Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story

Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story

by Lang Lang, David Ritz


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“Number One” was a phrase my father—and, for that matter, my mother—repeated time and time again. It was a phrase spoken by my parents’ friends and by their friends’ children. Whenever adults discussed the great Chinese painters and sculptors from the ancient dynasties, there was always a single artist named as Number One. There was the Number One leader of a manufacturing plant, the Number One worker, the Number One scientist, the Number One car mechanic. In the culture of my childhood, being best was everything. It was the goal that drove us, the motivation that gave life meaning. And if, by chance or fate or the blessings of the generous universe, you were a child in whom talent was evident, Number One became your mantra. It became mine. I never begged my parents to take off the pressure. I accepted it; I even enjoyed it. It was a game, this contest among aspiring pianists, and although I may have been shy, I was bold, even at age five, when faced with a field of rivals.

Born in China to parents whose musical careers were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, Lang Lang has emerged as one of the greatest pianists of our time. Yet despite his fame, few in the West know of the heart-wrenching journey from his early childhood as a prodigy in an industrial city in northern China to his difficult years in Beijing to his success today.
Journey of a Thousand Miles documents the remarkable, dramatic story of a family who sacrificed almost everything—his parents’ marriage, financial security, Lang Lang’s childhood, and their reputation in China’s insular classical music world—for the belief in a young boy’s talent. And it reveals the devastating and intense relationship between a boy and his father, who was willing to go to any length to make his son a star.
An engaging, informative cultural commentator who bridges East and West, Lang Lang has written more than an autobiography: his book opens a door to China, where Lang Lang is a cultural icon, at a time when the world’s attention will be on Beijing. Written with David Ritz, the coauthor of many bestselling autobiographies, Journey of a Thousand Miles is an inspiring story that will give readers an appreciation for the courage and sacrifice it takes to achieve greatness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385524568
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/15/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 15 - 18 Years

About the Author

was born in 1982 in Shenyang, China. He has played with the leading orchestras in all of the major concert halls throughout the world. DAVID RITZ is a bestselling music writer who has cowritten autobiographies with Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, and B.B. King, among others.

Read an Excerpt


The Cultural Revolution, which spread over a decade beginning in 1966, had an enormous impact on practically every person in China. I was born on June 14, 1982, some six years after the Revolution had ended, and I still felt its enormous reverberations. The Revolution was a large-scale, society-wide social and political upheaval in which all students and intellectuals, including musicians and artists, were sent away from the cities to labor on farms and learn from the peasants. Millions of professionals were forced to leave their homes. China was to be self-reliant and was closed to the West.

When I was around seven years old, I began asking my mother questions about our family's past. One night, while my father was at his job policing the nightclubs and entertainment district of Shenyang, and after I had completed my long practice session on the piano, my mother sat down next to me, handing me slices of fresh oranges and a glass of cool water. It didn't take much prodding to get her to start talking about her youth.

I loved listening to my mother's stories. Because she had been a singer and an actress at her school, she spoke theatrically, with bubbly enthusiasm and great dramatic pauses. As she told me the story of her life, and my father's, and how their lives intertwined, music in my head accompanied each tale—ever since I can remember, I have had a kind of soundtrack playing in my head, accompanying my life's most memorable moments. I heard etudes and concertos, sonatas and great symphonies. I heard the harmonies and counterpoints. I heard the action of the music. To me, music was action. And my parents' lives were action packed, the stuff of drama and thrilling music.

"Music," said my mother, "was an early love in my life. Music always lifted my spirits and brought me joy."

Mom told me how, when she was four, her parents moved the family—her and her three brothers—from Dandong on the coast of North Korea to Shenyang in the north of China, where her father worked as a highly skilled technician in an iron plant and her mom became a bookkeeper. Her grandfather loved to sing songs from the Peking opera, so music filled the house.

"What about my grandmother?" I asked. "Why don't I know her?"

"She died of a lung disease when I was young."

"How young?" I asked.

"I was nine."

My heart started beating like crazy—I was suddenly terrified. "Will you die when I become nine?"

"Oh no, darling," she assured me. "I'll always be here with you."

"Were you scared?" I asked.

"Yes, I was afraid. Being the only daughter, I was so close to my mother. Losing her hurt a great deal. I was afraid of living without her."

"Then what happened?"

"The world went on," said my mother. "The world always goes on."

Her father excelled at his job in the ironworks factory. He invented a device that improved manufacturing efficiency, and he was rewarded accordingly. My mother went to school and did well; they were all bright students in her family. At school, she began acting in little plays, singing, and dancing. Then, in 1966, came the Cultural Revolution—and everything changed.

