In a compelling memori of life in Maoist China, the acclaimed dancer describes how he was swept from his poverty-stricken family in rural China to study ballet with the Peking Dance Academy, his rise to success in the world of Chinese ballet, his dramatic defection at age eighteen in the United States, and his new life in the West.
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Li Cunxin was born in a small village near the city of Qingdao, in northern China. At eighteen, he was selected to perform at the Houston Ballet, which led to a dramatic defection to the United States. He has performed as a soloist with the Houston Ballet and as a principal artist with the Australian Ballet.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
Table of Contents
PART ONE - MY CHILDHOOD
Chapter 1 - HOME
Chapter 2 - MY NIANG AND DIA
Chapter 3 - A COMMUNE CHILDHOOD
Chapter 4 - THE SEVEN OF US
Chapter 5 - NA-NA
Chapter 6 - CHAIRMAN MAO’S CLASSROOM
Chapter 7 - LEAVING HOME
PART TWO - BEIJING
Chapter 8 - FEATHER IN A WHIRLWIND
Chapter 9 - THE CAGED BIRD
Chapter 10 - THAT FIRST LONELY YEAR
Chapter 11 - THE PEN
Chapter 12 - MY OWN VOICE
Chapter 13 - TEACHER XIAO’S WORDS
Chapter 14 - TURNING POINTS
Chapter 15 - THE MANGO
Chapter 16 - CHANGE
Chapter 17 - ON THE WAY TO THE WEST
Chapter 18 - THE FILTHY CAPITALIST AMERICA
Chapter 19 - GOOD-BYE, CHINA
PART THREE - THE WEST
Chapter 20 - RETURN TO THE LAND OF FREEDOM
Chapter 21 - ELIZABETH
Chapter 22 - DEFECTION
Chapter 23 - MY NEW LIFE
Chapter 24 - A MILLET DREAM COME TRUE
Chapter 25 - NO MORE NIGHTMARES
Chapter 26 - RUSSIA
Chapter 27 - MARY
Chapter 28 - GOING HOME
Chapter 29 - BACK IN MY VILLAGE
Chapter 30 - ANOTHER WEDDING
AFTERWORD TO THE ORIGINAL EDITION
PART FOUR - MY STORY CONTINUES
Chapter 31 - KEEPING HEARTS WARM
Chapter 32 - “NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE”
Chapter 33 - PAPER WISHES
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
“Li’s well-paced account of the ensuing cloak-and-dagger episodes that lead to his defection to the West adds suspense to a tale already full of adventures, but there are no conventional bad guys to be found in it. Indeed, he writes with fine compassion for the Chinese consul who attempts to dissuade him from becoming an outcast: ‘unlike me, he had to go back and would probably never manage to get out again.’ Nicely written and humane: for anyone interested in modern Chinese history or for fans of dance.”
“Honest and refreshing.”
—Adeline Yen Mah,
author of Falling Leaves
“A moving, true story of family love and a boy’s great courage on his journey from terrible poverty to the world stage—one of the books of the year.”
—Women’s Weekly (Australia)
“It is in large part this book’s resemblance to good fiction that renders it so readable. The scene in the Chinese consulate after Cunxin defects is fraught with real menace, charged with potential for violence and even international incident, and could hardly be better described . . . a crackling yarn.”
—The Sunday Independent (Ireland)
“Li Cunxin has written a remarkable book about his own remarkable journey. It is really about the nature of family love, courage, and obsession. Mao’s Last Dancer is told with simplicity, but Li’s style is deceptive. It takes skill to write simply, just as it takes years of backbreaking work to make ballet look elegant and effortless.”
—The Sydney Morning Herald
—The Sunday Telegraph (London)
“His autobiography traces profound political change, from the disastrous results of Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s to China’s gradual opening after 1978, under new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.” —Gold Coast Bulletin (Australia)
“Anything but boring.”
