in life, every being, everything has two sides. And I wanted to write. First, for those who had fallen victim to the Cultural Revolution. Forty years later, not much is said about this period, and I have often noticed how little is known in the West about these events. Bach: Goldberg Variati... Best Price: $21.32 Buy New $19.43 (as of 01:35 EST - Details)

I have had the opportunity to live in both China and the West, in three different countries. Through this, I have learned a lifelong lesson: it is critical to bring cultures together, to initiate dialogue among them. I also wanted to describe this experience, which I believe to be particularly important…

I am often asked how a Chinese woman, brought up in such a distant cultural milieu, can play Bach. My hope is that after having read this book, the reader will understand and, above all, have the desire to listen, or re-listen, to Bach. I also hope that he or she will have the desire to read or reread Laozi, the great Chinese philosopher. For these two sages are very much alike, and their two cultures—Chinese and Western—are not so dissimilar.

In her book, she described what “collectivism” meant and how her individuality was gradually stripped from her; how the interests of the individual and the family were subordinated to the interests of the state, treatment difficult for us to imagine a child undergoing and this before she was confined to a labor camp:

To begin with, I learned that all students were not equal. There were those, like me, who came to school in clothes that were worn and mended. There were others who always had new clothes. There were some who went for vacations by sea, who took airplanes. And there were others whose only world was their little siheyuan.

There were the “young pioneers,” who could be identified by the red handkerchiefs they tied around their necks. And others who weren’t allowed to join the organization, for mysterious reasons.

Little by little I discovered that the well-dressed children who took airplanes were often in the young pioneers as well and that their parents had high-level posts in the government or in the army of the New China. Other children had parents of whom they should be ashamed. This was my case.

This was the period of the Great Leap Forward, which had been launched by Mao Zedong. The goal was to make up for the country’s economic backwardness: we had to catch up to Great Britain as quickly as possible. To meet the challenge, they said, we had to pull together, forget about bourgeois individualism and put ourselves at the service of the people. All at once, classes were canceled and we found ourselves in the streets: our task was to gather all the iron implements we could find and bring them to foundries. In this way, even ten-year-old children could contribute to the collective effort of industrialization. Our lives revolved around the word collectivism. Each day we learned that it was paramount, even more, important than family.

In order for collectivism to advance and for individualism to recede—and to put the spirit of Communism into our little heads—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 was good or bad, right or wrong. In this way, it could eliminate “contradictions among the people.” Schumann: Davidsbundle... Check Amazon for Pricing.

For us, it meant you had to report on who had behaved well during the week, and who had not. A name was read out. You gave your opinion: had he truly worked on behalf of the collective? Was he a good revolutionary? Those who were not in agreement spoke up: no, he is not a good revolutionary because he was lazy, he cheated in class.

These sessions were presented as a way to help us make progress. But we were so young. Mostly, we wanted to be accepted or we were afraid of being rejected. If our schoolmates criticized us, we felt ashamed, and we no longer dared look at them; we lost our friends. The more time passed, the more we dreaded being seen as bad revolutionaries. And progressively, like all children, we were ready to do whatever was necessary to be loved and admired.

As her story progresses, the horrors she endured only grew worse; she is transformed but not for the better:

Over time, my outlook changed and altered. I understood better what was expected of us, and I was becoming a better revolutionary. I could feel it. And the more I felt it, the more ill at ease I was with my family. I clearly saw that my parents could never become good revolutionaries. And I hated them for it. I hated them for their bad family backgrounds, which were the source of all my troubles. My father became increasingly self-effacing, saying nothing. After my self-criticism, his only reaction was to forbid me to read, on the recommendation of the Conservatory’s director. I couldn’t keep from expressing my hostility, even my contempt. When I came home on Sundays, I never smiled. My mother cooked my favorite dishes; I never thanked her. One day she came to the Conservatory to invite me to go to the theater with her. I refused. And yet, as I watched her walk away, I felt a pang. What had I done? How could I cause her such sorrow? But I was doing just what was expected of me. The new China would never be built unless the children of bad family backgrounds disowned their parents.

I do not want to reveal any more of her story, only that freedom does come and her music returns, not without a great price. As Ms. Xiao-Mei writes:

Mao had always understood the power that art—and music in particular—had over the people. He knew that artists were dangerous individuals, constantly questioning reality, always demanding more freedom. For this reason, he attacked them and allowed his wife to appropriate art through her Yangbanxi. Mao actually considered knowledge itself to be dangerous—his organized, systematic, and extremist obscurantism is proof of that. But the power of music is such that it inexplicably thrust its way back into my life….

