The author of Mao's Last Dancer, Li Cunxin, and I were born the same year, 1961, which gave me an immediate feeling of connection to him. But I soon learned that our birth year is about all we have in common. While I grew up cruising the neighborhood on my new Schwinn, his family of nine shared one used bike that cost them two months salary. While I was getting seconds of roast beef, his family was quibbling over who was going to eat the occasional pencil eraser sized meat on their table (along the lines of “no you eat it, I ate it last time.”) While I was learning to read Dick and Jane and being entertained by Walt Disney on Sunday nights, Cunxin was doing his mandatory reading of The Little Red Book and playing a nightly word finding game with his brothers using the newsprint wallpaper in their two room shack.
With this book Li Cunxin brought me right into his Chinese peasant life during the cultural revolution with a writing style that was a pleasure to read. But, you may be wondering, why “Last Dancer?” The author was chosen at the age of eleven to attend ballet school in Beijing. Though he didn't start out that way, he became a standout dancer. He changed in other ways too, especially after being sent to America for a few weeks to dance with the Houston Ballet. Although he grew up a devout communist he began to question the propaganda he had been fed his whole life about the west and America in particular.
This is a fascinating look at one man's struggle to reconcile two polarizing ideologies. Although I had no particular interest in ballet, I still enjoyed this book immensely, and have gained a better appreciation for this art form. This autobiography is incredibly insightful. I would recommend it to any adult.
Right after I finished Mao's Last Dancer I found a picture book by another Chinaman of the same era. Mao and Me is a collection of the childhood memories of the talented Chen Jiang Hong, who also illustrated this memoir. The art filled pages contain recollections children can relate to: favorite foods (dumplings), a pet cat, trips to the park, starting school, learning to ride a bike and playing with friends. But there are many uncomfortable and even frightening memories as well: having to burn family photos, food rationing, having his father sent away to reeducation camp and seeing fellow citizens publicly humiliated. In fact, reading about the fate of his lovely neighbor, Mrs. Liu, got to me like no other account in any children's book, or any book for that matter. I was shocked at my reaction. I yelped and cried and trembled all at once. It was a feeling of horror.
I wondered how a child would handle this story, so today I shared it with my ten year old. She was sad about the sad parts, but she wasn't overwrought. Even though I had been hesitant to introduce her to the scary realities of Mao's policies, it gave us a solid platform on which to discuss the ideological leanings of the world's leaders, both past and present.
I would sum this all up by saying that this is a cautionary tale for every culture and generation. Share it.
Activity: Let’s act like Mao. Make your own Little Red Book using these two pages. Put your picture and name on the cover and fill it up with your own thoughts, quotes and opinions. And then if you really want to be like Mao, print up about six billion copies, make it mandatory for every citizen to study it, destroy everything that does not jive with your philosophy and send anyone who disagrees with anything you wrote to reeducation camps.