In Mao’s Last Dancer Li Cunxin tells us the story of his life in China under the Communist regime of Chairman Mao. At a young age he is taken from his poor village and relocated to Beijing in order to study ballet as part of the Mao Cultural Revolution. As part of a cultural exchange trip, Li visits America in the late 1970s and begins to realise that the anti-American propaganda fed to them by the Chinese Communist Party may not in fact be true. He eventually defects to America – although not without drama – and later moves to and settles in Australia.
Much like Forty Autumns, one of the things that I think makes this a must-read is the fact that we don’t really know what life was like under these cruel regimes until you hear about it from a person who lived through it. We all know about these periods in history, and often study them in school, but you never really comprehend how it was until you read books like this one.
One of the themes that really struck a chord with me in this book was the struggle between individuality and conformity that Li experiences throughout his life. Often times, these struggles are illustrated through confronting scenes that Li witnesses, such as the public executions of counter–revolutionaries by firing squad. The turning point for Li is when he is initially denied permission to return to America to further improve his ballet training. He says “My beliefs were now completely altered after my experience with the ministry of culture and after having time to think about what I had seen in the West. Now I knew with absolute certainty, that I had been manipulated by Chairman Mao’s communist propaganda for many years.”
Having visited China myself, this book has had a particular impact on me. Even though things in China have vastly improved since Chairman Mao’s reign, there is still an element of terror, control and conformity imposed by the current Chinese Communist Party leaders. For example, when we visited Tiananmen Square, we were told not to mention anything about the 1989 Massacre when we were in the square because the government has cameras and microphones installed in order to deter any potential repeat of 1989. We were also told that if we mentioned it and were caught, we would likely be arrested, as the Chinese government still publicly maintain that the 1989 massacre never happened.
The book is emotional, heart-breaking, eye opening and inspiring. To have lived the life Li has, and to have ended up where he did is absolutely astounding. There were many times through my reading of the book where I got so angry at the treatment of the Chinese people by their leaders, and many more where I got goose bumps. This is one of the most evocative books I have ever read.