Despite the fact that it was a best-seller, an international movie, and an all-round ‘good feelings’ book, I’d never read Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer, until my new roommate ‘forced’ me to. By forced of course I mean that he lent me the book to read. Same thing, really.
Mao’s Last Dancer takes place in communist China, when Chairman Mao is at his most powerful. Despite being poverty-stricken, with an inevitable future of back-breaking labour, only to constantly struggle to survive, the protagonist, Li Cunxin, is in awe of his great leader.
When he is 11 years old, officials come to the his small village and he is chosen to go to Madame Mao’s Ballet Academy, where he can represent the great Mao and China.
Although Li is struggling from being away from home, and he doesn’t understand why he has been chosen, he continues to push himself, to honour his family, his country, and himself. Over the years, his immense hard work pays off, and he is chosen to represent China in America…where he discovers that the wonderful communist world isn’t all that he thought it was.
There are definitely aspects of this book that I found enjoyable, and I can see why it would be such a best seller. Li Cunxin is an immensely likeable protagonist, and from the moment we ‘meet’ him as a small boy, we’re immediately on his side. And as he goes through the stages of his life, and pulls himself from poverty despite the many obstacles he faces, we want him to win. Damnit, he deserves to.
The outstanding thing I found about this book is the extreme poverty that Li and his family, and millions of others around China, lived through. I continually had to try and comprehend what it must feel like to not know where your next meal is coming from; to work day in, day out without a reward; to watch your family and loved ones struggle. And worst of all, for many, many people in that generation and countless others, knowing that no matter how hard you work, this is the life that is going to be yours for the rest of your life.
The other feature of this, amazingly true, story is the total and all-powerful control that Chairman Mao had over China. Even though, looking back, we understand the flaws and limitations of Communism, the people at the time felt that they were the luckiest people in the world; and their leader the greatest. The amazement and shock that Li feels when he go to America and Europe and realises that he has been lied to is pivotal and ground-breaking, and it’s a lesson in the importance of knowledge.
However, despite these features I had a lot of trouble getting into this book. I honestly just didn’t find it absorbing. I think this is for two reasons. The first is that, at the end of the day, I like books that are real and gritty and honest. And while Mao’s Last Dancer obviously has these traits, it seemed almost like a fairytale from the second half of the novel onwards. This is in no way discredit to Li, or the storyline, but just personal preference. I enjoy books that show people at rock bottom, or the relationships between different people. Rather, I felt this book was a book solely about Li and his accomplishments, and the relationships were for the most part skimmed over, perhaps exempting his love for his Niang.
The second reason is that, while most probably translated from Chinese, the writing for me was clunky, simple and indistinctive. There was no voice that I could respond to, or style or writing that made it distinctive from other novels I read, and at times I felt that Li was prattling on about something uninteresting, only to them harsh over the more important details of his life.
Despite this, I enjoyed reading Mao’s Last Dancer and for anyone who hasn’t read it, or seen the film, I would recommend it. It’s an easy, heartwarming novel that will motivate you to try and be the best person you can be.
Have you read Mao’s Last Dancer? What did you think? Have you seen the film? Let me know!