Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Book Review: Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

Mao’s Last Dancer - Li Cunxin

Growing up in Qingdao, a poverty-stricken rural village in Northeast China, Li Cunxin’s life is already mapped out for him. Only divine intervention will prevent him from doing anything more than work in the fields for the Chinese government, just like his father does, seven days a week.
Even with his father constantly working, Cunxin, his parents and his six brothers barely have enough to eat, and share two beds amongst them. The only enjoyment in their lives comes from telling fables and folk stories, catching crickets, playing marbles, and pretending to be kung fu masters.
Despite his reverence for Chairman Mao, the communist leader whose every word is sacred and filled with promises for a better China, Cunxin can’t help but dream of a better life where his family can prosper and his beloved mother can have enough food to eat.
At age eleven, Cunxin’s life changes dramatically, when Madame Mao’s cultural delegates visit his school to select young peasants to train in ballet. It is hoped that the students will become faithful guards to the communist leader’s aspirations for a better China, and help to bridge the cultural gap in a country that is determined to avoid capitalist ideals at all costs.
Li Cunxin is one of the students chosen, an honour that sees him leave his hometown, family and friends and move to the dauntingly large city of Beijing.
In the years that follow, Cunxin learns to push his body to the limits, dances for international ballet companies and befriends the American president and first lady. This is his remarkable and challenging story.

What I gained from reading this book:
This novel provides a fascinating insight into the world of communist China during Chairman Mao’s ruling, and the views that were once held regarding countries like America and Britain. It is also interesting to see how Li Cunxin’s life was shaped by communist propaganda and how he was able to form his own perceptions about Western countries, having actually visited them and learnt about the people living there.
The most important thing to note about this book, however, is Li Cunxin’s strong sense of nationalistic pride. Despite some of the problems that he had with the Chinese government, Cunxin was still determined to represent his country and make his family proud. It is this on-going determination that makes Cunxin’s biography so interesting to read.

Cunxin doesn’t shy away from telling the story as he remembers it- he recounts watching the execution of men accused of being too wealthy when he was a boy, and tells of the squalid conditions that he faced while living in his village. He also points out the vast differences in the wealth of the Western world, in comparison to the poverty of the world that he grew up in, and raises questions about why such poverty exists.

Some people may wonder how Cunxin and the other Chinese people could be so brainwashed by the communist propaganda spouted over the years but as you read the novel you can understand the reasons why. The Chinese people didn’t really have much of a choice if they didn’t want to face accusations of treason or be executed. Chairman Mao’s propaganda was also spread through his Red Book that everyone was supposed to own and study, and his values were among the first things taught at school. So it is through no fault of their own that the Chinese believed almost everything that they were taught about Chairman Mao and his ideals.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Genre: Biography

Recommended for: People interested in a young boy’s journey from poverty to international stardom

Australians can buy the book by clicking the picture below:

Mao's Last Dancer

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