Thursday, August 17, 2017

Mao's Last Dancer

My library book club read for August was Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin, published in 2003. I read a Young Reader's Edition. I don't know if that was what everyone in the group received, but I would have preferred to read the 'adult' version of the memoir.

Cunxin relates how he grew up in poverty, part of a peasant family working on a commune. In spite of nearly starving, he believes in the pro-Communist propaganda about how lucky they were to have been saved by Chairman Mao's takeover. When Cunxin has an opportunity to be chosen for Madame Mao's new dance school, withstanding physically torturous tests, he is determined to succeed for the sake of his family, and to escape the hard life of manual labor.

Winning a coveted place in the dance school means Cunxin must leave his village and family, and the freedom of boyhood. He was eleven years old and had never seen a city, indoor water, or so much food. But he was lonely and homesick.

" ...[I] grabbed the precious quilt my naing [mother] had made for me. I plunged my face into it and wept. ...My naing's quilt was like a life-saving rope in the middle of an ocean of sadness. I couldn't stop thinking of my family back home."
The dance school brought together children from the working and peasant classes, to teach them traditional Chinese dance, politically sanctioned dances, and Western ballet, along with academic and Communist political classes.

The regime was brutal, but the rewards motivated the boy to succeed. He found mentors who taught him to love dance. He excelled and won a place to study in America for a year. He discovered the Chinese propaganda about America was false and his belief in Mao and Communism was shaken. Cunxin was overwhelmed by the wealth he saw, the abundance of food, the freedom to criticize the president, and even the luxury of a hot bath. After falling in love with an American woman they married and Cunxin defected.

Cunxin became a ballet star. After the failure of his first marriage, he later married and became the father of several children. His second career was as a stockbroker, embracing the capitalism that he was warned about as a child.

The memoir was interesting and I appreciated learning about his early life and the challenges of dance. But I found the book not deeply probing. Perhaps this was because of it's being a young reader's edition. I wanted more depth than offered in this version of the book.

At the book club most loved the book. We had a lot of discussion about dance and what it took to become a great dancer, the single minded dedication, and the pain. It sounded like the complete book was not very different in content from the young reader version I read.

Read interviews with Li Cunxin at

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