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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Finding Strength in Music

Jul. 15, 2016

Chinese violinist Liu Wei recently celebrated her 30 years in Japan with a concert. But it wasn't easy to get where she is now.

Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, she had to practice in secret, and now she struggles against kidney disease to keep playing music.

The sound that bursts from Liu's instrument is extremely powerful. But she had to overcome numerous hardships to develop it.

"Music is both suffering and pleasure to me. It gives people courage, and helps me to grow," she says.

Liu was at a disadvantage from the start. She was born in 1963 in Gansu Province, northwestern China, a few years before the country fell into political turmoil. Growing up, she had little chance even to hear Western music.

During the Cultural Revolution, led by Mao Zedong, capitalism was condemned and Western culture in general was suppressed.

But Liu's father, Xiaodong, was a music lover. And under his influence she set herself the goal of becoming a violinist. Her father picked up an old discarded violin and shortened it to make it child-size.

Sheet music was hard to come by, so Liu's father was forced to painstakingly copy notes from borrowed pages.

"I had more than 30 notebooks. That was great. My father spent 6 years copying them down," Liu says.

But the windows in her practice room always had to stay shut so that no one could hear what was going on inside.

"It was difficult to become a musician in that environment. The authorities prohibited anyone from listening to or having any contact with Western music. But luckily I had enough ambition, and so I was able to carry on," she says.

Her hard work paid off. She was accepted into the Xi'an Conservatory of Music, and graduated with highest honors.

In 1986, Liu moved to Japan to further her music studies and broaden her horizons. She focused on performing pieces by Chinese composers, and earned a reputation as a bridge between the 2 countries. She marked the Beijing Olympics with a concert in Tokyo in 2008.

But Liu does more than play music. She has also turned herself into a cooking expert. She introduces healthy recipes based on common grains from her homeland.

Her interest in food and nutrition stems from a serious illness. Twelve years ago, she was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. At least once a month she has to visit a hospital.

Liu's kidneys are barely functioning. People with kidney disease often rely on dialysis. But Liu is trying something else.

"I'm trying to improve her condition through diet and medication," said Dr. Takashi Yasuda, of Kichijoji Asahi Hospital.

Undergoing dialysis would take a lot of time away from her music, so Liu has chosen a dietary therapy based on grains. She can't practice for long before she's overcome with physical fatigue. About once an hour a feeling of heaviness forces her to lie down.

"I lie down here more than 10 times a day," Liu says.

But she says there's one composer who gives her the strength to endure adversity.

"The life of Beethoven -- he created beautiful music despite hardships, and he encouraged people," she says. "Beethoven's music requires great energy, so being able to listen to or play his pieces makes me feel that I still have strength."

Liu put on a concert to commemorate her 30 years in Japan.

"Ah, time to fight," she says.

The last number was a Beethoven violin sonata. For 45 minutes, she poured her heart and soul into the piece.

"I happen to be a violinist and I happen to have a kidney disease. I'm just a violinist living in this world," Liu says. "In fact, I've been given a valuable experience and I would like to tell many people about it."