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How a man's sorrowful public piano song helped console many in China

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Just one song, that's all a man from Wuhan, China, performs on the piano. He learned it as an act of catharsis during the pandemic, and he's been playing it in public in China, in places where open expressions of loss and grief can be interpreted as sensitive political statements. NPR's John Ruwitch caught up with him on the banks of the Yangtze River.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Majestic gray-green hills fall steeply into the emerald water of China's longest river here in the city of Wushan. Rain clouds threaten overhead as a piano tuner works in the back of a white van parked on the levee.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO BEING TUNED)

RUWITCH: The owner of the piano, Peng Haitao, has driven thousands of miles to be here, but his journey started in early 2020 when the authorities sealed off his hometown of Wuhan, over 300 miles away, at the start of the pandemic. During the lockdown, his father died of pneumonia. Peng, now 33 years old, happened to be out of town, and he was unable to return.

PENG HAITAO: (Through interpreter) I felt like a deserter. I was not there in his time of need.

RUWITCH: A few months later, his baby son died at childbirth, and Peng fell into depression.

PENG: (Through interpreter) 2020 was like a catastrophe for me. I don't know how I lived through it. My father departed. My son left us.

RUWITCH: One day, though, he happened across Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto's melancholy "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence." It's the title track from the 1983 movie of the same name starring David Bowie and set in a Japanese Army prisoner of war camp in World War II.

PENG: (Through interpreter) When I heard it, my pain, all my emotions just came flooding out, and I felt consoled. It was the first time I felt that music could be so powerful, and I guess it planted a seed.

RUWITCH: Peng never studied music, but he learned the tune on his own, note by note. It took him eight months.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENG HAITAO PERFORMANCE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE")

PENG: (Through interpreter) In the summer of 2022, I dreamt of my father. I really missed him. He'd been gone over two years, and I wanted to do something for him because nobody talked about him anymore.

RUWITCH: He decided to perform the song in public on the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENG HAITAO PERFORMANCE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE")

PENG: (Through interpreter) I realized that I wasn't the only person in pain in Wuhan like this during the pandemic. There were lots. So I wanted to invite people to come by, one by one, and play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUWITCH: He played Sakamoto. Others played whatever moved them. That performance, recorded and posted online, led to others.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENG HAITAO PERFORMANCE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE")

PENG: (Through interpreter) I later came to understand that sorrow can connect people. We always say, you should have positive energy not negative energy. But sorrow is an important emotion. We need to let it out. We need to express it, and we can't hide.

RUWITCH: He was also expressing anger and frustration, something he knew others felt after more than two years of harsh COVID controls and lockdowns. When Omicron hit Wuhan in 2022, he wheeled his piano in front of a makeshift wall of corrugated metal that was used to seal off a neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUWITCH: Security agents soon showed up to shoo him away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He posted that video online. And a few months later, when a fire in a locked-down apartment building in western China killed several people and sparked outrage and protests across the country, that video of him playing the tune somehow resurfaced and went viral.

PENG: (Through interpreter) I received a lot of messages, people telling me, thank you, thank you, thank you, you gave me consolation. And through this, I realized the power of the piano.

RUWITCH: That power seems to be magnified in China, where the government does not tolerate criticism, and expressions of sorrow can be interpreted as political. Some have been critical of Peng, saying he's doing it for attention. For many others, his performances have struck a chord - his music, a language without words.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Back in Wushan, Peng and five other men lift the freshly tuned piano out of the van and onto the bow of a small, flat cargo boat. Wushanis a jumping-off point for cruises of the Three Gorges Reservoir, a massive body of water created by the world's biggest hydropower dam. Some 1.3 million people were uprooted to accommodate the controversial project. Hundreds of towns and villages were abandoned, then submerged. Peng is here because the flooding started exactly 20 years ago.

PENG: (Through interpreter) I want to use piano to neutralize those places of pain in our hearts. I'm trying to resist forgetting through the piano. I'm using piano to squarely face the past. I'm using piano to reflect.

RUWITCH: A few weeks earlier, Peng marked the 15th anniversary of a powerful earthquake that killed more than 70,000 people in Sichuan Province. He played at the site of a destroyed building of the epicenter.

PENG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Rain now falls in Wushan, and Peng puts a thin sheet of plastic over the exposed piano. It's unclear if he'll play in the rain, but then we're underway. Before long, out in the middle of the river, Peng pulls the tarp off the piano, makes a futile attempt to wipe it down and plays - his spiky hair, faded jeans and black T-shirt getting drenched.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENG HAITAO PERFORMANCE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE")

RUWITCH: Commemorating the past, mourning publicly - things like that can be fraught in China, where the ruling Communist Party tries to monopolize the right to recount history.

PENG: (Through interpreter) If we think this is sensitive and that's sensitive, then we would end up saying nothing. We would be people with no memory.

RUWITCH: Peng is not deterred, but he is careful. He leaves interpretation of what he's doing up to the listener.

PENG: (Through interpreter) If I can influence more people to stand up bravely, that'd be great, if possible. It's not my goal. I'm not trying to make anyone do anything. I'm just doing something that I think has meaning to keep myself from forgetting.

RUWITCH: The rain eases, but Peng's piano has been soaked through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PENG: (Vocalizing).

RUWITCH: Its keys begin to fail as he plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUWITCH: The song ends, and it's quiet on this foggy stretch of the Yangtze River, as if nothing more needs to be said. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Wushan, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.