“Mao’s Last Dancer is not a typical dancer’s story. Yes, Li triumphs over physical pain. More important, he illustrates the sustaining power of deep cultural roots and enduring familial love. Evoking a vivid sense of life’s evolution in communist China and the stark contrast of Western society, he also crosses chasms of the heart. And while Mao’s Last Dancer is not a self-improvement book, Li’s courage and perseverance ultimately make his story more inspiring than a dozen tomes by the likes of Dr. Phil.”
“His story will appeal to an audience beyond Sinophiles and ballet aficionados.”
“He is an expert storyteller, and his memoir—which includes his struggles to perfect his art in the tense political framework, the complex events surrounding his defection, and the heart-breaks and joys of his professional and personal lives—makes for fascinating reading. The portions dealing with his childhood and loving family in Qingdao are especially poignant, and the work as a whole unfolds with honesty, humor, and a quiet dignity. This book has wide appeal, for it concerns not only a dancer’s coming-of-age in a turbulent time but also individual strength, self-discovery, and the triumph of the human spirit.”
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Readers Guide copyright © 2010 Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Quotations in chapters 6 and 7 are from the songs “I Love Beijing Tiananmen” and “We Love Chairman Mao” (author’s own translation).
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Li, Cunxin, date.
Mao’s last dancer / Li Cunxin.
1. Li, Cunxin, date. 2. Ballet dancers—China—Biography.
3. Defectors—China—Biography. I. Title.
To the two special women
in my life—my mother and my wife
On the day of her marriage, a young girl sits alone in her village home. It is autumn, a beautiful October morning. The country air is cool but fresh.
The young girl hears happy music approaching her house. She is only eighteen, and she is nervous, frightened. She knows that many marriage introducers simply take money and tell lies. Some women from her village marry men who don’t have all their functional body parts. Those women have to spend the rest of their lives looking after their husbands. Wife beating is common. Divorce is out of the question. Divorced women are humiliated, despised, suffering worse than an animal’s fate. She knows some women hang themselves instead, and she prays this is not going to be her fate.
She prays to a kind and merciful god that her future husband will have two legs, two arms, two eyes and two ears. She prays that his body parts are normal and functional. She worries that he will not be kindhearted and will not like her. But most of all she worries about her unbound feet. Bound feet are still in fashion. Little girls as young as five or six have to tuck four toes under the big toe and squeeze them hard to stop the growth. It is extremely painful, and the girls have to change the cloth bandages and wash their feet daily to avoid infection. The tighter the feet are bound the smaller the feet will become. Eventually all five toes grow together. Infections often occur, and the girls are so crippled they have to walk mostly on their heels. But when this bride was about eight and her mother tried to bind her feet, two or three years later than was usual, she defied her and ran away. Her mother eventually gave up, but secretly she was pleased. A daughter with unbound feet could help do the hard chores. But would her future husband and in-laws think the same?
The groom is a young man of twenty-one. He leaves home before sunrise. Sixteen strong men are hired to carry two sedan chairs for the three-hour journey from his village to the bride’s. There are trumpets, cymbals, gongs and bamboo flutes, and the bride’s sedan chair is covered with red and pink silk banners and flowers. The groom’s is a simple blue sedan chair, which will leave from the east side of the village and reenter from the west.
As soon as the groom’s entourage leaves home, the women of his family start to prepare the house and the wedding feast to follow. They glue colored-paper cuttings all over the walls, doors and windows—different shapes, with lucky words on them, to symbolize happiness and good fortune. They place a square table in the center of their courtyard and cover it with a red cloth. In the center they place nine huge bread rolls, called mantos, in the shape of a pagoda. There is also a metal bowl, with candlesticks and incense holders on either side. On the ground are two round bamboo mats.
The bride is in such a panicked state by the time her groom arrives. He wears a dark blue cotton mandarin gown and a big tall hat, with silk flowers pinned over his heart. He kneels, and kowtows three times, bowing his head all the way down to the floor, always facing north, always in the direction of the god of happiness.
