Book Review: Mao’s Last Dancer

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I find Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin, like many other beautifully written stories, very difficult to review because of how complex the ideas, themes, and thoughts are in this novel and how they develop and change over the course of the story. It is a novel that is very thought-provoking and touching, as you can relate completely to the main character, Li Cunxin, for the many obstacles he has overcome.

Courtesy of penguin.com.au

Courtesy of penguin.com.au

The story takes place in rural China during the Cultural Revolution that happened from 1966 to 1976. “Mao’s Last Dancer” is an autobiography of Li Cunxin’s life meaning that everything that happened in the book is completely real. In my opinion, I think this makes the story even more compelling, heartbreaking, and moving.  To many Chinese people at the time, the Cultural Revolution was a horrific time in their lives. The movement was led by Chairman Mao Zedong and its purpose was to change China into a “better” place. Ultimately, it was a change for the worst. During the revolution, the Communist Party in China was attempting to replace the “Four Olds” – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas, with Communist ideas. As a result, temples and traditional buildings were burned down, things such as kung fu and traditional Chinese instruments were banned, and Red Guards were established that coste millions of innocent lives. Basically, it was a plot to eliminate old culture and replace them with what the Communists wanted the people to think.

 

As a Chinese myself, this event greatly angers me. I believe that traditional ideas and philosophy are the key of Chinese culture, even if there are some traditional practices that are not so good, such as foot-binding – a practice that disabled many Chinese women from walking. However, this book is very informative as it helps in understanding exactly what happened during the revolution by explaining to the reader the daily life of a poor Chinese family.

From the main character, Li Cunxin’s point of view, we know that growing up in rural China during the time of the revolution was harsh. However, what moved me the most is that what throughout this event, the main family still held onto their traditional Chinese values and beliefs. For example, the value and importance of family was shown consistently in the novel because it’s one of major motivations of the main character in the story. His family had said to him on many occasions that they must never lose their pride, despite how poor they are and because of this, even if they were poor, they were still a well-respected family. The most emotional and gripping part of the story for me was how much Li Cunxin loved his family.

Of course, the story being set during the Cultural Revolution, there are dark political undertones as well. Not only was Mao’s movement across the country starving the Chinese people and pushing them into poverty, but the worst part was that Mao was self-promoting the Communist government as righteous and almighty and everyone in the country fell for this lie. The Communist Party managed to fool their people into thinking that their lives were much better than when the Nationalist party ruled China, and the Emperors ruled China.

It’s also really interesting how throughout the first half of the novel, the main character emphasized how much he loved Chairman Mao and how he would die for him which shows just how brainwashed the Chinese people were.

Overall, this novel made me self-reflect as I realized that  compared to Li Cuzin’s life, the tough times in my life can’t even be compared to what he has been through. The hopes and dreams in our lives and the will and determination to achieve them is something I  value and hold deeply in my heart, so seeing someone work and strive tirelessly to make their dream a reality is the most heartbreaking yet admirable act in the world. And the fact that he did all this for the sake of his family just completely broke me. My opinion on this book is that I love it and the story that Li Cunxin has narrated to us is truly inspirational and beautiful. I wholeheartedly recommend this to everyone, because it truly is a masterpiece of a story. Also,  if you were wondering, Li Cunxin is still alive and is teaching in Australia.

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