Cannonball 38: Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

Mao's Last DancerMao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fact: I’m actually North Korean. My parents lived most of their lives in the South, but both of them originally hail from the North.

When we were kids, my dad would occasionally gather us all ’round the table and tell us tales of North Korea. He would tell us about how his family struggled to survive during the war, and how Communism had ruined the country so that everyone was poor. Families only got a small ration of beef every year, that they would boil over and over again in order to make it last. He would tell us harrowing tales of poverty and oppression.

Then, I grew up and studied the Korean War and realized that my dad wasn’t even in North Korea at that time. In fact, he was only an infant when his parents fled — before the DMZ was set up.

As a result, I grew callous to the suffering of people in Communist countries. In the back of my mind, I always just kind of thought that these tales of poverty were just over-exaggerated by people like my dad who wanted to scare their kids into behaving and being grateful.

But reading Li Cunxin’s autobiography set me straight. In a nutshell: Communism sucks.

Li grew up in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. His family did okay for themselves, and he loved both his mother (niang in Chinese) and his father (dia in Chinese) dearly. He particularly loved his mother and craved more time with her. But, as the sixth of seven sons, he didn’t get much.

He describes his parents’ sacrifices for their survival, and how they worked hard to keep everyone alive. The family, as well as everyone else in the area, survived on a meager diet of dried yams and the occasional protein.

Li’s life changed forever when he was selected to go to Beijing to become a dancer in Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was only eleven years old, and leaving his beloved niang was tortuous. But he knew that he had to do this for the family’s honor.

Li excelled as a dancer under the careful tutelage of many teachers. As he continued to excel, he was offered an opportunity to visit America.

One visit to America was all it took to shatter years of Communist propaganda. When he saw the freedom that the Americans had, he knew that he could never be content living in China again. Li eventually defected to the United States and became a principle dancer for the Houston Ballet.

Oh, and there’s plenty of ballet-stuff in the book, too. As an unashamed owner of Center Stage on DVD, that was super-fun to read.

Chengwu Guo plays Li Cunxin as a teenager in the film version of the book.

Li’s life is an amazing tale of courage and determination. But the parts that resonated most with me were his accounts of his family life. In Communist China, all the Li family had was each other. Their love and devotion to one another helped them to survive conditions that I can’t even imagine. Even after defecting, Li couldn’t be truly happy until he knew that his family was safe.

The writing’s a little clunky, but this isn’t a book written for the sake of literature. It’s the tale of a man, his victory over oppression and poverty, and how his family’s love for him made that all possible.

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1 Comment »

  1. [...] the title of the book. It led me to believe that there would be more about dance in it, like in Mao’s Last Dancer. But there was no mention of dance until well into the second half of the book, and it was only a [...]


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