Author: Li Cunxin
Details: (c) Li Cunxin 2003; Pub Viking 2003; ISBN 0-670-04024-X
Verdict: Mao's last dancer is an honest account of a fasincating life-story.
Reasons for reading it: The author is a friend of my uncle's (having children about the same age as my little cousins), and my uncle gave a signed copy of the book to Granny at some point. Granny is very much enamoured of the book and has been trying to get everyone to read it. So I pretty much had to read it because Granny was getting more offended the more months I spent reading other things!
How it came into my hands: Granny managed to lose her copy for several months. When I was staying with my uncle in Australia, he bought a replacment copy and got Li to sign it for Granny again, but the minute he did that, the original copy turned up. So there it was waiting for me on my desk when I got home.
Mao's last dancer does not have all that much to make it stand out from the large numbers of books (fictional and autobiographical and somewhere in between) about people who escape hardship in Communist China and settle in the west. The writing style is very simple, which makes the book highly readable but a little bland.
What's impressive about MLD is the honesty of the narration. Li does not portray himself as someone who just happened to be born with a fully developed sense of western morality and direct access to the spiritual wisdom of his Chinese ancestors. Instead, Li gives a very clear portrayal of his complete acceptance of Communist propaganda when growing up, and the way he entirely bought into American consumerism the moment he found himself in the States. Writing autobiography is almost inherently arrogant, so it's unusual to read one that comes across as so humble. This clear sense that survival and escape is mostly a matter of pure luck rather than any specialness on the part of the author is even more surprising given that the hook to this story is that Li ended up as an internationally successful ballet dancer. Stories about people rising to the top of artistic professions are rarely characterized by humility!
The dancing aspect is the main place where MLD has something novel to offer; the account of Li's training in Madame Mao's dance academy tells me something about Communist China that I didn't already know from all the other similar books I've read. The story would probably be too implausible for fiction: a peasant boy selected almost at random to train as a professional dancer, and having the opportunity to defect when on a tour of the US and enough education to succeed as a dancer and a person.
MLD is also honest because it doesn't glamourize poverty. Li is very aware that while he may be living in happy ever after, his six brothers have remained as poor farmers and labourers with nothing to aspire to beyond working hard enough to survive. The accounts of the brothers' frustration and depression at their limited lives are very moving, and there is a clear sense that Li's family are better off than many because he is able to give them some degree of financial support. Let alone the background knowledge that at the time when Li just happened to be selected for the dance academy, tens of millions of Chinese people were dying of starvation and preventable disease, or being subjected to inhuman treatment as political dissidents. The scenes where the political situation improved sufficiently that Li was able to return to China and visit his family again after many years of separation are really reminiscent of the last chapters of Genesis and Joseph's reunion with his father and brothers.
The book sensibly moves quickly over the years of Li's life after his defection, because that is after all a story that has been told many times. But I would be really interested to read an expansion of the epilogue, where Li mentions in passing that his oldest daughter was born profoundly deaf and his wife gave up her own ballet career to home educate the girl. And only partly because Sophie is in the same ballet class as my little cousin S, and I saw her dancing in the end of year show. (I didn't at the time realize that she was the daughter of Li Cunxin, much less that she was deaf, but it was completely obvious that she is an exceptionally talented dancer.)
I don't know that I would particularly bother with this book if it weren't for the personal connection, but I did learn something from it.