Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin was born in a remote province of China at a time when Mao was in his final years of power and the Cultural Revolution was in full flower. Li gives devastating descriptions of peasant life during that time. He, his parents, and six brothers lived in a single room concrete building without electricity or running water and a hole for a toilet. They struggled for food daily, and yet tried to keep the basic traditions of Chinese life, including honoring ancestors, celebrating the lunar new year, and family loyalty.

In school he was indoctrinated into being a dedicated Maoist and enemy of capitalist dogs. It was at this school, an hour away from the nearest railway station, that a group of officials entered and selected Li and a classmate to go to the principal’s office. There he was measured and stretched. It’s a sign of his later success that while other children screamed in pain he refused to make a noise, even though the stretches tore both hamstrings. After he passed several other examinations he was chosen to be a student at the Chinese Ballet in Beijing.

Li describes his school years far away from home, where he could barely understand students from other provinces. Madame Mao, an actress before she married Mao Zedong, wanted to create a unique type of ballet that would celebrate the revolutionary struggle and reflect the glory of Maoist China. It was after the death of Mao, and the arrest and prosecution of Madame Mao as one of the “Gang of Four”, that the teachers in the school were allowed to bring in tapes of true ballet done without PLA uniforms and fake rifles. The atmosphere at the school began to change.

Li’s falling in love with western ballet, his inspiration to be as great a dancer as Baryshnikov and Nureyev, and his personal drive make an inspiring story on their own. While other students would practice two or three times a day, Li pushed himself through five daily practice sessions, doing so many attempted pirouettes that he created a dent in the wooden rehearsal floor.

Eventually, under more lenient Chinese rule, he was allowed to travel to Houston to  study western dance. On a second year-long visa he fell in love with another dancer and decided to defect. There is a harrowing section describing his being kept prisoner at the Chinese embassy, an event that caused worldwide headlines, until the Chinese finally decided to release him with some pressure from former ambassador to China and Vice President George Bush.

It’s one of the most unintentionally inspiring memoirs I’ve read. Li was coaxed by loving parents, along with a few more lenient and supportive teachers, to eventually become one of the foremost dancers of his time. His own determination to perfect his art and the stories told by mentors to help him succeed were keys to his growth. He was eventually praised by his home country as an icon of Chinese dance and was allowed to bring his parents for visits and even to visit the country with his second wife.

It’s also an inspiring book for its descriptions of family life and the making of lifelong friendships. It is book I’d recommend to anyone interested in growing in the arts or any other career.