Book: Mao's last dancer - Livre d'Or — LiveJournal

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Book: Mao's last dancer
Thursday, 26 January 2006 at 11:00 pm

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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.

Moooood: contentcontent
Tuuuuune: Beth Orton: I wish I never saw the sunshine
Discussion: 4 contributions | Contribute something

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rysmiel: ancient of days
Date:January 30th, 2006 05:28 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 01:28 pm (rysmiel's time)
There does definitely appear to be a trend, and an odd one, in how people raised in communist China who were true believers in that whole worldset who then come to the West seem to be... I'm not quite sure how to put it, exactly, in ways that don't sound disrespectful, but very prevalent to accepting some other belief system very fervently. This is particularly weird when you meet someone who has come from China to Canada via Alabama and has picked up a young-Earth creationist brand of Christian fundamentalism, despite also being a working evolutionary biologist; the conceptual disjunct there just did not seem to register at all.
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rysmiel: everything is under control
Date:January 30th, 2006 05:30 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 01:30 pm (rysmiel's time)
Mindset, or possibly worldview. Not "worldset". Gaaaah.
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livredor: likeness
Date:January 30th, 2006 09:57 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 10:57 pm (livredor's time)
Ooh, your pretty demiurge icon is back! Which reminds me, there's another big Blake extravaganza starting soon at the Fitz... when exactly were you thinking of travelling, again?

I don't know how far Li is an example from whom one can extrapolate. I would guess that most people who come from the sort of dire poverty he's talking about are not the ones who make it to the West. But in his case, he was born in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, so he didn't know anything else. And his parents were illiterate peasants; the only education they ever had came from Mao's propaganda machine. They seem to have had a vague sense of religion at the level of: this is what we do when we get married, this is how we bury people, and you should respect your ancestors and elders. But I get the impression they had very little culture of their own to compare against what Mao imposed.

So it's as if Li knew nothing else. He was certainly never taught to think critically, but more than that, he had no awareness of anything that would have given him an alternative model, if he started to doubt what he was told by the propagandists. So it makes sense that he would continue believing everything he was told when he came to America. But as I said, I don't think I can generalize.
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rysmiel: making it to the ships
Date:January 31st, 2006 03:49 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 11:49 am (rysmiel's time)
Which reminds me, there's another big Blake extravaganza starting soon at the Fitz... when exactly were you thinking of travelling, again?

If I get to Britain and Ireland this year, it will probably be in July or maybe early August.
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