Like my companions, I also sensed that the regime, in all its madness, had pushed us to the brink of total dehumanization. So far, in fact, that we couldn’t go any further. The Cultural Revolution was on the verge of stripping us of our humanity completely, and this was impossible. Just as we were about to be transformed into beasts, some sort of instinct saved us. Deep inside us, there remained a spark of humanity. At their peril, totalitarian regimes—which underestimate a human being’s resources—always forget this fact. Music blew on this spark and revived it. Son of Thunder: The Sp... Yvonne Lorenzo Buy New $12.00 (as of 04:45 EST - Details)

Because her book is not only history that we all should be aware of but is also a gripping story, The Secret Piano (its French title is The River and Its Secret) has my highest recommendation; Xiao-Mei is as gifted a writer as she is a pianist. Yet I think in addition to reading her book, one should witness her triumph as an artist. While she has made several beautiful recordings, especially of Bach, what is truly special to me is that she appears in a remarkable video which includes not only a historic performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig but a marvelous documentary The Return is the Movement of the Tao. Her imprisonment in the camps prevented her from having a traditional education; she learned of the Chinese philosopher Laozi from a compassionate American passenger sitting beside her on a flight, one of the many moments she tells about in her life that I would describe in terms a Catholic deacon friend of mine used: “God-incidents,” those coincidences that are life changing and for people of faith something more than that.

I think Zhu Xiao-Mei’s story and art are of the utmost importance in our chaotic time; one shouldn’t think that because one resides in America the horrors of the Cultural Revolution will never come to pass here. In fact, if anything, the “Political Correctness” and Cultural Marxism known as Social Justice that we see inexorably intruding into our daily lives should make us vigilant that such dangers are ever present. Michael Rozeff wrote for LewRockwell.com:

The crisis of Western civilization is rooted in too limited a view of man’s nature and being. Men are not machines, controlled by external forces and causes. Man can and does cause from within. This is an essential dimension of human beings and the wellspring of the capacity to create. We can make something new that never existed before. We are not programmed computers. We search for meaning in our lives. We believe. We cannot express all of the reality in words, concepts and ideas. There are things that we sense or know lie beyond the limits of such tools and reason. We need symbols and myths, poetry, and the ineffable. We are struck by music and beauty.

Western civilization descended into two world wars as part of its decline, which was a philosophical and religious crisis that unmoored human beings from their connections that bring meaning to their lives. Then those wars disillusioned mankind further. The attempt has been made to climb out of that disillusionment through political extensions of a globalist type that are basically violence-based and champion science and higher standards of living. Ideas of rights have been bastardized beyond recognition by social democrats. A thrust toward globalism has been part of this attempt to remake the world and the human being. This attempt to find a path out of the philosophical and religious desert and wilderness is failing. There is no such path, no way out of the crisis, through violence and materialism. The human being is impervious to such superficial methods and manipulations.

Yet I am not as optimistic as Professor Rozeff. I would argue that there are two sides to human nature and we not only see it regularly but even that gentle soul Zhu Xiao-Mei demonstrated the conflict. For there is that part of our nature that loves beauty and liberty, that shows compassion and kindness to others; yet there exists a darker aspect of the human spirit, one that seeks dominance over others, that seeks to belong to a collective and its acceptance at any price and forsakes its own individuality while it suppresses other’s as well.  And of course, there are those who appear completely devoid any aspect of goodness and decency—the heirs to Chairman Mao—who evidently seek only dominance and destruction. The Cloak of Freya: Th... Yvonne Lorenzo Buy New $14.00 (as of 04:45 EST - Details)

As Alistair Crooke has written:

The second aspect to the present discontent has been cultural oppression (or, in the rhetoric of the Democratic Party, “identity politics”—one of the mainstays of the Clintonite electoral base). Its roots are complex and lie with philosophic currents emerging out of Germany during WWII that somehow fused with American Trotskyist intellectual thinking (which then migrated to the Right). But, in gist, this current of political thought borrowed from the emerging discipline of psychology the concept of clearing the human mind – shocking it, or forcing it into becoming the “clean slate” on which a new mental program could be written by the psychiatric (or political) therapist respectively…

In political terms, the “clearing” of the mind’s inherited cultural clutter was to be achieved by cultural wars of political correctness. The class war had become discredited, but there were other “victims” on whose behalf war could be waged: the war on gender discrimination, on racism, on denial of gay rights and sexual orientation stereotyping, on verbal micro-aggressions, on sexist language, or any ideas or language which disturbed the individual’s sense of “safe space” were used as tools to clear away old cultural “brush” of inherited national culture, and open the way for an American-led, globalized world.

For these reasons we must ever be on our guard; and we must take the time to cherish the victory and artistry of supremely gifted human beings like Zhu Xiao-Mei, people who transformed their suffering and anguish into a profound understanding of the human spirit and into ineffable, sublime art.