BookBrowse Reviews Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

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Mao's Last Dancer

by Li Cunxin

Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin X
Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2004, 444 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2005, 480 pages

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The true story of a boy who escaped poverty in rural China to become one of the world's greatest dancers. Memoir

Comment: Li Cunxin (Li is his family name, Cunxin his given name, Cunxin is pronouced 'twin-sing') was born and raised in extreme poverty in rural China during the height of the cultural revolution. The first 150 fascinating pages tell about the first decade of his life in a rural village where dried yams were the staple diet and starvation was always close at hand. Then one day in 1972 a group arrived from Beijing and literally plucked him from his classroom to be tested for Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. He had never danced and knew nothing of the ballet but saw that this was his opportunity to escape from the poverty of the village and thus endured the extraordinarily painful testing process and was ultimately selected for the academy.  

Arriving in Beijing, he saw for the first time the gulf between Chinese rural life and city life, and spent 7 years at the academy training with increasing intensity to become one of their top students. In 1979 he was selected to spend a summer with the Houston Ballet - the first official exchange of artists between China and the USA since 1949. If there had been a gulf between his early life and his experience in Beijing that was nothing compared to the shock of arriving in the USA - a country that he had been indoctrinated to believe was poorer than China and extremely violent. Instead, he found a country of extraordinary wealth where people left restaurant tips bigger than his father's annual salary and where there was freedom of expression - both politically and artistically. In one scene, that stood out for me, he tells of going Christmas shopping with the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, who, in a couple of hours, bought Christmas presents equivalent to 65 years of his father's salary - a lifetime of work spent on gifts in one afternoon.

He returned to China after six weeks but, through an extraordinary turn of events, managed to get permission to return to the USA a few months later. Shortly before he was due to return to China he defected in a dramatic showdown at the Chinese consulate in Houston; and went on to become a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and later the Australian Ballet. 

The most moving scene in the book for me was when Li's parents were allowed to visit him in the USA six years after his defection. These two wonderful people, who the reader has learned so much about in the first half of the book, are ushered into the theatre, having come directly from their first ever airplane flight, first car ride and first train ride, all in the same day, and the whole audience bursts into applause. Call me a soft lump but I have to tell you that I'm having trouble seeing the computer screen through the muffling of tears just writing this.  

So, in short, I thought this was a wonderful book - it's a bit sentimental in places but it's Li's story and as far as I'm concerned he's free to tell it how he likes, and he tells it well. If you're a ballet aficionado you'll want to read every page, but if you're an ignoramus of the finer arts like me you'll probably want to skip over a few of the more detailed descriptions of ballet competitions - which are few in number anyway.

This review first ran in the March 2, 2005 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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