Mao’s Last Dancer – Li Cunxin

Mao’s Last Dancer – Li CunxinMao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
Published by Penguin Group (Australia) Pages: 497

Before you fly, you have to be free.

This is my story. Here is my recollection of those years growing up in Mao's China. It is my family's history. It is my journey, from my earliest memories, through discovering dance, to my life in the West. History may record things differently, others may too, but the stories here remain as true to me now as they ever were. It is a remembrance that contains the treasures from my heart.

So wrote Li Cunxin in the first edition of his now phenomenally bestselling memoir. Just as his journey from bitter poverty to international stardom is a dream come true, so too has the telling of his life story taken him to places he never could have imagined. Since its release in 2003, Mao's Last Dancer has sold over 400 000 copies and regularly featured on bestseller lists. Now, some six years after its original publication, Li's inspiring story of courage and determination has been made into a major feature film. For this edition, Li gives us three powerful new chapters as he shares his experiences in making the movie, the feelings for an utterly changed China and the ongoing stories of his beloved families in Melbourne and Qingdao.

I’d heard so much about this book and I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. As I’m sure you’re aware it’s the story of Li Cunxin and how he became a dancer and then defected from China. It’s a salutary lesson in why you shouldn’t lie to your countrymen.

What is in this book?

It’s a big story. Li is in the poorest of poor in China. He shows us how that works and how it feels. We see this in detail and we see how he tries to help his family survive from a very tender age. He also shows us how the government manipulate them into being good citizens.

When he’s 11 he’s tested by for his flexibility. At this point he’s tested beyond his muscle’s abilities and they tear his hamstrings. Most people would cry out in pain much earlier and not suffer the damage. He didn’t, he pretended he was in no pain and even pretended to walk normally. Because of this he was accepted into dance school, this meant leaving a loving home and going to live in a dormitory. It meant lots more hardship but at least he knew he had enough food. His family still weren’t sure if they’d be able to put a decent meal on the table each night.

All this time Mao and his government are lying to their people about how poor the west is and how bad things are there. It has the effect of making Li and his family think they own the world even when there isn’t enough food on the table. When Li is finally taken to America for some intensives he finds out the truth.

As I read this book I reflected on how much we have in this country. How we take for granted the amount of food we get to put on our table. How we take for granted the education our children will get. How we take for granted the medical system we have.

We have so much more than is depicted in this book. It wasn’t easy growing up but the one thing I could count on was having enough food. We didn’t have quite as many people in the house but that’s rather irrelevant, our standard of living is far higher.

Li’s dedication is apparent from an incredibly early age. It shows in how he tries to help his family by his attempts to get some coal from under the airport tarmac. I say ‘tries’ as the guards shot at him. It shows in how he constantly tries to help his mother with household tasks. It shows in his testing where his hamstrings are torn as the teachers push his body past its limits. It shows in how he conducts himself in his studies. And it also shows when he defects to America and takes on a whole new life.

We see him constantly either worrying about his family or helping them. When he’s finally in America he’s earning enough to be able to send money back to them.

Anyway. Do I recommend it? Absolutely. It will make you feel better about what you have. Unless you’re one of those who are on the margins, in which case you might feel empathy. In case you don’t have this book or don’t have access to it here’s a link so you can buy it and send me a few cents of affiliation.