Book Review: “Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story” by Lang Lang & David Ritz

The book started out with Lang Lang’s Parents’ story. The cultural revolution’s impact on his parents and artists’ living in the era sowed the seed of determination to succeed at all costs. The influence on the little Lang Lang was tremendous and unavoidable given his natural talents inherited from his artists parents.

Inspired by “Tom and Jerry” cartoon, Monkey King, and Transformers, Lang Lang started piano lesson at his tender age of 3 and were competing in piano contests at 5.It’s no surprised that his performance is animated. He’s just as competitive as his father, who placed being #1 and striving for immortality like Mozart as the most important thing to pursue in life.

Lang was introverted as a child and got brought out of his cocoon by his teacher Chu. Losing his first big contest as a 7 1/2 year old was devastating but it’s a turning point for him to see the yellow stuffed dog (consolation prize) as an encouragement rather than a reminder of defeat. That’s what makes a good, talented person great.

At 9 years old, Lang’s father took him to Beijing and live in a slum just to be trained to get into the Beijing Conservatory. After being rejected by Teacher “Angry,” followed by being threatened by his father to commit suicide, Lang became disillusioned and discouraged and refused then to play any piano until he met up with his favorite teacher Chu, who encouraged him to continue and he did.

Lang continued participating in piano contests. The big break came when he won the first prize in Japan. This gave him the visibility in US, where he participated in music camp and eventually won a scholarship to Philadelphia. The Law of Attraction really played out in his case like meeting a Chinese restaurant owner in Germany, meeting a Japanese pianist who taught him to put the soul in the music, which allowed him to win the grand prize in Germany, and the security guard at the German embassy taught him to trick to get a visa after being rejected. There were many cases people came to help him along the way. As the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.”

Eventually, he arrived in the US and had several run in with his conservative father who kept on pushing him to practice over 7 hours a day. As his young teenager, he revolted against his father but eventually reconciled with him. I don’t think he could have achieved so much without his dad and he admitted it.

The injury he suffered allowed him to step back and enjoyed a little life and had some balance in his life, including reading books, going to movies and concerts. This was a blessing in disguise. His American friend, Dick, really enhanced his characters by introducing him to a well adjusted life outside of piano.

Fast forward to now or the time when he wrote the book in 2008, he had accomplished so much. Last I checked on his website. He’s all booked around the world until end of November. One particular story stood out was the fact that China first refused to have him headline with Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra because he had not participated nor won any contest for three years since he started his professional life. This struck me as something deep in the Chinese Confucius culture, where only examinations and contests place a person in his/her among all. This was backward but I think it’s still prevalent today.

The book has a little too many details but is well written. I enjoyed reading/listening to his journey. All the mentioning of the classical music rekindle my interests in classical music. He is definitely a genius pianist. I wonder about the make up of a genius: how much is from the gene and how much is from the training and practices? For Lang Lang, I think it’s probably more than 80~90% of the latter. Without his father, his determination, and his good fortune, I don’t think he would be where he is now.