Music in an Age of Ignorance

by Yelong Han

Keynotes, March 2016

Like many AMSF members, I learned to play the piano when I just entered elementary school. Growing up in China during Mao's era, however, I had some quite different memories of piano playing in those years when I barely understood its meaning.

I was born in Shanghai to a fairly affluent family. My mother played traditional Chinese instruments--Pipa and Yangqin. Believing in the importance of music and art in her children's upbringing, she sent us to private lessons after school to learn Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy. And, of course, there was piano. All of us--my four sisters and I--started to play the piano at age of 5 or 6. My brother was the only one of us who chose flute instead. I remember on a couple of occasions my mother helped to arrange recitals at home, inviting children of her friends to play with us. Little was I aware that such a life was quite privileged, far beyond the reach of majority people in China at the time.

Financial comfort aside, the political environment in China back in the 1960s was far from what most Western people see or know about today. It was a time when being poor was glorious and being wealthy was disgraceful. Categorized as a capitalist living by exploiting the poor, my father, a textile industrialist coming from the pre-1949 "old society", was under constant pressure to "redeem" himself in a communist party ruled post-1949--the "new society". My mother never had a paid job, but she had to bear the same pressure for being associated with a "bad element." They were always cautious talking at home, trying not to "negatively influence" us. For me, the pressure from school was just as heavy. I was told that my parents were "evil parasites" who had ruthlessly exploited poor people, and that I should be ashamed of them.

I learned that having a piano at home and playing the instrument was a bourgeois life style. Eager to conform and show my sincerity to follow the communist party's teachings, I began to resist playing Hanon, Czerny, and any other European composers' works. Instead, I asked my piano teacher to arrange some Chinese revolutionary songs for me to play. My piano teacher was a talented composition and conducting major from Shanghai Conservatory, expelled in the late 1950s as a result of political persecution. I don't remember that he ever tried to talk me out of my stupid demand. He just did what I asked. I was too young, too ignorant, to be able to appreciate the music my teacher assigned to me. Playing those well-known contemporary Chinese revolutionary songs made me feel accepted and secure. That was all I cared about.

Such a wishful illusion of acceptance didn't last long, though. In the summer of 1966, Mao launched the so-called "Cultural Revolution" and threw the country into political turmoil. Overnight, everything was turned upside down. Schools were closed. Teachers were attacked, assaulted, and many committed suicide or were beaten to death by their teenage students in broad daylight. Knowing such assault would fall onto us soon or later, we were sort of expecting it day by day. Then on September 1, 1966, a truckload of Red Guards stormed into our home to search for anything allegedly "anti-revolutionary," including any written materials, and, literally, gold, silver, jewelry, cash... They stationed in the house for five days, during which time they took turns interrogating my parents and never let them sleep. When they finally were ready to leave without finding anything they wished to find, they managed to haul away almost all our belongings: the piano, furniture, clothing, and anything with some monetary value, even my little hand-made wallet with a small amount of my monthly allowance savings. The last thing they did before leaving was to seal off all rooms except for two in which the family of seven were allowed to live.

To this day, I can still vividly recall how the piano was removed from the house. Frightened on the first day of the assault, oddly, I felt relieved when I saw the piano, bundled in rounds of thick ropes, being lowered down from the second floor windows. Finally I need not worry about having this symbol of bourgeois life style in our home!

Nearly forty years later on this side of the Pacific, one day I suddenly had this longing to play the piano. I bought a digital piano and started to take lessons at NOVA Alexandria campus. At the first meeting with my teacher, after a brief chat about my background, I was asked to play something. I did, timidly, a few measures. "Your sound is good," my teacher said, "and you had a very good teacher!" Her comment instantly brought back the memories buried 40 years ago.


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