Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin.

Received as a Christmas present from my sister-in-law Cass.

**** "Fascinating and inspiring."

From the back cover: "In a small, desperately poor village in north-east China, a young peasant boy sits at his rickety old school desk, interested more in the birds outside than in Chairman Mao's Red Book and the grand works it contains. But that day, some strange men come to his school - Madame Mao's cultural delegates. They are looking for young peasants to mould into faithful guards of Chairman Mao's great vision for China...Here is Li Cunxin's own story, a story that very nearly vanished, like millions of other peasants' lives, amidst revolution and chaos. It is a story of courage, a mother's love, a young boy's longing for freedom - a beautiful, rich account of an inspirational life, told with such honesty, dignity and pride."

Reading Li Cunxin's story of his childhood in a commune with his parents and six brothers is illuminating and distressing. It is hard to believe that such poverty and hardship existed for ordinary Chinese families in such recent history. What is also incredible is the love, pride and determination that existed within his family. The devotion that family members show towards each other is unknown in Western culture (at least in my experience).

Li Cunxin receives the opportunity to train in Beijing at Madame Mao's Dance Academy. At the age of eleven, he travels far from his family home to begin seven years of intensive training in Ballet, Chinese Opera Dance and Chinese Folk Dance, as well as Chinese, Mathematics, and Political Training. The devotion to Mao and the Communist cause that he describes is overwhelming. He wants to do his very best to forward the cause of Communism and bring glory to his country.

Cunxin does not begin as the most talented student, but he shows the most determination and passion as he matures. He ends up having the opportunity to travel to America as an exchange student, which is the catalyst for major changes in his life.

I really enjoyed the honesty with which Cunxin tells his story. I enjoyed learning about Chinese customs, family life, and the "Mao years". I especially liked hearing about his progress in ballet as his story continued, and the roles that he danced once he began to dance professionally with the Houston Ballet Company.

If you enjoy autobiographies, I'm sure that you'd enjoy this one; especially if you are interested in China, or ballet, or both!



Nina said...

We had to learn lots about Mao last year in a semester and I really like the sound of this book. Thanks for the great review!

Fiona said...

If you already know a lot about Mao then I think you'll really enjoy reading Cunxin's story.

cathyinoz said...

Hi Fiona,
Just paying a return visit (I'm TL Under Construction). Love your blog!
I've just read the young readers' chapter book version of "Mao's Last Dancer" over the holidays. I enjoyed reading your review of it and agree with your comments on his extraordinary family.
I've bought a copy for school and can hardly wait to share it with the kids.
All the best!

Fiona said...

Hi Cathy, thanks for stopping by. I keep threatening my kids that I'm going to make them read this one so that they understand the meaning of "hungry" and "no, we can't afford it"!