One early summer evening in Beijing, a group of musicians from the European principality of Monaco performed at a concert hall in Zhongshan Park, the former imperial park next to the Forbidden City.
Violinist Zhang Zhang, with flowing black hair down to her waist，is the only Chinese musician in the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo.
“Welcome to my home, Beijing,” Zhang said to her fellow musicians on the bus going through the central Chang’an Avenue.
When the gate tower of the Forbidden City suddenly came into view, the exclamations of the other musicians made Zhang both proud and excited about the imminent concerts to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations.
It was the renowned European orchestra’s first visit to China, and a special return for Zhang, who left Beijing with her parents 34 years after the Cultural Revolution.
She has since gained international recognition for her accomplishments.
Awarded the highest diploma of the Lausanne Conservatoire in Switzerland, Zhang became the first Chinese musician in the prestigious Orchestre Philharmonique of Monte Carlo.
She was also the first Asian artist in the history of Monaco to perform at the investiture ceremony of a sovereign prince in (2005) at the invitation of Prince Albert II.
A founding member of the Monaco String Quartet Ensemble, Zhang also founded in 2002 the Zhang Zhang Band pop group and ZHANGOMUSIQ, an innovative philanthropic organization that supports ecological and humanitarian projects worldwide with music performances.
PRIORITIES IN LIFE
“My first visit in Beijing this trip was to the home of my grandparents at the campus of Peking University, an old house with a big garden filled with bamboo and flowers. They passed away some years ago, but all of my best childhood memories are there,” says Zhang.
Zhang’s grandfather, Lin Qi Wu was a returned overseas Chinese scholar in Peking University and her parents were both renowned artists.
Lin Qi Wu was born into a rich Chinese merchant family in Thailand and graduated from Yan Ching University in Beijing and Columbia University in the U. S.. The patriotic scholar became the first of his family to return to China and later became a professor at Peking University. Her grandmother Chu Tsuan Tsi, a sociologist, was a pioneer in creating social aid to women and children in China in the 1930's.
Zhang’s father Zhang Yun Zhang, a well known violinist, was the concertmaster of Madame Mao’s (Chariman Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing) favorite orchestra. He used to performe for U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter during their official visits to China. Her mother Lin Ying was a classic pianist and award-winning film actress with millions of fans.
Zhang Zhang's father and mother.
The family lost all their wealth and possessions during the Cultural Revolution, when they were all sent to labor camps for re-education , planting rice or raising pigs.
“In those days, fame did not translate into material abundance.”Zhang said that, her parents lived in a 9-square-meter room, and she and her little brother slept on a broken sofa.
“Life is a question of priorities. Music was the priority to my family. We had no dining table, but we had a piano. For meals, we used the wooden piano bench as a small dining space.” she recalls.
Zhang was destined to become an artist. She was sent to a boarding kindergarten at 2 years old and started to learn piano at the same age and the violin at four. Her father took the violin to teach her at the kindergarten each week.
Despite the lack of material wealth, she has fond memories: “Despite the material scarcities, we had a sense of belonging in spirit. The adults had their work units, while the children had education at school or kindergarten.”
A few years after the Cultural Revolution, Zhang’s parents decided to move to Thailand to join the family there, but they were only allowed to take one of their two children. They chose their daughter, and left their son Leo Zhang in Beijing.
“Despite a big family in Thailand, my parents and I still faced the hard challenges of living in an unfamiliar country. We gained status and respect through our strengths,” says Zhang.
Her parents established the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, Thailand’s first professional philharmonic orchestra, in 1983, two years after they arrived in there. Zhang Zhang, then aged 11, was the youngest violinist.
“It was such a hard and amazing experience for a young girl,” says Zhang, adding it boosted her confidence and ability to adapt.
A few years later, the family moved to Canada.
At the age of 18, the great violinist Sergiu Luca invited Zhang to studied Rice University in the U.S. state of Texas, where she received a Bachelor's degree in Music and a Master's degree in Classical Violin Performance.
INSPIRATION FROM HISTORY
“Music lives through inspiration. As a musician of classical Western music, I wanted to be near to the origins of this artistic and cultural language,” says Zhang.
Her sense of history was cultivated in childhood. Her grandmother, a sociology scholar, often took her for walks at the campuses of Peking and Tsinghua universities, both former imperial gardens created in the Qing Dynasty.
“To a musician, the cultural roots of art are essential.”Zhang says. Studying and performing in Europe connected her to the roots of classical Western music and its connections to art, architecture and literature.
With ZHANGOMUSIQ, she has created a new business model for performing, uniting high culture and social responsibility.
Since 2007, ZHANGOMUSIQ have provided a retirement home for the homeless in France, a school for girls in Afghanistan, reservoirs in Djibouti and Cameroon, and helped women victims of conflict in the Congo to reconstruct their lives. With the total performance income and donations, they have also supported many other humanitarian and ecological projects in progress worldwide.
“Music is a universal language shared by all humans, it can also be a powerful instrument for positive change,” Zhang says. The musicians in her ensembles share the idea of “Good music for good causes”.
In 2014, Zhang was invited by TEDx Cannes to give a presenting on on her innovative concept of ZHANGOMUSIQ, where music becomes an instrument for concrete progress to the society.
Now, Zhang lives permanently in the tiny principality of Monaco, where she has dined with Prince Albert in his palace.
“His Serene Highness is interested in the Chinese culture, and asked me to invite Chinese artists to visit Monaco,” she says.
Zhang enjoys her life there, with its history, natural beauty of the Mediterranean, and reputation as a playground for the world’s super-rich.
“It is so tiny, but clean, comfortable to live in. I always swim in sea and feel safe walking in the street at midnight, even carrying a precious violin.
However, she still yearns for authentic Chinese cuisine.
“I am anticipating a genuine Chinese restaurant in Monaco. I miss the taste of traditional dishes from Beijing – roast duck and other northern China food .”
Next month Zhang’s family will return to Beijing for a family concert, 34 years after they left.
“Wherever I go, Beijing is the only place in the world that I call home.”Zhang says.