Mao's Last Dancer
Cunxin (swin-seeng) is the sixth son of the Li family. His parents are peasant farmers in a rural Chinese commune. He was born in 1961, one of seven sons. His family is near starving all through his childhood. Yet he knows no other life and knows he can't get above it himself. His first reading lesson is from Chairman Mao's Red Book, and the first phrase he learns to read is "I love Chairman Mao." He is raised during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution and knows the fear of the Chinese communist party as well as the staunch loyalty.
When Cunxin is 11, Madam Mao revives ballet in China. Scouts go around the country looking for possible candidates. They are specially looking for peasant children to help show how well the Party treats all members of the country. Through sheer determination to be chosen, Cunxin keeps advancing in the trials, eventually becoming one of two children chosen from his province. He goes off to Bejing to learn ballet.
Eleven-year-old Cunxin is lonely and frightened. But for the first time in his life he has enough to eat every day. He has meat several times a week. He misses his parents and brothers, especially his mother. He learns the very basics of ballet and Chinese folk dancing. He also has other lessons in Chinese, math, social studies, and Communism. He doesn't excel in school but maintains an average grade his first year.
He is able to go home for three weeks at the Chinese New Year holiday. When his Second Brother picks him up from the train station, he is warned not to tell their mother how lonely he has been. She has been missing him dreadfully as well. They get through the holiday, he enjoying every moment of it. He returns for his second year at school. He knows his parents are disappointed in his grades, so he works a bit harder. When he returns for a visit at the end of that year, he realizes he can never go back there to live. He has gone too far to ever be comfortable living the farm life again.
Cunxin goes on to become the premier dancer of his class and generation. Chairman Mao dies while he is still in school. Within the year, Madam Mao and the Chairman's closest advisors are arrested. It is now the late 1970's. Then, when he is 19, the unimaginable happens. Cunxin is chosen as one of the first two Chinese exchange students for the arts to visit America. He is able to spend six weeks with the Houston ballet. After that his dancing goes from national hero to world class.
In Mao's Last Dancer, Li Cunxin tells his own story. I read/listened to the young reader's version. (I'm glad I chose the audio book - I would have mentally screwed up all the Chinese pronunciations.) He gives a vivid picture of what his life was like growing up in China. He is frank about his acceptance and love for the Chinese Communist as a child. He is just as frank about his change of heart, leading to his defection, after seeing the freedom in the United States and contrasting it to the life he knows in China.
Not only does Mao's Last Dancer show the rural farming area of his youth, but also looks at his ballet school. He often refers to the grueling work involved in learning to be the best dancer - or even a good ballet dancer. Yet that is mostly glossed over in this edition so that the reader knows it was hard but rarely sees the bleeding feet, torn tendons, long hours, or other rigors involved. I'd be interested in reading the adult version to see if the dancing is more in depth or the political and cultural picture of China in the 1960's and 1970's is more in depth.
Mao's Last Dancer is excellent. Often I would listen to him describe his life in a certain year. I would then think what my life had been around that time. The contrast is amazing and heart wrenching. Li Cunxin's voice is just right for this book - not self pitying or self proud - even when he could have been proud of his accomplishments as a dancer.
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