Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mao's Last Dancer - Li Cunxin

From Goodreads:  

From a desperately poor village in northeast China, at age eleven, Li Cunxin was chosen by Madame Mao's cultural delegates to be taken from his rural home and brought to Beijing, where he would study ballet. In 1979, the young dancer arrived in Texas as part of a cultural exchange, only to fall in love with America-and with an American woman. Two years later, through a series of events worthy of the most exciting cloak-and-dagger fiction, he defected to the United States, where he quickly became known as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. This is his story, told in his own inimitable voice.


I had originally seen the movie based on this book when it came out a couple years ago (watch it - it will be well worth your while.  Not only is the story great - which we'll get to here - but the script and acting were very good and the dancing was phenomenal) and have been waiting anxiously to get my hands on the book, which I was FINALLY able to do a couple months ago.  Let me preface this by saying I don't read nonfiction normally.  I avoid it at all costs - I will read the occasional memoir or biography, but I can count the number of both genres combined on one hand.

Cunxin's insight into communist China as well as into the art of dance makes for an absolutely compelling read.  You start with a little background about his family before he was born and the opening bit of the book is devoted to his childhood before he was introduced into dance at the age of eleven.  The poverty he describes is beyond imagination.  Most first-world citizens will not be able to even come close to picturing the poverty that much of China (and much of the world even today) lived in.  Cunxin grows up in a small village.  He shared a tiny house with seven brothers, his parents, and grandmother.  There is no heat, and China reaches frigid temperatures much of the year.  School is devoted to teaching Mao's ideals (this is set a few years before Mao dies), meat is a luxury.  Even reading his descriptions and seeing some of the photos, it is literally beyond the realms of my imagination to dream up a situation as poor as his family was for generations.  At age 11 he is chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, where he endured grueling 16-hour days.  Imagine everything you've heard about how challenging the dancers' lives are in New York or England or Australia.  Now imagine being 11 years-old, being physically stretched beyond your body's capabilities so that some student's are forever disabled.  These students are sent home in disgrace. Imagine being in an environment when one day your teacher is a renowned professor, then the next moment he is branded a traitor against Chairman Mao and forced into physical labor or prison.

Cunxin is finally able to escape this environment when he invited to work with the Houston Ballet Company.  When he comes to America he discovers that everything he has been taught in China about the outside world is a lie.  The rest of the book is devoted to his escape from China, dealing with the aftermath of a huge culture change as well as consequences for himself and for his family.  For almost a decade Cunxin didn't even know if his family had been murdered because of his defection.

I thought this story was amazing - to read how hard a person can push themselves to succeed and to see how far a human can come - it's really just mind boggling.  This isn't a work of fiction.  These things actually happened to real people, many of whom are still alive.  This story is only set a little over 30 years ago.  The writing is so descriptive, and the way everything is described is so foreign to everything I have experienced in life.  It is an absolute delight to read how Cunxin describes the world.  Even if you are not into nonfiction (like me) I highly recommend you read this book just so you can understand even a little of what goes on in some countries.   I would also recommend you watch the movie, which is a beautiful work of art.  It doesn't even matter which order you do either - they are both amazing stories.


Red Scarf Girl Review                     I Was A Dancer Review

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