Mom's paternal grandfather was a landlord, even though my mother had never seen this "land." Though her father was a successful inventor and invaluable technician at the ironworks factory, he was now considered untrustworthy and was supervised closely. Rumors circulated that my grandfather was conspiring against the Cultural Revolution. Of course, the rumors were false, but they persisted. To protect Mom and her brothers from worry, her father never mentioned any of this. They only found out when a friend came to their house one day and cried out, "They have your father in the fools' parade!" My mother didn't even know what that meant, but of course she ran outside to see. On the street, a group of men was being forced to march from the factory, her father among them. They were all wearing dunces' hats and holding up big cards with words Mom didn't understand. She wanted to run to him, but he was surrounded by guards. That night her father didn't return home. She wept like an infant. When he finally showed up the next morning, she ran to him. "Why are they doing this to you?" she demanded. "Have you made a mistake?" "I have made no mistake," said my grandfather. "I have done nothing wrong. But these are changing times with new people in charge who persecute me even though they don't know me."

Her father was reinstated at the factory but was demoted, and he was no longer recognized or respected. My mother felt the community's contempt most keenly in school. Her classmates were being chosen to serve in the Red Guard, which was an honor for young boys and girls. Those selected wore a special red scarf, but because of her father Mom was forbidden to wear one. She was a good singer, though, so despite their scorn, they wanted her to perform for the school. During her performances, she was given the red scarf to wear, but when they were over, the scarf was taken from her. Boys from her school would chase her down the hall and curse at her. They never expected her to answer them, but she always did. She cursed them right back. She may have been wounded by their hatred, but she was not shy or weak. She had dreams and ambitions.

"What kinds of dreams, Mother?" I asked.

"Dreams of joining a professional dance or music group. Dreams of acting. When I was on that stage, it didn't matter what anyone thought of me—up there, I was invincible."

Mom had imagination and talent. She could feel the story behind the lyrics of songs and make that story come alive. She could transform herself into different characters. She could lose herself in a costume drama, or a song from another century, or a choreography arranged decades before her birth. Onstage she felt free, and she had high hopes of becoming a professional. The military recruited actresses and singers to entertain the troops of the People's Liberation Army. At that time, the military was the most important power, and to play before the generals was the biggest honor. My mother had every reason to believe that she would be chosen. Her teachers recommended her highly. Her colleagues all said she was the number one actress, dancer, and singer in her school. And yet she was rejected.

"My father's family were landlords, and landlords—even the granddaughters of landlords—could not be trusted during the Revolution," my mother told me. "My schooling ended, and so did my dreams . . ." My mother and her three brothers were sent away from their father—my mother to work on a farm, and her brothers to labor in different villages. One of her brothers was a talented Peking Opera singer, but his career was ended during the Revolution.

I loved listening to my mother talk. Inevitably, though, her stories would come to an end, and she would tell me to go practice. I was working on pieces by Chopin and Liszt that other students didn't attempt until they were thirteen or fourteen, and I was excited by the challenge. But as my fingers moved over the keys, my mind would move over the stories my mother had told me about my family. I was proud that she hadn't allowed the boys in her school to intimidate her. I was grateful for her strength, and I believed she was the artist she had hoped to become. I practiced to make up for her missed opportunities, until I conquered the music just as she had conquered her enemies. The music became a soundtrack to a movie about my mother.

At our small dinner table, she served me the food I loved best, hot dumplings and sauerkraut with pork. My father worked late, so she and I would often eat alone, and I would urge her to continue her stories.

She told me how she and my father had met in 1977, when they were both twenty-four years old. The Cultural Revolution had ended, and because of her excellent work on the farmland she was allowed to return to Shenyang. She had just begun her job as a telephone operator at the Institute of Science, and my father was working at a factory during the day. But my father's dream was to become a professional musician. He played the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle, the most popular traditional instrument in China, which in a traditional orchestra plays a similar role to the violin in a Western orchestra. Although his dream to enter the music conservatory had not been realized because the conservatories had been closed during the Cultural Revolution, he had found part-time work playing with an acrobatic circus band, and sometimes he traveled with them. But the job wasn't stable.

On their first date, my father took my mother to the movies to see a Russian film. Afterward, he told his friends that he was 100 percent satisfied with her appearance and her personality.
I asked my mother if she had been 100 percent satisfied with my father.

"I can't say I was—certainly not at first. My ideal man was a little taller, a little more dashing than your father, more talkative, and with a warmer personality. And a little more established in his line of work."

