Chinese Pianist Fou Ts’ong Dies From COVID-19

Fou Ts'ong playing a Steinway piano.

World-famous Chinese pianist Fou Ts'ong, known as the 'Piano Poet,' died on December 28, 2020, in London, England. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

World-famous Chinese pianist Fou Ts’ong, known as the “Piano Poet,” has died from COVID-19, leaving a hole in the world of classical music. He had been hospitalized for two weeks before passing away on December 28, 2020, in London, England.

The family letters

Among other things, Fou Ts’ong and his late father, the Chinese intellect Fu Lei, are also known for the so-called “Fu Lei’s Family Letters,” a series of 200 letters written from father to son that were later collected into a book. One could say these letters have become common reading material in some parts of Asia, like Hong Kong and even China.

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The legacy of the family letters began when Fou Ts’ong left home to study abroad in Poland in 1954. The story behind “Fu Lei’s Family Letters” is very heartwarming but also tragic, in the most literal sense.

The Fu family tragedy

Fou Ts’ong’s father was a well-known writer in China and the family was well-off. Fou Ts’ong also demonstrated a talent for the arts, in particular music, from the time he was a child. Fou Ts’ong even finished among the top 3 at several competitions in his youth. Among other honors, he came in 3rd at the 5th Chopin International Piano Competition in 1955 and even won the “Mazuka” Special Award for Best Performance, making him the first Chinese musician to ever win an international piano competition.

Fou Ts’ong credits his deep love for music to his father, who had a deep influence on him. “Father encouraged me to be a person with literacy and accomplishment. Only through literacy did I find my taste for playing piano.”

The keys on a Steinway piano.
Fou Ts’ong credits his deep love for music to his father Fu Lei, who had a deep influence on him. (Image: via Flickr)

Public humiliation by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)

When the so-called Anti-Rightist Campaign was launched by the Chinese Communist Party,  Fou Ts’ong’s father was one of the people who got labeled as a “rightist.” The consequence was that he was ridiculed and criticized in public.

Public humiliation was a common method the CCP used at that time to strip people of their dignity if they didn’t fall in line with the Communist Party’s ideology, mostly because they still held on to traditional Chinese values. Although oceans apart, Fou Ts’ong also found himself a target of CCP defamation in Poland, a country also under communist rule at the time.

Fleeing to London

Being faced with the prospect of having to denounce his father and likely suffer persecution himself, Fou Ts’ong chose to flee communist-controlled Poland. With the help of a former British music teacher, he quietly bought a ticket from Warsaw to London and successfully left for the UK in December 1958.

In order to permanently stay in Britain and be shielded by its constitution, Fou Ts’ong decided to become a British citizen even though he loved his home, China, and his heart longed to be united with his family.

Labeled as a ‘defector’

In 1965, Fou Ts’ong was naturalized to Britain, which made the Chinese Communist Party very unhappy. As a result, they black-listed Fou Ts’ong and classified him as a “defector.”

Meanwhile, Fou Ts’ong’s father and mother had to suffer great indignity in China. The CCP had a process they called “rehabilitation.” At that time, scholars and intellectuals were targeted en masse and accused of being counter-revolutionaries if they expressed an opinion that differed from communist ideology. They were then put through the painful and humiliating process of so-called “rehabilitation” in China.

A scholar with ink-splattered face undergoes public humiliation during the Cultural Revolution in China.
During the Anti-Rightist Campaign, scholars experienced various forms of public humiliation, including having their clothes and faces splattered with ink. (Image: Elekes Andor via Flickr)

To add even more fuel to the fire, Fou Ts’ong’s brother made it clear that Fou Ts’ong could never again return to China, even if he wanted. Speaking about their parents, he said: “Since they have now been rehabilitated, your return would only make them die even earlier.”

‘Father exposes son, son exposes father’

“Father exposes son, son exposes father” was a term used in China to describe the mentality that was instilled into society in regard to obeying the ruling communist regime. A father was expected to report on his son to the authorities if the son expressed opposing opinions to the CCP’s ideology. The same held true for a son, who was expected to report on his father if he witnessed any deviation from communist ideology.

Fou Ts’ong’s parents were regarded as very dignified and kindhearted people, who, even under great pressure from the authorities, still — at least internally — upheld the traditional Chinese values of kindheartedness and forbearance. 

Fu Lei and Zhu Meifu, Fou Ts'ong's parents.
Fou Ts’ong’s parents were regarded as very dignified and kindhearted people. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

However, under CCP rule, an individual’s loyalty is first to the CCP, and only secondly to their family. Fou Ts’ong said: “I am now regarded as a defector. I can never return to China unless I am willing to cause a tragedy for my family in terms of ‘father exposes son, son exposes father.'”

During this time, Fou Ts’ong was becoming very popular in the UK and gaining a name for himself as a great pianist. It would be several more years after his departure from China that word would reach him about the deaths of his parents. They committed suicide together when they could no longer endure the harassment and humiliation that went along with daring to express opinions that differed from the communist regime.

Great accomplishments

Fou Ts’ong was a member of the jury of the Polish International Chopin Piano Competition in 1985 and 2010. In his later years, he would tour a lot.

He went to bed early and got up early, every day, waking at 7:00 a.m. and  began practicing the piano at 9:30 a.m. A life without the piano was unimaginable, though he suffered from tendinitis in his later years.

A master on the keys

According to Fou Ts’ong, the technique is very important. “I spend so much time practicing the piano because my hands have been injured and my finger condition is not very good.”

But in the end, it’s not so important to consider how fast the hands are on the keys. “The piano also pays attention to timbre control and hierarchical changes. This is not a skill, but an art.”

Fou Ts’ong’s music inspires other pianists

Other great pianists of our time like Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich, who won the 1965 Chopin International Piano Competition, regard Fou Ts’ong as being one of the greatest piano masters of our time.

The album cover for Fou Ts'ong's performance of Chopin's Etudes.
Martha Argerich was one of the great pianists of our time, who was inspired by Fou Ts’ong. (Image: Piano Piano! via Flickr )

When Martha Argerich was asked how she managed to master such difficult piano techniques, she replied that she was inspired by the recordings of Chinese Pianist Fou Ts’ong.

COVID-19’s toll on the world of classical music

Since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, many musicians have been affected by the virus, including Plácido Domingo, who is one of the world’s three most popular tenors. He was diagnosed on March 22nd.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, a famous German violinist, announced on social media on March 27 that she had tested positive for the virus. 

Those who have died from the virus include Jean Leber, an 80-year-old French violinist, who died on March 18.

Ellis Marsalis Jr., a legendary American musician and head of the “first family of jazz,” died on April 1.

According to reports, Fou Ts’ong and his wife Zhuo Yilong, who had been in love for more than 40 years, were infected almost at the same time. However, at the age of 80, Zhu Yilong still recovered and was discharged from the hospital after three days.

For the many lovers and followers of his music, the fate of Fou Ts’ong’s parents leaves a dent in their hearts. What he and his family had to endure under the tyranny of the Communist Party in China leaves many in tears. 

As a pianist, Fou Ts’ong’s life is a brilliant legacy. Unfortunately, we will never know how his song might have played out in a world without COVID-19, something that makes many people sigh.

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