Sunday, June 12, 2005

Book Review: Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin in Glen Tetley's "Rite of Spring". Pic. courstesy: Mao's Last Dancer

THis is the heartwarming story of Li Cunxin(pronounced
Shwin-Sin) and his rise to fame from abject poverty through ballet.

Li Cunxin grew up on a commune in the Qindao region of northern China in the 1960s when Mao Zedong ruled the country. Under Mao's rule the peasants were so poor that starvation was a daily fact of life for them. There is one scene in the book where Cunxin describes digging rat holes in the hope of finding their peanut store. Many people on Li's commune had to eat the bark of trees to keep from starving.

But Li Cunxin's life changed dramatically the day a delegation from Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy arrived at his school searching for potential ballet students to use to furthur Mao's cultural propoganda. He was whisked away to the ballet school in Beijing, where although he got enough food to eat, the hours of practice, the living conditions and the parroting of Mao's Red Book were very tough. He was only 11 years old when he left and missed his family dreadfully.

This is what Li had to say about his school years:

"We squandered a lot of precious time on propaganda. We even stopped doing ballet classes for a few days because Mao had made a new saying and we had to study it over and over, chew it, regurgitate it - it's incredible the amount of time we wasted. And for so many years we were afraid to be seen practising our dancing rather than studying Mao's Red Book, because then people would think you were politically unbalanced".

Li was 18 years old when a cultural delegation from the US offered him a scholarship to the Houston Ballet Academy. Whilst there he realized that America was not the demon the Chinese regime made it out to be and he revelled in the freedom offered by the country. On his second trip to the US he defected (something that didn't go down very well with the Chinese govt. at all). To show their displeasure, Cunxin wasn't allowed back in to China to see his family for over 9 years.

In 1987 Li Cunxin married fellow dancer Mary McKendry, a Queenslander and in 1995, they moved to Melbourne to dance with the Australian Ballet Company. According to The Australian's dance critic Lee Christofis, Li was one of the best ballet dancers that Australia's ever had.

Li's autobiography, "Mao's Last Dancer" won the 'Book of the Year Award' in Australia. A children's version of the book has just been released. For anyone reading his memoir, his childhood in China, the culture shock of his arrival in the West - where people left restaurant tips of more than his father earned in a year - and the drama of his defection are the obvious highlights. His style of writing is simple and, structurally, I liked the way he interspersed the whole story with fables; it helped me to understand Chinese culture, values and principles better.

For more pictures of Li Cunxin, here

For an interview with Li Cunxin, here