Book: Mao’s Last Dancer

Happy Easter, everyone!😀

At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…

Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s reforms from the perspective of one Shandong family.
528 pages, ★★★★★

I chose this book because I love reading about China’s tumultuous transition from a chaotic, agrarian backwater to the economic powerhouse that it is today. Rather than reading history books, which give you a top-down perspective, novels give you the perspective of one of millions of Chinese families—like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live (film), and Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans (review coming next).

Protagonist and author Li Cunxin was raised in the 1960s in Li Commune in the outskirts of Qingdao. Despite poverty, despite not liking dancing, and despite growing up in a country with a nationalised hatred for all things extravagant and Western—especially ballet, Li Cunxin was selected for world-class ballet training at Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing. This led to an international ballet career—and the fame, fortune and international travel that follows. All of this was unthinkable for most Chinese at the time.

China was full of contradictions under Mao’s rule (1949—1976). During the Cultural Revolution, officials issued “self-criticism” assignments to ballet students who indulged in such unnecessary extravagances as eating sweets. But why isn’t ballet itself considered extravagant and unnecessary? The “Criticise Confucius” political campaign included arguments such as, “Confucius was a feudalist whose theories described an ideal society for feudal leaders at the expense of the populace”. But during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t the Communist Party doing exactly the same thing to its own people? Irony was everywhere, and it propelled Li Cunxin to fame.

His first trip to Houston revealed the true extent of the lies he’d been told back in China. Americans were not poor and unhappy; nor did they all carry guns; nor did they “kill coloured people”, as his family and fellow villagers back in China had warned. In America, he discovered the combination of happiness and wealth 1960s China was craving so much—and he instantly fell in love with it. He even got married, albeit hastily, to the first Western girl that he kissed.

Li Cunxin’s journey represents the journey that China took as a nation. From the 1970s onwards, China became increasingly infatuated with the west, started enjoying some political freedom (communes were dissolved), promoted cultural exchange (intermarriage is on the increase), got richer, emigrated (many Chinese with the means to emigrate have already done so) and started sending money back home (Chinese companies are investing in large western companies—sometimes purchasing them outright). It’s not just millions of Chinese who are following in Li Cunxin’s footsteps, but China as a nation-state, too.

Li Cunxin’s autobiography isn’t just about one man’s lucky journey. It instead describes the tumultuous transition to modernity that millions of people—and China itself—took in the last 60 years. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Chinese historyrags-to-riches stories, economic developmentSlumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. :) ★★★★★

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