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In the tea rooms of the French Concession, they are discussing the interpretation of dreams. Not in the Freudian sense, though that may come in time, but in the tightly-focused Chinese way, at once philosophical and intensely practical.
China's dream went public late last year when the incoming Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping offered it as a totem of his new era. Xi's phrase was deliberately vague and philologists have been arguing ever since whether to render it in English as "China Dream", which is nebulous, or "The Chinese Dream", which begs comparison with the American Dream, a concept both craved and deplored in the Shanghai tea rooms. Either way, the term evokes collective aspiration — and aspiration, in modern China, strikes a mighty chord.
"How many children do you think play the piano?" I am asked by tea-drinkers, as if I, a foreigner, might hazard a better guess than theirs. The only ready reckoner is the number of instruments sold. China made 379,746 pianos last year, 77 per cent of global output, almost all of it for domestic sale. Multiply that by ten for second-hand sales and you are still nowhere near the popular estimate that 60 million Chinese children are currently playing the piano, equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom sitting down every evening and practising scales for two hours.
This dream does not come cheap, or easy. A new piano will cost a working couple several months' wages, and then there are private teachers to pay, music to buy, competitions to enter. The expense is never-ending. But pass a Shanghai tower block in the early evening and you are likely to hear a clamour of Moonlight Sonatas and Clair de Lunes, the moon being a traditional focus of aspiration (the Tang poet Li Bai, it is said, died while trying to embrace the moon's reflection in a lake).