Table of Contents
- A Wedding, Qiangdao 1946
- Chapter 1: Home
- Chapter 2: My Niang and Dia
- Chapter 3: A Commune Childhood
- Chapter 4: The Seven of Us
- Chapter 5: Na-Na
- Chapter 6: Chairman Mao’s Classroom
- Chapter 7: Leaving Home
- Chapter 8: Feather in a Whirlwind
- Chapter 9: The Caged Bird
- Chapter 10: That First Lonely Year
- Chapter 11: The Pen
- Chapter 12: My Own Voice
- Chapter 13: Teacher Xiao’s Words
- Chapter 14: Turning Points
- Chapter 15: The Mango
- Chapter 16: Change
- Chapter 17: On the Way to the West
- Chapter 18: The Filthy Capitalist America
- Chapter 19: Goodbye China
- Chapter 20: Return to the Land of Freedom
- Chapter 21: Elizabeth
- Chapter 22: Defection
- Chapter 23: My New Life
- Chapter 24: A Millet Dream Come True
- Chapter 25: No More Nightmares
- Chapter 26: Russia
- Chapter 27: Mary
- Chapter 28: Going Home
- Chapter 29: Back in My Village
- Chapter 30: Another Wedding, Qingdao 1988
A Wedding, Qiangdao 1946
The opening chapter serves as a prologue to the rest of the book. Li recounts the marriage of his parents. Through his evocatively crafted account of the complex and ancient wedding rituals his parents perform, Li establishes a context for mid-century Qiangdao. It is a world characterised by poverty and often repressive traditional attitudes (divorced women are “despised” and foot-binding still commonly practiced). The impression is of a place where ancient and elaborate traditions still exist, and there is no hint of the seismic changes which would be released from the 1960s in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Li writes that his parents were exceptionally lucky, finding themselves compatible despite being the products of an arranged marriage.
- “Don’t look back. It’s only starvation and a hard life here.” (xv)
Li’s grandmother captures the heartbreaking reality of poverty. She loves her daughter and is sad to see her leave, but must seize any possibility of allowing her to enjoy a better life than currently awaits her.
Chapter 1: Home
Li recounts his early childhood, describing in detail the abject poverty of the New Village his family grew up in. Li depicts a life of constant work, of the men labouring in the fields and the women labouring in the house. The women often prove creative, innovative chefs, as they are forced to find new ways of making meagre food rations last. Death stalks the household, with both Li and his brother Cunsang surviving near-fatal accidents in their infancy. Electricity and running water are non-existent. For all this deprivation, Li writes of a mostly happy and loving household, where children were taught to behave with decency and pride.
- “Nearly thirty million people died. And my parents, like everyone else, were desperately fighting for survival.” (9)
Li moves from the personal, insular account of a family’s experience, linking it to the broader historical context of Mao’s disastrous attempt at modernising the Chinese economy, known as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960). Throughout the text Li balances his personal story against the historical currents which in part directed it.
- “Dried yams were bad, but there were others in the commune that could not even afford dried yams.” (13)
One of the endearing qualities of Mao’s Last Dancer, on display here, is Li Cunxin’s characteristic large-heartedness, as he details what is to many Western readers a shocking account of poverty but then immediately acknowledges his own comparative good fortune.
- “But despite our poverty, our parents always taught us to have dignity, honesty and pride.” (17)
Li emphasises the fact that deprivation was not allowed to rob his family of key values, suggesting a sort of moral strength in the face of adversity.
Chapter 2: My Niang and Dia
Li Cunxin recounts the relationship between his mother and father. Given the nature of their lives, these recollections mostly centre on work and labour. Cunxin’s deep love for his parents is palpable, and his account of the one time they fought is presented as a deeply distressing moment in the history of the family.
- “Do you think Chairman Mao’s words will fill our stomachs?” (25)
The Red Guards were primarily university-educated paramilitary radicals of a very different class to the rural peasantry and labouring classes. In this exchange, played partly for comedy, Li highlights the gap in experiences between the earnest revolutionaries and his mother, who is interested in Maoism but primarily invested in keeping her family alive. The Red Guards cannot understand why Li’s niang is struggling to find time to devote to learning to read.
- “My earlier fears were correct: I was too small to be of much help.” (26)
This episode demonstrates Li’s constant desire to help his famil, and fear of doing wrong by them.
Chapter 3: A Commune Childhood
In this chapter Li Cunxin continues to recall elements of his childhood. He describes the worsening food situation, although he also documents the importance of celebrating New Year, when even the poorest families would splurge. This chapter also introduces the parable of the frog in the well – a variation of an old parable which has different interpretations.
- “Any family doing this would be regarded as counter-revolutionary and there were heavy penalties, including jail.” (47)
As part of the Cultural Revolution, anything connected to pre-revolutionary Chinese culture or politics was forcibly eradicated by Mao’s regime, primarily at the hands of the Red Guards. This quote suggests that Li’s family still clung to old ways and customs, even if they could not publicly practice them.
- “We were all trapped in a well too, and there was no way out.” (54)
This quote reflects the important theme of liberty in Mao’s Last Dancer. The parable of the frog in the well, as interpreted by Li’s father, describes a number of types of freedom and entrapment. It primarily reflects the crushing weight of poverty, which traps the Li’s in a cycle of work and suffering. However, it also connects to the idea of knowledge of the outside world, reflecting the strict control of access to knowledge which characterised many of Mao’s policies.
