Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mao's Last Dancer - Book Review

Mao's Last Dancer
by Li Cunxin
Berkeley/Penguin 2003
Author's Website

We have all heard of Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Barishnikov, Natalia Makarova- all three famous Ballet stars who defected from Communist Russia in the 1970s to find freedom in the west.

How many of you have ever heard of a Chinese dancer name Li Cunxin (Lee ShwenSing)? Probably most of you are saying, WHO?

Well this is his story. Those of you from Texas may remember his defection in 1981 when he was held captive in the chinese consulate (in Houston) for 21 hours, along with several american friends, because he was choosing to NOT return to China as he was supposed to.

This is the autobiography of Li Cunxin that chronicles his life in China under Mao Tse Tung (Zedong). Li was born in 1961 in a very poor village in Qingdao Province (on the Shandong Peninsula north of Beijing). He was the 6th of 7 sons - there being no one-child policy in those days. Li's eldest brother was 13 years his senior. Li grew up as a epasant child, and did not srat school until the age of 9.

At the age of 11, he was picked by his teacher to be sent to the Beijing Dance Academy where he would learn Ballet. Li spent 7 long years in Beijing, only going home for a brief 3 week vacation at the chinese new year (in February - the middle of winter). For seven years Li danced and was educated from 5.30 am to 9pm for 6 days of the week, only have one day off for himself.

In 1979 Li finally won an opportunity to visit USA on a dance scholarship. He was to spend 6 weeks in Texas as a student learning the more famous western ballets (swan lake, nutcracker etc) none of which he had learned.

One of the things Li had been taught as a child was that America was a very evil place. The Americans hated anyone who was not white, they enslaved the black people and there were many people sleeping on the streets. Which meant that Americans were very poor.

When Li Cunxin went to Texas in 1979, he finally understood that Mao Tse tung (Mao Zedong) had lied to the chinese people. Yes there were American people living in the streets, but nowhere near as many as the chinese government had claimed. Ordinary middle class Americans owned their own houses with indoor plumbing. Li grew up in a small village with an outhouse.

When Li returned home after that short trip, he begged his teachers to allow him to go to America again. He really wanted to learn how to dance better. Finally in 1980 Li was given permission to return to USA for 1 year.

In 1981, just before he was due to return to China, Li went to the chinese consulate in Houston, Texas and told the officials there that he would not be returning to china. They refused to let him leave. Li spent 21 hours stuck in the consulate before an agreement was reached between the Chinese and US governments for Li to be allowed to stay. Mr Bush (Later President Bush 41) was the one who was most responsible for this. Part of the agreement was for Li to never write a book about his life. He kept that rule for 20 years but has now decided to tell the world the truth.

This is Li in 2006 - aged 45.

Li stayed in USA for 16 years. He was married twice but the first marriage did not work out. He remarried an Australian dancer. Li Cunxin, his wife and his children all now live in Australia.

This was an excellent book. This is the real story of what it's like to grow up in Communist China. A movie of Li's life is due to be released shortly.

Mao's Last Dancer Movie - to be shown at Toronto Film Festival September 2009

Mao And Then - Sydney Morning Herald October 2007


Marg said...

I just saw the preview for this movie the other night and it looks very good! I didn't realise that he had ended up living here in Australia.

Trin Carl said...

I enjoyed this book. I found the amount of struggle the character went through as a dancer amazing. He had became a dancer as a child so as to help his family survive throughout the revolution in china.