Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mao's Last Dancer

For an insightful glimpse into Mao's China from the peasant point of view, read the 500 page Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin. It starts at the beginning, in rural China, with his beloved parents and six brothers in a poverty so abject they pass around the bowl to one another because though they're all starving, nobody wants to selfishly take the last bite. 

The book is simple and straighforward in its storytelling. You won't underline poetic passages or find a symphony of paragraphs that move you to self-harm with the quality of their orchestration. But if Li is not a writer, he certainly has a story worth telling.
At 11, he was plucked from his village by Madame Mao's cultural delegates and taken to Beijing to be stretched, pulled and formed into a dancer. The emotional punch comes not with the training he endured, the "self-criticisms" you have to write if you so much as want a candy in Mao's China, or the mental focus achieved with proverbs about mangos, but with his family back home. One of his brothers, it turns out, was given at birth to his aunt and uncle to be raised as their own. In China, a son was not only handy in the fields, but essential for family self-worth. That brother's anguished desire to be part of his birth family is heartwrenchingly refused.

When Cunxin goes home for a visit, he finds his "second brother" in existential crisis - forced to work as a futureless peasant for a pittance, pushed into an arranged marriage after begging his parents to let him marry the woman he loved. These two stories alone are affectingly touching, but in a more able writer's hand, they could have left you a weeping wet mess on the floor.

Years later in a cultural exchange, Li goes to Houston and immediately disbelieves all the notions of America and the wicked wealthy West as explained by God-like Chairman Mao. People are happy, friendly and he quickly defects. Li secretly marries and at when he tries to defect, the Chinese embassy in Houston traps and hides him. Who helps him out? BARBARA BUSH. I met someone who knew Barbara Bush and said beneath that innocuous granny facade stirs a viper as evil as the bubonic plague, but Babs loves her ballet and her clout helped him defect to the USA and Houston. I also got a new view of Houston, which before I cast off as solely a muggy metropolis with nothing to offer but the bayou, but - it's a bastion of ballet!

At the top of his game as an international ballet sensation, Li's finally allowed to return to China to visit his former teachers and family. He brings them all gifts, and later they visit him and his wife in the free west. All of that culture shock is fascinating, but more interesting is how he loves his mother so intensely he never stops to criticize or even question the culturally-fuelled wrongs she committed - against his second brother, in particular.

I also found it bizarre that in the USA, he married a ballerina whose parents really wanted a wedding in a Catholic church, so he, very easily, converts to Catholicism. After growing up and later rejecting what proved to be the epic lie of Mao = God, you would think he'd actually struggle with accepting a new dogma... only to satisfy another new (fickle) cultural mandate. He took such a giant leap, only to return to the choreography as directed.

His is an incredible story; Li himself has an astonishing memory, determination and strength of mind, but introspection and probing analysis inside his mind? That may be one combination Mao's Last Dancer can't land. 

1 comment:

Tony said...

Hey Jesse -

Thanks for your well-written review of what is clearly an intriguing book. Will your piece show up in print anywhere? The title of the book seems to be a reference to the opera "Nixon in China," which has a section called The Chairman Dances which has become a separate concert piece. Cool.