By Leva levitra
Saturday May 25, 2013 | May 2013 Issue
I recently and coincidentally came across a completely gripping memoir and an inspiring young adult biography: two separate accounts of how two individuals chosen against incredible odds to attend state-sponsored dance school in Beijing rose to worldwide fame. Set against the backdrop of the rapidly shifting Communist political landscape in 1970s China, Li Cunxin’s autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, and journalist Richard Bernstein’s A Girl Named Faithful Plum: The True Story of a Girl from China and How She Achieved Her Dream reveal two individuals who took their extraordinary opportunities and parleyed them into artistic and personal fulfillment on the world stage.
In 2009 Li Cunxin’s story was also made into an excellent movie by the same title, which is directed by Bruce Beresford. He was only a boy of eleven in Chairman Mao’s China when Madame Mao’s Communist officials plucked him, the sixth of seven brothers living in Qingdao, China, from the arms of loving and dirt-poor peasant parents who wanted him to have more than they could provide in their small rural area. Qualifying by virtue of his perceived potential to help carry Chinese culture forward to glorious Marxist-Leninist heights, Li uprooted and leapt into the first steps of a frightening, albeit exhilarating, state-sponsored future at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. With six years of grueling study in ballet, Chinese folkdance, Beijing Opera Movement, and academic subjects facing him, the young homesick Li often cried himself to sleep during his first year. After returning on infrequent school holidays to his close-knit family and beloved mother and father, Niang and Dia, he gradually realized that he needed to focus, make his poverty-stricken family proud and take his dance prospects very seriously.
Through a strong will and intense determination and with the support of friends, teachers, and fellow students, Li found a way to flourish. His stint there started in 1972. Through subsequent years his studies survived the death of Chairman Mao in 1976 and the imprisonment of Madame Mao and other members of the political leadership comprising the Gang of Four. Under the new open-door policy of market reformer Deng Xiaoping, Li received an unprecedented opportunity to go to Houston with one other ballet student as part of a short-term artistic exchange with the Houston Ballet in 1979. Upon his arrival in America, his political foundations were blown apart. He found that the so-called class enemies he had heard about for so long encouraged artistic and political freedoms that opened him to new ideas of his own artistry and possibilities for his life. Li seized an opportunity to return to the United States, where he remained until 1981 on scholarship. Falling in love with an American dance student, he married her on the eve of his forecast departure to China and consulted a lawyer about his prospects for staying in the United States.
Taken captive by the Chinese consulate in Houston, Li became the center of an international diplomatic contretemps. With the help of influential friends such as the Artistic Director, Ben Stevenson; Barbara Bush, a member of the Houston Ballet Board; and her husband, then the former first envoy to China; Li found a place at the Houston Ballet and focused all energies on a dance career as he found himself cut off from his family and in a challenging new world with an American wife. Despite his foundering marriage and feelings of displacement, he thrived in his new milieu and even found a way to return home to China to see his extended family for the first time in the late 1980s.
This memoir is special largely because of Li’s story-telling ability and his ambitious, kind, and warm-hearted personality, which suffuses his account. His love for his large extended family who gave him over to the state so that he could have enough to eat for the first time in his life and experience a far better future illuminates and represents the story of other families throughout China from that time period. The majority of the population suffered major hardships from China’s Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and their subsequent aftershocks. The book makes a reader want to learn more about twentieth-century and more recent Chinese history.
Richard Bernstein’s book A Girl Named Faithful Plum, which targets young adults, is an equally compelling biography of his wife, dancer Li Zhongmei. Raised by poor peasants on a state farm near the frigid Chinese-Russian border, the eleven-year-old Li heard of an opportunity to audition for the Beijing Dance Academy in 1979. Determined to make her way there, she traveled three sleepless days to auditions in the bustling city, her family taking out loans to afford her trip. Eventually she was selected as one of twenty who made the cut out of sixty thousand. Her story is that of a Chinese child growing into a young woman and accomplished dancer at an extremely competitive dance school, but in many ways it, like the other Li’s story, reflects our American achievement mythology. Her extreme challenges included an influential teacher who did not want her to succeed and a grueling physical regimen, in addition to her own homesickness and longing for her family. Through tenacity she achieved artistic excellence and gained the respect of teachers and politically well-connected classmates who originally looked down on a country girl as someone incapable of success.
Her ambition and passion to become an accomplished dancer led Li Zhongmei to form her own dance company in New York as an adult, where she, like Li Cunxin, met and married a Westerner and soared to artistic heights as a cultural ambassador. Her highly inspirational story is a great summer read not only for the teen set, but also their parents. Li Cunxin’s book comes in a Young Reader’s Edition as well. Both books will keep readers fascinated and inspired until their last pages.
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