Tea, sweets, roasted sunflower seeds and peanuts are then served. A lunch feast follows, but the cost of the meal will break the bride’s family finances. Many relatives and friends chip in to help, but the favors and debts will have to be repaid in years to come. The groom’s entourage has to be satisfied, however. The meal will affect her new family’s attitude toward her. It will determine whether she will have a smooth or bumpy ride on the way to her in-laws’ house. The young bride remembers that a friend of her mother’s was married a year before—at her wedding, the musicians played funeral music and the carriers walked her around in circles, making her dizzy and sick. Even worse, the carriers lowered her sedan chair to the ground, which is very unlucky: that bride would end up with a life of hard work instead of a life of luxury. All this was caused by the in-laws’ dissatisfaction with the food that was served at her house.
While the groom’s people drink their wine and eat their food, the bride sits on her bed, her kang, away from everyone, with her silk veil concealing her face. This is called the “quiet sitting.” She wears a long dark maroon gown, with pink silk flowers sewn onto it. Her hairpiece is full of beautiful colored hairpins and flowers, and is very heavy. She has no jewelery because her family is too poor.
Soon, her second brother secretly whispers to her through a crack in the door, “My brother-in-law has all his moving parts!” This is news from heaven. The young bride sobs with joy.
Toward the end of the meal, the bride’s mother brings her a bowl of rice, a double-sided mirror and ten pairs of red chopsticks. The bride has to eat three mouthfuls of rice, and the last mouthful she spits into her mother’s pocket. She has to keep some rice in her mouth to last all the way to her in-laws’ house before she can swallow, symbolizing that she will never starve along the entire journey of her life. Then she puts eight pairs of chopsticks into her mother’s pocket. The remaining two pairs she keeps, the ones with chestnuts and dates tied on them, symbolizing the early arrival of sons.
The bride cannot stop shaking. Tears stream from her eyes as she spits the rice into the pocket. Soon she will become someone’s wife and another family’s daughter-in-law. She grabs her mother’s hand, as if clutching onto a life-saving straw.
“You silly girl,” her mother says to her. “Don’t cry! You’re going to a family with enough food. Do you want to be poor for the rest of your life?” She takes out her handkerchief and gently wipes her daughter’s tears and hugs her long and tight for the last time. “My girl, I’ll always miss you and love you. Take good care of your husband and he’ll take good care of you. Obey him and make him happy. Bear many of his sons. Look after your mother-in-law like you’ve looked after me. Be kind to her until she dies.” She lowers the veil over her daughter’s face, and leaves, feeling nothing but pain.
The bride sobs quietly for the first half of her journey to the groom’s village. She has never left home before. She is terrified. At the halfway point one of the carriers shouts, “Halfway point, flip your mirror!” So she takes the mirror she’s been given and flips it over: now she should forget her past and look forward to the future. Then she is met by a group of four carriers from the groom’s village, to make the changeover. She doesn’t touch the ground. The musicians continue their happy wedding tunes, and the carriers walk carefully along the uneven dirt road.
When she arrives at the groom’s gate, the metal bowl on the table is already flaming with fire. The candle and incense are lit. The groom gets out of his sedan chair and waits for his bride, her face still concealed by her thick silk veil as she is assisted out of her sedan chair by two of his sisters. They walk together toward the table while a local wise man reads loudly an ancient poem. Few people understand it because few of them have ever gone to school, but the bride and groom kneel on the two round bamboo mats while they listen, and afterwards kowtow. The groom then takes his new bride’s hands and helps her up. She cannot see the flames from the bowl on the table, but she can feel the intense heat. This fire is the fire of passion, the fire of love.
Before the bride takes her first step with her husband, the groom’s fourth brother gently brushes the soles of the bride’s shoes with a time-worn iron filled with burning coals, to give her warmth from the end of her body right up to her...
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