A Short History of the Piano in China

During the last 8 years I was in Beijing, I lived in a high rise apartment building on the western side of the city. On the other side of the shared wall between my second bedroom (which doubled as my office) and my neighbor’s apartment was a piano. I know this because every night at 9PM, the little girl who lived next door would sit down to practice.


For the first 3 years I lived in the apartment, she played the same piece — Fur Elise, by Beethoven — every night for 30 minutes. I kid  you not, she sat down  every night and played THIS ONE SONG for 3 years!! To her credit, she got a lot better in those 3 years; unfortunately I thought I was going to lose my mind.

I was reminded of her recently when I read an interesting piece in the Chinese magazine Caixin Online, titled How the Piano Became Chinese. Credit goes to none other than that great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci:

On January 24, 1601, the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in Beijing bearing a cache of gifts that he had spent years assembling, and even longer trying to present to the elusive Wan Li Emperor. The gifts included such European curiosities as mechanical clocks, religious objects and a musical instrument: the clavichord.

“Musical instruments are quite common and of many varieties [in China],” Father Ricci wrote, “but the use of the organ and the clavichord is unknown, and the Chinese possess no instrument of the keyboard type.”

Indeed, though China in the 1600s had numerous rich musical traditions that employed both domestic and imported instruments, it had nothing resembling the clavichord, a stringed keyboard instrument and predecessor of the piano. That’s why Ricci chose it, hoping that the unusual instrument would so excite the emperor’s curiosity that he would agree to receive Ricci – who could then explain the precepts of Catholicism and, in his wildest dreams, get the emperor to convert, and with him, all of China.

Ricci’s elaborate plan was partly effective: Wan Li was intrigued by the strange instrument and sent four eunuchs from the College of Musicians to ask Ricci to teach them how to play. Ricci was not a musician, so when he reported to the palace, he brought along his colleague Diego Pantoia, who taught the eunuchs four songs for which Ricci wrote lyrics infused with Christian philosophy. The lessons lasted a month and then the eunuchs presumably gave a recital, although Ricci was not invited and never got to meet – let alone convert – the emperor. However, while Ricci’s gift failed to turn China into a nation of Catholics, it did start the country on the path to becoming what it is today: a nation of pianists, piano makers, piano students and piano lovers.

If you love pianos and China and Jesuit history, you’ll love this article; read the whole thing here.

Image credit: Antony Griffiths, via Flickr

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St. Matteo Ricci?

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Sneaking a Piano into a Labor Camp

A Musical Send-off

In the baggage claim area of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport (MSP) there sits an (out of tune) piano, literally begging someone to sit down and play it.


When my mom and sister took me to the airport on Monday for my flight to China, my mom announced that she wanted to sit down and play “The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music.”


She did, much to the delight and amusement of passers-by.

I suggested that we just drop her off sometime so she could spend a whole day playing, something I think she would consider it if the piano weren’t so out of tune.

So if you’re traveling through MSP, be sure to check out the piano to see if Gracie is sitting there playing it.

Sneaking a Piano into a Labor Camp

During the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Xiao-mei, a budding pianist at the Beijing Music Conservatory was sent (along with some of her classmates) to a labor camp near Zhangjiakou, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Beijing. She would remain there for five years.

Life in the camp was brutal, but security was lax enough that she was able to escape for a time and make arrangements to have her piano secretly sent to the labor camp. With her beloved piano nearby, she was able to sneak off to practice, developing skills and using the piano as her means of coping with and healing from the brutality she suffered.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, she was allowed to return to the Conservatory to continue here studies. It soon became clear to her that there were no avenues in China to pursue her music, so she left for Hong Kong. From there she went to the US, and finally to France, where today she is an accomplished concert pianist.

Zhu Xiao-mei tells her story in the book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. 

I HIGHLY recommend it.

She has also just released a new CD called Bach: Goldberg Variations.











(photos: Amazon.com)