https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/31/obit ... -dead.html
Fou Ts’ong, Pianist Whose Family Letters Inspired a Generation, Dies at 86
Driven from China during Mao’s rule, he kept up a correspondence with his father that became a beloved book in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
By Amy Qin
Published Dec. 31, 2020
Updated Jan. 1, 2021
Fou Ts’ong, a Chinese-born pianist known for his sensitive interpretations of Chopin, Debussy and Mozart, and whose letters from his father, a noted translator and writer, influenced a generation of Chinese readers, died on Monday at a hospital in London, where he had lived for many years. He was 86.
The cause was the coronavirus, said Patsy Toh, a pianist, who had been married to Mr. Fou since 1987.
Almost overnight, he became a national hero. To China’s nascent Communist-led government, Mr. Fou’s recognition in a well-known international competition was proof that the country could stand on its own artistically in the West. Chinese reporters flocked to interview Mr. Fou, while many others sought out his father, Fu Lei, a translator of French literature, for advice on child-rearing.
But the authorities’ good will did not last long.
Two years later, Mao Zedong initiated the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals, including Mr. Fu, were persecuted. Many were tortured and banished to labor camps. Mr. Fou, then studying at the Warsaw Conservatory in Poland, was made to return to China to undergo “rectification” for several months.
Not long after going back to Warsaw, he found himself in a quandary. Having witnessed the increasingly tumultuous political climate back home, he knew that if he returned to China upon graduation — as the government expected him to do — he would be expected to denounce his father, an unimaginable situation.
So in December 1958, Mr. Fou fled Communist Poland for London, where he requested political asylum.
“About my leaving, I always felt full of regret and anguish,” he recalled in an interview. So many intellectuals in China had suffered, he said, but he had escaped. “I felt uneasy, as if I owed something to all my friends,” he said.
After his defection, Mr. Fou maintained a written correspondence with his father in Shanghai — a special privilege that was said to have been approved by Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier.
Then, in 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, a decade of chaos that upended Chinese society. Militant Red Guards accused Mr. Fu, a translator of writers like Balzac and Voltaire, of having “capitalistic” artistic taste, among other crimes. They humiliated and tortured him and his wife for days until the couple, like many other Chinese, were driven to suicide. Mr. Fou, still in London, did not learn of his parents’ deaths until months later.
In 1981, after China’s post-Mao government posthumously restored the reputations of Mr. Fou’s parents, a volume of letters written by his father, primarily to Mr. Fou, was published in China. Full of advice, encouragement, life teachings and stern paternal love, the book, “Fu Lei’s Family Letters,” became a best seller in China.
For many, Mr. Fu’s disquisitions on music, art and life offered a welcome contrast to the propaganda of Cultural Revolution, in which sons turned against fathers, students against teachers and neighbors against neighbors all in the name of politics.
“If you imagine the environment we grew up with, it was very rigid,” said Xibai Xu, a political analyst who first read Mr. Fu’s letters in middle school in Beijing. He added, “So when you read ‘Fu Lei’s Family Letters,’ you realized how a decent human life could be — a life that is very delicate and artistic, with real human emotions and not just ideology.”
Besides influencing a generation of Chinese, Mr. Fu’s words resonated long after his death with the person for whom they were intended.
“My father had a saying that ‘First you must be a person, then an artist, and then a musician, and only then can you be a pianist,’” Mr. Fou once recalled in an interview. “Even now, I believe in this order — that it should be this way and that I am this way.”
Under the strict supervision of their father, Mr. Fou and his brother, Fu Min, were educated in the classical Chinese tradition and grew up surrounded by both Western and Chinese cultural influences. As a child, Mr. Fou studied art, philosophy and music, frequently making use of his father’s phonograph and large record collection.
A lover of classical music from a young age, Mr. Fou began taking piano lessons when he was 7. One of his later teachers was Mario Paci, the Italian conductor of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra.
But the chaos of wartime China prevented him from receiving a systematic musical education. In 1948, Mr. Fou, then in his teens, moved with his family to the southwestern province of Yunnan, where he went through what he described as a rebellious period. It was only after returning to Shanghai several years later that he began to dedicate himself in earnest to the piano.
Mr. Fou made his first stage appearance in 1952, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The concert caught the attention of officials in Beijing, who selected him to compete and tour in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Fou moved soon to Poland, where he studied at the Warsaw Conservatory on a scholarship. To prepare for the fifth Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1955, he practiced so diligently that he hurt his fingers and was nearly cut from the first round of competition.
After the deaths of his parents in 1966, Mr. Fou stayed abroad and became a renowned concert pianist on the international circuit, best known for his interpretations of Chopin but also winning acclaim in performing works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Debussy. Reviewing a 1987 recital in New York, Bernard Holland of The New York Times wrote of Mr. Fou’s “sensitive ear for color” and “elusive gift of melody.”
“We should hear Mr. Fou more often,” Mr. Holland wrote. “He is an artist who uses his considerable pianistic gifts in pursuit of musical goals and not for show.”
In 1979, after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Fou was granted permission to return to China for the first time in more than two decades, reuniting with his brother to hold a memorial service for their parents.
On subsequent visits he performed and lectured, becoming known as the “Piano Poet” for his lyrical musical interpretations. Later editions of “Fu Lei’s Family Letters” were updated to include some of Mr. Fou’s letters to his father.
Mr. Fou’s death came at a time of resurgent nationalism in China. On Chinese social media, some ultranationalist commentators called him a traitor to the country for defecting decades ago, echoing accusations that Mr. Fou faced in the 1950s after settling in London.
“What would I tell them? There was nothing to say,” Mr. Fou said of such critics in an interview. “It’s not that I was longing for the West.”
“I was choosing freedom,” he added. “It was not an easy situation. There was no other choice.”
Many other Chinese honored his memory, including well-known pianists like Li Yundi and Lang Lang, who called Mr. Fou “a clear stream in the world of classical music and a beacon of light in our spirit.”
“Fou Ts’ong’s legacy was to show people and musicians the importance of integrity, character and music beyond technique,” said Jindong Cai, a conductor and the director of the U.S.-China Music Institute at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.
Mr. Fou’s first marriage, to Zamira Menuhin, a daughter of the prominent violinist Yehudi Menuhin, ended in divorce, as did a brief marriage to Hijong Hyun. In addition to his wife, Ms. Toh, Mr. Fou is survived by a son from his first marriage, Lin Xiao; a son from his marriage to Ms. Toh, Lin Yun; and his brother, Mr. Fu.
Mr. Fou remained devoted to music in his later years, playing piano for hours every day even as his fingers grew frail. It was a love that he invoked in interviews, alongside nuggets of wisdom from his father.
“When I was very young, I wrote to my father from Poland that I was sad and lonely,” he once recalled. “He wrote back: ‘You could never be lonely. Don’t you think you are living with the greatest souls of the history of mankind all the time?’”
“Now that’s how I feel, always,” Mr. Fou said.