by Li Cunxin
Walker and Company
Mao’s Last Dancer drops us into Li Cunxin’s world, growing up in Communist China under the rule of Chairman Mao. Li’s family lives a peasant life, struggling to survive and battle starvation on a daily basis. One day is chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy and trains to become a ballet dancer. Li takes us through his struggles growing up in China and his travels to America, where he learns what it means to be free.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part, which seemed to be the longest and most difficult to get through, chronicles his daily life in their village. Li describes his family and how they live in a commune with his extended family. We learn about his school life and how much of it was devoted to learning the philosophies of Chairman Mao. Children were taught to love their great leader from the get go and anyone who dared defy his teachings was a traitor. Most of this section is devoted to describing his mother. His deep love and respect for his mother is evident in this first section.
Things start to pick up in the second part when Li is chosen to audition for the Beijing Dance Academy at the age of eleven. He has to leave his family and live at the school for 11 months out of the year, but he already understands that this is an opportunity that could allow him and his family an escape from their tough life. The curriculum at his school is more focused on indoctrinating the young ballet students rather than ballet technique, however their teachers still expected much of these young dancers from the get go. This lack care led to many injuries and a sense of fear that Li felt for most of his first few years. Despite these difficulties, Li becomes a wonderful ballet dancer and when Chairman Mao dies and more Western influences trickle into the ballet training, Li’s love of the art grows as well as his ability. With an opportunity to study in America, Li leaves for 6 weeks. It is here that he realizes that most of what he has learned about America is a lie. He begins to understand that in China he will never really be free like he can be in America and it is essential that he find a way to stay.
There is also a third part in which Li is in America and trying to defect from China. It is rather short and just wraps everything up neatly. It was more interesting than the other parts, but also only a few chapters.
I chose this book because it is about a dancer. Nonfiction books are not what I automatically go to—in fact I often shy away from them. I figured reading about dance would keep me more engaged since I have a dance background. It did, but it took a while to get to the part where I was interested. Although it was beneficial to see how Li’s ideas about Communism and his great leaders evolved and then later faded, I was still pushing myself to stay focused. There was plenty about his hard work and determination to make it as a dancer, but I was not drawn into this story as much as I had wanted to be.