I asked if my grandfather liked him, and Mother couldn't help but laugh. She told me how her father had warned her, saying, "This man has no future, no profession. You will not be satisfied with him." My grandfather forbade my mother to date my father, but my dad was persistent. He kept asking my mother out. In spite of her father's disapproval, she agreed to meet Dad secretly on several occasions. One evening when she came home, her father spotted Dad walking her to the door. Infuriated, my grandfather slapped my mother across the face. According to Mom, this was the only time her father ever raised a hand to her.

After that, she stopped seeing my father, but it was as much his own doing as it was her father's. Once in a while, my father still called her; her job as a phone operator meant that he could reach her at any time. The country was filled with new hope for the future. The universities had just reopened, so my father decided to apply to the conservatory; he knew that higher education was his key to becoming a professional musician. While he studied for the entrance exams, he told my mother, "Zhou Xiulan, please understand if I don't call you for a while. I must dedicate myself fully to these tests." Naturally, my mother understood and wished him success.

My father placed number one on the first two exams, and yet he was still denied admission to the conservatory. My mother explained to me that the leaders of the conservatory found an inconsistency in my father's application. In those days you couldn't apply for admission if you were older than twenty-five. Dad was, in fact, twenty-five at the time, but a teacher advised him to put down twenty-four so that if he failed the exams, he could reapply the next year. My father followed the teacher's advice, but because he is an honest man, right below, in parentheses, he wrote, "Real age: 25." They immediately disqualified him—this, even though he had twice placed number one. I could only imagine how he suffered, to have his dreams dashed for such a stupid infraction that had nothing to do with his talent.

After that, my mother's father forbade her to see my father at all. According to my grandfather, the incident proved that Lang Guoren was not worthy of his daughter's company. Mom was told to return all the small gifts my dad had given her, and she had no choice but to obey.

"But you married him anyway," I reminded her.

"As I said, your father is a tenacious man. He would not let me go. Now that he was no longer preoccupied with his studies, he would not stop calling me at my job. On some days he must have called fifty times. He called so often I could hardly do my work. He would insist that I accompany him to a concert or a play. When I told him that my father had forbidden me, he said, 'You don't have to tell your father.' "

So a new, even more secret phase of their relationship began. It wasn't at all romantic; at first my parents were simply friends. My mother began enjoying my father's company more and more. But although she realized that they had many artistic interests in common and she saw that he was intelligent, she let him know that she did not see her future with him.

" 'Don't underestimate me, Zhou Xiulan,' Lang Guoren told me. 'I will have a good future. I'll prove it to you. I will become a professional musician.'

"Because my own artistic dream had been denied, I didn't believe him. I didn't think it was possible for him to find a stable job as an artist.

" 'I will find a job,' he said, 'and I will win your love.' "

Of course, as with anything my father put his mind to, he succeeded on both counts. The Air Force had a program for musicians to play in its band, but to enter it, you had to pass exams. The Air Force orchestra's pay was decent and the work steady. If he got in, my father would no longer have to work his two jobs, one at the factory and one in the acrobatic circus. So he found a teacher at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music to tutor him. For months he practiced his erhu day and night, outside so that he wouldn't disturb anyone, beginning at 4:00 a.m. before he went to work and until midnight after work. His discipline never faltered, and, true to his word, when the exam day came, he excelled. He was finally granted admission to the Air Force as a soloist and concertmaster of the orchestra.

Mom's father was impressed. "Perhaps I have misjudged the man, Zhou Xiulan," he said. "He is ambitious and persistent. I will no longer interfere in your friendship with him."

Their friendship blossomed into love. I didn't see my dad as a romantic man, but when my mother told the story, I understood that he had passion. My parents were married on April 22, 1980, and I was born a little more than two years later.

At first they lived with my paternal grandparents. But when Dad's younger brother married, he needed a place to live with his new bride. My father, being generous, offered his place in their parents' home. In those days, you couldn't just buy an apartment, because apartments were allocated by the state. But as an Air Force musician, my father qualified for a room in the barracks. He and my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, could move there, and that would solve the problem. But new complications emerged: Chairman Deng Xiaoping was reforming China, and one of his goals was to reduce the size of the military; Dad learned that the Shenyang Air Force orchestra would be dismantled in a couple of years, and when that happened, he would not be entitled to a room.

