I have seen Chinese pianist Lang Lang perform a few times prior to coming to terms with who he is as of this year. I remember him performing at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony in 2008, accompanied by a young girl, as they were surrounded by a sea of people dressed in lit up green suits. Perhaps people may better remember him in recent time for performing in Pharrell William’s haunting rendition of his hit song, “Happy,” at last year’s Grammy Awards.
But it wasn’t until earlier this year, when I saw him name listed a few times for some of songs on the score for the film “Kung Fu Panda 3” did I finally develop curiosity for who this man is. There’s a video of him on YouTube recording his piano playing for the score, before an audience made up of composer Hans Zimmer, co-director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, and other members of the crew. He played thoughtfully and delicately when the songs called for it, and then enthusiastically when it was appropriate. My curiosity deepened and so I proceeded to learn more about him online, and when I learned that he had published an autobiography in 2008, I decided to get my hands on it.
Titled “Journey of a Thousand Miles,” a head nod to the popular quote by Lao Tzu, the book follows Lang’s life up to the age of 24. He talks of his humble beginnings on a military base his dad worked on and how he started formal piano lessons at age three. He describes the pain of being apart from his mother during a large amount of the time he was building up his career, and the agony of his demanding father while living in an apartment together in Beijing. He reminisces on his supporters and recalled the joy from when he won contests – both in China and abroad – before the age of 14. He explained the education he gained from studying in America – both in school and otherwise – and how being in the land of opportunity officially kicked off his career.
This was a simple read and a quick one, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that I learned quite a bit about not only Lang, but also the kind of people his parents are in the years following the Cultural Revolution. His story really starts with his parents, on how they too aspired to be prominent musicians, but saw those dreams brought to an end before they even began during one of China’s darkest hours. Lang shows his understanding for their mindsets and why they are the way they are, despite the questionable decisions they made as parents; in particular, the decisions made by his father.
Lang also talks of his influences as a musician; Tom and Jerry (yes, as in the cartoon) and the Monkey King in childhood, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordon in his adolescence. It’s interesting for him to note that despite the number of pianists he also looked up to, these influences were the ones prominent in his life; in how he went about piano playing and his mindset to music in general. It just goes to show how sometimes one can draw influence from a different kind of source.
Of course, Lang’s descriptions of his struggles and his desire to be Number One was key in capturing the time of his youth, and how open-minded he was when his American mentors taught him how it’s not always about being the best to set progress in motion. He did a good job in capturing this evolution, and even how it will always be an ongoing process for him.
I can imagine writing an autobiography to be somewhat of a difficult feat, for it’s up to the writer to determine how much or how little they want to reveal of their lives and how they want to go about discussing it. In Lang’s case, “Journey of a Thousand Miles” really captures his beginnings as a pianist through the simple text, his honest expositions and his burst of enthusiasm and passion to always strive to do more. It doesn’t take a pianist to understand where he’s coming from.