A Prodigy, a Piano, Hardship, Stardom
© NY Times, 09/02/03

he story of Lang Lang, the 21-year-old sensation in the world of the classical piano, begins with his parents and their obsessive dreams for him.

When his mother was pregnant, she listened to countless hours of Western classical music — a rare practice in China — hoping to transmit the rhythms to the fetus. Before he turned 2, his mother and father spent half of their yearly income to buy him a piano. His parents have lived apart since he was 9 to accommodate his career.

"I have wanted Lang Lang to go beyond the boundaries of Asia and enter the global stage as an artist since he was a little boy," said his father, Guoren Lang.

Now the dream of Lang Lang's parents has come true. He gave a solo performance in the opening night gala at the Mostly Mozart Festival in July. He has signed a five-year contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and his concert schedule is packed with 150 performances a year worldwide. Last year Teen People magazine named him one of the "Top 20 Teens Who Will Change the World." He has appeared on "Good Morning America" and on "Tonight" with Jay Leno. His next concert in the United States is to be Sept. 11 with the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis, playing Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3.

Lang Lang's story, like that of many athletic and artistic prodigies, is emblematic of an entire generation of Chinese parents and their only children, and their high expectations and extreme sacrifices for those children.

Lang Lang was was born in 1982 in Shenyang, a city in northeastern China, to a professional musician and a telephone technician. It was just two years after China's "one child policy" encouraging small families was put into effect, and Guoren Lang named the newborn Lang, which means the brilliance of the sky.

Mr. Lang and his wife, Xiulan Zhou, now both 50, were born a few years after the Communists won China's civil war. They were deprived of educational opportunities in the tumultuous Cultural Revolution and denied the chance to choose their own jobs when each was assigned to a work unit. Mr. Lang, whose ensemble was affiliated with the Chinese air force, had hoped to perform around the world. Ms. Zhou had yearned to be a professional dancer.

So the couple pinned their hopes for better things on their only child.

Before the boy turned 2, his parents spent half of their yearly income, about $300, to buy him a piano. The father, who plays a traditional Chinese instrument called the er-hu in a large ensemble, diligently taped music notes on a wall to start the son's daily music lessons. When the boy accurately reproduced theme songs of animated movies on the piano after hearing each only once, the father wondered if he had a genius.

By 5 the boy was showing his strong will, at least about his music, and like many parents the older Mr. Lang occasionally spanked his son to teach him a lesson. Father and son recalled in a recent interview at a restaurant near Lincoln Center how his father struck Lang Lang when, at the first piano competition of his life, the boy insisted on playing a piece in his own style and interpretation. And he had not yet started first grade.

"When I was little my dad never smiled to me," Lang Lang recalled. "We were the stereotypical family with a strict father and a kind mother."

The decision that changed his life came when he was 9 and was admitted by the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing, China's best. Beijing was a 12-hour train ride from the family's home city, and at least one adult needed to move there with him if the family was to accept the admission.

Guoren Lang quit his job, took his son to Beijing and rented a tiny, unheated studio, where he was his son's cook, nanny and chauffeur. Lang Lang's parents would live apart for the next 12 years.

"Our quality of life just plummeted because my dad no longer worked," Lang Lang said, referring to his father's loss of a job and food subsidies because he left his legal residence. Most Chinese families at the time still needed two incomes to maintain a relatively comfortable life.

The father took the son to the conservatory every morning on his decrepit bicycle. "The steel bars collapsed a few times because I was a heavy kid," Lang Lang remembered.

His father closed all doors and windows when he cooked in the winter to preserve the heat emanating from the stove, and he warmed the bed before his son went to sleep when it was cold.

The worst was the bathroom. "It was horrible," Lang Lang said, fanning his nostrils and shaking his head. "Four families shared it, and the toilet wasn't even a flushing toilet."

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