For this Freedom Friday I would like to review a book about one man's search for freedom. I received the autobiography as one of my Christmas gifts and found it very interesting. This international bestselling book as well as a major motion picture is based on the life story of Li Cunxin and his desire to live free. The name of the book is Mao's Last Dancer.
Li was a peasant in a village in northeast China and was part of a family where there was little food but much love. Li's mother and father taught their seven sons to be loyal and proud Chinese. The family was so poor that there was never enough food to give family members the feeling of fullness. Even though the compulsory age to start school was eight years old, Li started a year late because of lack of room for his age group in the village school. Mao's Little Red Book was one of the most important books used in his school, and the children were well indoctrinated in communism and forced to memorize words of Chairman Mao.
When Li was eleven years old, he was miraculously chosen to be one of Madame Mao's cultural delegates. He was taken from his rural home to Beijing to study ballet at Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. I wondered how any mother or father could send their eleven-year-old child off to a distant city, especially not knowing if or when they would be together again. Then I realized that Li's parents understood that this opportunity was Li's ticket out of poverty, and they made their sacrifices for the benefit of their child.
Li didn't do well at the academy during his first year because he was so homesick. He received nearly the lowest grades in his classes. When he returned to his village for three weeks to celebrate the Chinese New Year, his father encouraged him to do better. Li wanted his parents to be proud of him and gradually improved in his classes. At first he hated ballet but learned to love it as he became a better dancer. Li studied ballet at the academy for seven years before his life was truly changed by the visit of Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet. Stevenson was part of the first cultural delegation from America to visit communist China. He was there to teach two master classes at the academy. Li was selected as one of twenty students to attend Stevenson's classes.
Stevenson offered two scholarships to his annual summer school at the Houston Ballet Academy in Texas, and the academy chose Li as one of the two students. After obtaining passports and visas, the two students left for America for six weeks. The following paragraphs describe Li's first impression of America: "… As we flew over the American landscape I noticed how green it was and that it was neatly divided into squares by straight roads and streets. We saw many little square patches of blue too. Ben said they were swimming pools.… I could hardly believe there could be so many swimming pools in just one area. The contrast with the bareness of China was so amazing that I started to wonder once again about America's prosperity and the stories we'd been told.
"…When we passed downtown Houston and saw all the modern office buildings and the spectacular skyline I thought to myself, if Houston looks this prosperous, what would New York and Chicago be like? Nothing I had seen so far matched the dark, decaying, depressing picture of America that the Chinese government had painted in my mind. Instead I saw high-rise buildings, wide clean streets, a green and orderly environment. I knew our foreign hosts could maybe fake their behavior, but they simply couldn't have built these buildings just to impress us. I was confused. Someone had lied to us about America being the poorest nation in the world and China being the richest nation. It seemed to be the opposite. But still I was confident I would eventually find many things about America that I could hate" (pages 267-268).
Li was impressed with the beautiful homes, cars, the amount of food available, and the ease with which Stevenson purchased new ballet clothes and other things for the two young men. He met many important people including George and Barbara Bush. He was impressed with their generosity and friendliness but was still suspicious. He was also surprised that people kept dogs as pets because they would have been eaten in his village. Li was "constantly surprised by how much freedom the American people had" (page 277), especially the freedom to talk badly about the president or other government leaders.
Before their time in America expired, Stevenson took the two young men to Washington, D.C. and New York. They posed for pictures in front of the White House and were surprised at the "few guards standing by a small gate, looking rather relaxed. They even let us stand next to the fence to have our pictures taken." When taken to New York City to see the twin towers, the Empire State Building, the Status of Liberty, Central Park, etc., Li "was in awe of this hustling, bustling city. Everything surprised and impressed me - the gigantic buildings, the number of cars, the cleanliness compared to Beijing. But it was the little things that left deeper impressions on me." He was particularly impressed by an ATM "when twenty-dollar bills began spewing out" (page 279).
Li was invited to come back to work with the Houston Ballet for an entire year and was granted permission by the Chinese government. "The thought of being able to come back to America made me happy, but really it sounded completely unbelievable. I was so grateful to the Chinese government. I felt that they really cared for me. For me, a peasant boy. Communism truly was great" (pages 278-279).
Even though Li was trying to be a loyal communist, he was having doubts. "On the plane I thought of the possibility of returning to Houston in only two months' time. I thought of how I'd felt about America and its people before I came. I laughed when I remembered my initial suspicions.
"But most of all I thought of those dark, scary images of capitalist society and how they had now been replaced by an entirely different picture in my mind. China's most hated enemy and the system it represented had given me something that was my heart's desire. Now I was frightened. Now I was confused. What should I believe? What communism had taught me? What I'd seen and experienced? Why had Chairman Mao, Madame Mao and the Chinese government told its people all those lies about America? Why were we so poor in China? And why was America so prosperous?
"I kept resisting my doubts all the way home on the plane back to China…. I knew I had to believe what the Chinese government wanted me to believe, or at least I had to pretend to. All this made me even more afraid. I was never supposed to question my communist beliefs and I never, ever thought that I would….
"But still the doubts persisted. I had now tasted freedom, and I couldn't lie to myself about that" (pages 280-281).
The rest of the book tells about the positive changes made in China after the death of Chairman Mao but also about Li's return to America, his defection, his life as a loyal Chinese living in a land of freedom, and his visits back to China.
I highly recommend the book and hope to see the movie soon!
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