Chapter 4: The Seven of Us
As Li grows older, the tone of Mao’s Last Dancer undergoes a shift. Chapter 4 begins with various tales of childhood games. However, it then turns to recount the intrusion of the Cultural Revolution into the Li commune. Li describes the parading of “counter-revolutionaries” – in reality, anyone who was seen as posing any sort of threat to Maoism – and, horrifically, the execution of several men. Li notes that it was a period of confusion; the government consisted of various factions, and even Mao’s Red Guards consisted of various rival movements. In the New Village, there was often only a hazy understanding of the wider political situation. Before he turned ten, Li Cunxin had seen 15 people executed in front of him.
- “Communism was to be our only faith.” (66)
In the early chapters of the book Li recounts the complex and ancient beliefs systems of pre-Revolutionary China, focusing especially on the importance of ancestor-worship. These beliefs now become targets, reflecting the theme of authoritarianism in the memoir. Authoritarian governments cannot tolerate any spiritual or intellectual deviance, let alone dissent.
- “It haunted me in many of my dreams.” (69)
Li Cunxin’s childhood, although desperately tough, has so far also had many positive elements. In this quote, we first see evidence of the trauma sustained from his experiences.
Chapter 5: Na-Na
Chapter 5 is named Na-Na, but is primarily concerned with the death of Li’s grandmother. It recounts a transition moment in the Communist Party’s attitude towards traditional burial practices. While the Li family struggle to find any official who will grant them permission to give Na-Na a traditional burial, they are also not explicitly told not to. They give Li’s Na-Na the traditional burial she had wanted, although it is the last one to occur in the village. After that, it became official policy that the dead be cremated. The death of Na-Na almost comes to symbolise the near-death of traditional burial practices.
- “Everything changed under Mao.” (70)
Hugely culturally significant burial practices come under threat during the Cultural Revolution. Party control extends from life into death.
Chapter 6: Chairman Mao’s Classroom
Li begins school. As with every other facet of life in China in the 60s and early 70s – indeed, even more so – education is saturated with Maoist thought and propaganda. The first words Li is taught to write are slogans praising the Chairman. Li is not an especially academic student, but relishes physical education and sport. Combined with his discovery of ballet and Beijing opera through propaganda films, this provides the first inkling of his later career. Meanwhile, through discovering the remains of a foreign novel translated into Chinese, he develops a “seed” of curiosity about America and the West.
- “I wished for wings so I too could fly out of this harsh life.” (88)
Li consistently reaches for birds for his metaphors of freedom and liberation.
- “Over time, with people scribbling over each other’s writing, all the words became muddled.” (99)
The image of sloganeering taking on a mind of its own and quickly becoming confused, even inadvertently “counter-revolutionary,” serves as a metaphor for the inherent mindlessness of propaganda and authoritarian thought.
- “It was the commune fields for me.” (103)
Recounting his fantasies about opera and ballet, Li foreshadows his future career.
Chapter 7: Leaving Home
Li Cunxin discovers he has been selected to train at the Beijing Dance Academy. This is considered a great honour to the Li family and to their village, and also has the more practical advantage of removing one hungry mouth from the family dinner table. Li is excited to leave, and narrativizes this new phase of his life in reference to the allegory of the well which first appeared in Chapter 3. However, leaving his family is also a deeply traumatic and painful event.
- “But somewhere deep in my heart there is a buried seed, a seed of hope.” (120)
Li draws on the metaphor of a “seed of hope,” a familiar cliché given a certain poignancy and currency considering his agricultural background, to express his hope of escaping poverty.
Chapter 8: Feather in a Whirlwind
“Feather in a Whirlwind” describes the first few days of Li’s new life at the Academy. It is a confronting mixture of luxury and agony. Li is stunned by the quality and quantity of food available for him, finds the ballet classes intensely painful and some of his teachers outright sadistic. These first nights are characterised by profound loneliness, anxiety, and confusion at the apparently completely alien world of the ballet.
- “There was no fun in this place, I thought. Only rules.” (137)
In one sense Li is free – he is making his way out of that well his father told him about. On the other hand, it is beginning to dawn on him how little freedom and choice he will have as an agent of Mao’s state.
Chapter 9: The Caged Bird
Life at the Academy in Beijing continues. Li makes a new friend, Zhang Xiaojia. Li is overawed by the historical sites the students are taken to on weekends. Chapter 9 documents the process of self-criticism students are made to undertake for misdemeanours. Li also describes how insular the world of the academy is, with virtually no books or magazines and none at all which are not at least partially propagandistic – with the exception of the Reference Paper.
- “After all, I’d only read some sports and international news.” (153)
Access to information in the Academy is so tightly regulated that even a few snippets of international news is considered a threat, demonstrating the lack of intellectual freedom in the Academy.
Chapter 10: That First Lonely Year
Li recounts the first year in the Academy. Highlights include daytrips, spending a few weeks doing agricultural work, the occasional film, and good food. Lowlights include dysfunctional toilets, gruelling work, and the absurdity of Madame Mao’s notions about dance. At the end of that first year Li is convinced that he has failed.
- “In realty, it was political ideology gone mad.” (159)
In an almost comic scene Li describes his teachers having to conform to Madame Mao’s absurd notions of how to combine traditional French and Chinese dance styles which are in reality incompatible. It serves as a neat summation of the extent to which politics trumps art in the Academy.
- “It was too much for an eleven-year-old peasant boy.” (164)
Li is isolated and alone, acutely aware of the experiential gap between himself and the other students. This highlights the reality of class divisions which still very much exist in Mao’s China.
Chapter 11: The Pen