Mao’s Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer is an incredible memoir: Lin Cunxin was plucked out of peasant rural poverty and thrown into China’s elite arts training school as a future ballet star.  It’s a completely different world in the same country, under the same leader, that reveals so much about the lies his family were told about the life they lead.  The tale is wide-ranging, almost unbelievable, and so enlightening; only hampered by Lin’s storytelling style.

Lin’s life has run concurrent with some of the most dramatic events of modern history.  From the starvation and suffering in Mao’s Great Leap Forward to the Party’s great upheaval after Mao’s death, Lin has experienced and at times played a role in China’s dramatic changes in the 20th Century.  Born in rural Qingdao to a family with six other boys, Lin’s early life is characterised by the love of his Niang, play with his brothers and friends, and simple little heartbreaking details about the food (or lack thereof).  The facts of their daily life – like hand pumping bellows to maintain the fire to cook a meal – are signs of wrenching poverty for the peasants of China, but are accepted because nothing else is known.  In designating the three classes of society, the Communists paid lip service to the honest quality peasants had because of their essential work, but ultimately kept them in their place.

When Lin starts school, the majority of his days are spent learning propaganda by rote, being taught how to write praise for Mao before any basic ABCs.  One day, the school in a thrall, they are visited by party officials touring the country to hand-select students for Madame Mao’s elite arts school in Beijing.  Through several rounds of which included testing hamstring length, examining toes, but no actual dancing, Lin is chosen for ballet.

And it is revealing what this complete turn-around in his life shows: excitement on being given meat to eat (every single day!), the homesickness for the games he and his brothers played, the detail Lin relates at the size of the dorms and the indoor toilets, the sheer physical labour of their practice and training, and the way their schedule and program is changed at political whim.

I find these details fascinating: what is normal in this world, what shocks him, what pushes him, what starts to change his mind about the party and how much it cares about him.  Unfortunately though, with Lin’s writing there is very little room for reflection or analysis; there is no space to take this all in, or understand any larger implications his little anecdotes may reveal.  There are some massive, history-making events in Lin’s life – it is an astonishing story with unbelievable details – but his writing comes across as a simple recitation of facts.  What does it say about China that school students were taught propaganda before maths and writing, for example?  Maybe it’s not Lin’s place to ask these questions, but his story naturally takes you to places like this and I was often left unsatisfied as Lin didn’t engage with the ideas and just moved on to the next moment.

And perhaps in comparison a less important quibble is the irritation I felt at Lin’s writing style.  He tells, not shows, relating words and feelings for others, projecting his emotions into a space with a multitude of perspectives.  Short sentences and clichéd tropes are employed on high rotation throughout.

My stomach felt like a twisted knot.  I looked out the windows.  I could see that it was already dark outside, and the darkness cast a sadness in my heart.

And in a way, this fall back on language tropes is almost a way to avoid any reflection on a larger meaning I was talking about above.  It is so easy to pan out, shift focus to the darkness outside, close the scene and the paragraph, move on.

But it is a good book, an awesome story, and those same little details bring a lot of joy and humour also.  For example, when in Houston, getting to know his future wife, the Australian ballet dancer Mary McKendry:

‘How many brothers and sisters do you have?’ she asked.

‘Sex brothers,’ I replied.

‘Six, not sex,’ she laughed.

‘Oh, I can’t hear they are different.  What sex mean?’

‘Maybe I can explain it to you later.’

Lin’s story is well worth reading: it is an incredible life through a tumultuous part of history.  He has seen so much: from poor rural China to the excess of America, from playing barefoot on the streets to dancing on the stage of the famous Marinski Theatre.  Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed this book.  Lin’s memoir has real grit and truth; his life has so much story to tell.

2 thoughts on “Mao’s Last Dancer

  1. I agree with your comments. It seems harsh to criticise the writing style when the story is so immense but I also felt that the cliched writing spoilt the storytelling. I heard him speak on the radio some time ago and he sounded so modern and articulate, it was hard to reconcile the speaker with the retelling in this book. In some ways I found the photos more moving than the writing.

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    • That’s a good way of putting it – it’s such an immense story and criticising the writing style seems almost petty. It’s interesting that he is so articulate when speaking. Perhaps the photos are so moving because they’re not filtered through his language style…

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