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November 01, 2017 Wednesday 03:53:00 PM IST

Mao’s Last Dancer

Expert Counsel

How was it like growing up in China during the 1960s and 1970s Very little was known to the outside world about what took place in the vast Middle Kingdom, ruled by the Communist Party since 1949, except what was communicated through official communiqués. The various experiments in Communist practices and social engineering, conducted by Chairman Mao Zedong on the vast Chinese population, came to the knowledge of the outside world only much later. It is presently known that an experiment called the “Great Leap Forward” had resulted in severe famine resulting in the deaths of millions of people in the Chinese countryside. Similarly, Mao’s “Great Cultural Revolution” created massive chaos and mayhem in Chinese society and brought the country to the brink of complete anarchy.


Very little material is available on how life went on in rural China during this period and the impact Mao’s policies and measures had on the rural poor.


It was left to a non-historian and non-academic, one who came through the system from the lowest strata of Chinese society to pen his memoirs on the subject. Li Cunxin was the sixth of the seven children born in a poor rural household in the province of Shandong. His father was a labourer and his mother a homemaker. He was born in 1961 and started his schooling at a local school at the age of 9. When he was 11 years old a team came for selecting students for training at the Dance Academy of Mme Mao (Jiang Jing). He was initially overlooked but was chosen for selection trials following the recommendation of a teacher. He cleared all the tests, including the final selection at the provincial capital of Qingdao, and secured admission to the academy.


He has described his journey to Beijing in great detail. This was the first time he was travelling by train and staying away from his family. The sights of Beijing mesmerised him but he was overcome by homesickness and thoughts about his family. He could not eat the good food served for students as he kept thinking about the measly portions of ordinary fare that his parents and siblings would be having at home. These anxieties affected his performance in the academy and he barely managed to pass the exams at the end of the first year. On his first vacation home after completing one year in the academy he talked about his difficulties and worries to his elder brother who, however, told him that he did not know how fortunate he was at being provided with an opportunity to escape from the life of poverty that he was born into.


Li also found how happy and proud his parents were to see him being provided with an avenue for leading a better life in Beijing, far removed from the conditions in which they lived. At the end of his vacation his father presented him with a pen and told him never to do anything that would bring down the prestige of Li family.


The words of his father and brother made an enormous impact on Li. He started taking his classes seriously and increased his hours of practice. His hard work and commitment caught the eye of a teacher in the academy, referred to as “Teacher Xiao.” Xiao was different from the other teachers in the academy and he found a spark in Li, which he encouraged. Under Xiao’s guidance, Li put in long hours of practice, literally burning the midnight oil in the dance studio. He rose to become the top performer in the academy and played the lead roles in all their productions. He topped his class showcasing six solo performances in his final exams when other students could only do two or three!


Simultaneously with this, Li rose in the Communist party hierarchy within the academy and was awarded the coveted party membership in 1976. He has written that he grew up believing that Chairman Mao was the person who saved China and Chinese people from being destroyed by their enemies and Communism was the only way forward for his country.


Changes started taking place in China after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. Good fortune came Li’s way when he was selected as one of the 20 students chosen for attending the classes being taken in Beijing Dance Academy by Ben Stevenson of Houston Ballet Company. At the end of his teaching schedule Ben offered scholarships to two students selected by the academy for attending special summer classes at Houston. Li was one of the two students so chosen to go to Houston.


He had detailed the advice he got from various quarters before embarking on this journey, all based on the premise that USA was a land of violent and dangerous people!


The visit to Houston and his experiences there made a lasting impact on Li. He understood the falsity of propaganda of Mao and Mme Mao about USA being a poor country when in reality it was China which was actually   impoverished. He felt and enjoyed the freedom and liberty available in a democratic society and its effects on a population which was free to criticise its leaders. All this caused a rethink in him about the correctness of his beliefs regarding Communism and the policies and programmes of the Communist Party of China.


After his return to China at the end of the summer training, Li was offered a place to work in Houston Ballet Company for one year as a full-time performer. The Chinese Government did not grant him permission initially holding the view that he would be corrupted by the ways of life in the western world. However, through sheer perseverance backed by some good luck, Li was able to get the original decision reversed. During this second innings in Houston, he fell in love with Elizabeth Hackey, a fellow dancer and the two got married a day before his tenure in USA ended. The Chinese Consulate pressurised him to leave his wife and go back to his homeland, but Li resisted this attempt successfully. Stung by his approach, Beijing revoked his citizenship and labelled him a defector.


Li rose up in the ranks of Houston Ballet Company winning awards and accolades. Finally, his stature as a world-renowned dancer and the influence of George Bush Sr, then Vice President of USA and a close friend of Ben Stevenson, worked to bring about a change in the attitude of the Chinese government and Li’s parents were permitted to visit him in USA and watch his performance. He was also granted permission to visit China.


Li’s marriage to Elizabeth ended  in an early divorce. Subsequently he married Mary McKendry, an Australian ballerina, and the couple has three children. They decided to move to Australia and their farewell performance, Romeo and Juliet, was watched by five million viewers.


This book is remarkable for two reasons. The first is that it provides a fascinating insight into life in rural China during the Maoist years. The candidness with which Li describes life in the village and happenings in his family, as seen through the eyes of a small child, is very refreshing.


Li Cunxin, by dint of his hard work and commitment reached levels of greatness in his chosen profession.


The autobiography of Li Cunxin, Mao’s Last Dancer, should be read not only by people interested in understanding life in rural China during the Maoist years but also by all youngsters striving for excellence in life.

Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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