Mao's Last Dancer
By Li Cunxin
Whenever I read a book blurb that describes a book as "an extraordinary adventure," or a "captivating journey." I am immediately skeptical. These sorts of catch-all descriptions are so commonplace that they have become trite. They are simply rote platitudes used to get something (anything!) that someone (anyone!) said about the book on the front or back cover in an effort to move stock.
Of particular note is the word "captivating." In the world of literary review it has become the ubiquitous term for anyone determined to get their name on the jacket of a book. It has gotten so bad that I will not read a book if it has the word "captivating" anywhere on the cover (I'll excuse its use on the back, otherwise I'd never read any books at all). I have read enough crappy books deemed "captivating" I could fill a truck. Critics and reviewers have rendered the word entirely obsolete.
Mao's Last Dancer, is the autobiography of Chinese born ballet dancer Li Cunxin. The first half of the book chronicles his childhood living on a peasant commune in China during the reign of Chairman Mao. The story tells of how he was selected (quite possibly at random) at age eleven from a group of local students to study dance at Madame Mao's Arts Academy in Beijing. It recounts his gradual awakening into the world of dance and his indoctrination into the communist system. The second half of the book recounts events that lead to his defection to the west in 1981, his rise to the top of the world of dance and the fallout of the defection on him, his relationships and his family in China. It's a great book, no doubt. But more than anything, this book reaffirmed my faith in the word "captivating."
To me, a captivating book evokes a sleepless night, stealing seconds, not minutes, to read just a few more paragraphs, creating reasons to sit down in waiting areas in order to read a few pages, endangering my relationships with my wife and daughter, reading while walking and all sorts of other pathological behavior that I do not exhibit while reading other books. A captivating book denotes an almost hysterical compulsion to finish the book. It doesn't necessarily mean the book is good, it's just captivating. That describes Mao's Last Dancer perfectly. I desperately needed to know how things turned out. Whether he would ever see his niang and dia again. Whether he would be allowed back into China.
I admit it, I simply could not put this book down. Part of the reason is that Li Cunxin comes across as a genuine, humble man who truly loves his family and is devoted to his career. He seems like the sort of person you'd like to know and the book is written as if he's already met you and is telling you a story over dinner. His story has the ability to make you cry no matter how it is written, and it does, in many places. I admit it.
Also, it's unique. It's one thing to read about life in Maoist China, its another to read one person's account of life inside a commune during the Cultural Revolution. It is quite another to read an account of someone growing up under such oppressive conditions to become one of the world's most famous people in a particular discipline. When you get down to it, Li Cunxin's story is literally one in a billion. To escape Maoist China and become one of the world's great ballet dancers is a astounding. Following his story as he slowly discovered the truth about his own country is fascinating (and at times hilarious).
Don't get me wrong, it's not the best book ever written. I couldn't care less about ballet and I found that when his narrative shifted back to his dancing I couldn't read fast enough to get back to the interesting parts. While ballet is a necessary backdrop to the overall narrative, I think the majority of readers are invested in the story of his upbringing, training, initial impressions of the West and the defection. The consistent talk of his career seemed to betray the spirit of the book as a whole. It was never about the ballet. It was about perseverance and dedication and the ability to get out of an oppressive situation to allow a talent to flourish. I didn't much care whether he left the Houston dance company to join the Australian company. It's inconsequential to the main narrative. But what do I know? I'm an uncultured boor.
But regardless of your views on ballet, Mao's Last Dancer is the very definition of the word captivating. It's the sort of book whose unrelenting narrative begs you to read one more chapter before going to bed. Even if you, like me, don't know the different between ballet and the circus, I dare you to put this book down once you begin.
Or maybe, I dunno, maybe I'm just getting sentimental in my old age.
Note: The word "captivating" does not appear on the cover.
Other books about China:
A Traveler in China
Why China Will Never Rule The World