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Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
technophile More than 1 year ago
This autobiography is an amazing journey of a gifted musician's life originating in China, and a family's struggle to achieve worldwide recognition and fame for a gifted child. The obstacles and struggles faced during Lang Lang's early years are suspenseful and inspirational. It is the story of artistic talent and a family's complicated relationship and dedication to pursue excellence at all costs. The interactions with other well-known musicians especially are fascinating. It is difficult to imagine not being touched in some way by this true story of supreme artistic merit persevering over all obstacles.
SandraL More than 1 year ago
Lang Lang's story at moments shocks the reader in its unexpected honesty, and at the same time mesmerizes and inspires while telling a story of perseverance in following one's dreams, and the magnificence of achieving them when odds are against you. This book provides a wonderful insight into the early years of a performer that is one in a billion. How complex it must be to bridge cultures, and to succeed in climbing to the pinnacle of economic success from humbler beginnings without an artist becoming lost, as we see in news about celebrities too often. The substance of this artist, his family, and his life to-date is a wonderful read for anyone appreciating the arts, parental sacrifice and support, contrast of cultures, and the power of music to bridge them. I hope there will be a sequel and may even re-read this one until there is. Lang Lang's story is still being written and his memoirs one day will be amazing; this prequel to them is highly recommendable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story is definitely one of the best autobiographies I've ever read. Lang Lang writes with astounding sincerity, love, and poignancy. He opens up about his difficult childhood, his love for music, and his dreams for the future. Lang Lang produced a truly touching and inspiring autobiography. He deserves all of his fame and fortune. I'm sure he will continue to impact the lives of millions of people with his music and talent. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story is an inspiring and heartfelt autobiography that allows the reader to appreciate and embrace classical music. Lang Lang's autobiography is a great success.
dbartlett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang relates the story of his life in China and his musical training which eventually led him to the United States to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The most affecting parts of the story involve the sacrifices made by his family. He and his father moved from their hometown of Shenyang to Beijing when Lang Lang was eight years old so that he could gain entry to a music conservatory in Beijing. But his mother stayed behind in order to work and send them money. His father was a stern taskmaster and demanded that his son be number one in competitions. At one point in Beijing, when his piano teacher (dubbed Professor Angry by Lang Lang) had dropped him as a student because she felt he would never become a great pianist, Lang Lang's father gave him a bottle of pills and told him he should swallow the pills and kill himself, rather than continue to live in shame. Or if he wouldn't take the pills, then he should fling himself off their eleventh-floor balcony. For weeks afterward, Lang Lang refused to play the piano, and the rift with his father took many years to completely heal. I couldn't help but wonder as I read this part of the story, having recently watched the Olympics in Beijing, if Chinese athletes face the same sort of pressure to excel at all costs. Lang Lang faced some disappointments, but eventually triumphed as he was invited to perform with major orchestras around the world and gained recording contracts.
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Molly2 More than 1 year ago
The story of this amazing young Chinese virtuoso is by now well known. What I did not know was the brutal treatment Lang Lang received form his tyrannical father. I was also taken aback by the deplorable living conditions of Lang Lang and his Dad while they were living in China's capital. As usual, the mother was the more nurturing kind. I found this book strangely unsatifying, and not particularly well written. We never really get to know this remarkable pianist. I would give this book a C+. Leo van den Blink, Ph.D.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
A 26-year-old pianist writing about his life may seem like an act of superstar hubris. However, Lang Lang is China's icon for the Beijing Olympics and classical music's hottest property. His rags-to-riches story is an interesting and sometimes heart-rending one. Lang Lang was born in Shenyang to a telephone operator mother and erhu player-turned-policeman father. When he showed a modicum of talent on the piano at the age of four, it was to be exploited to the hilt a la Mozart. The chief protagonist was his father Lang Guoren, who was the epitome of competitiveness and eagerness. His harrying and brow-beating of the youngster is described in lurid detail. The book seems to portray paternal (and maternal) love and over-arching ambition as the secrets to Lang Lang's eventual success but the truth is probably much more than that. A combination of phenomenal talent, digital dexterity, good luck, good timing, competition triumphs and genuinely caring mentors also played a big role. To his credit, his teachers Zhu Yafen, Zhao Pingguo and Gary Graffman loom large in his account. No success story is without an element of opposition. One 'Professor Angry' at the Beijing Conservatory is made to look like Villain No. 1, fellow Chinese pianists are referred to as rivals, while scoffing music critics seem oblivious to his blinding 'genius'. Like in Richard Strauss' tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), the world of victors has little time for sniveling and green-eyed non-entities. Ultimately, this appears to be a hurried attempt to cash in on the Olympics euphoria and interest, as the final chapters skim through his concert life rather superficially and little is written about his best-selling recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. His co-writer David Ritz (better known for his biographies of jazz musicians) seems to have little knowledge about the classical canon and the factual gaffes they make are quite risible.