Straight from the heart

When Li Cunxin was writing the first draft of Mao’s Last Dancer, he questioned whether there would be much interest in his autobiography. Now, with the international bestseller in its 25th reprint in Australia and recently published in a condensed Young Readers’ Edition, he has his answer.

Li now works in a Melbourne stockbroking office. The plush reception area, and the meeting room where we chat, is not the place one would expect to find a man whose life began humbly in rural China. But there have been so many dramatic moments, so many unexpected transitions in Li’s remarkable life.

When we first meet Li in Mao’s Last Dancer, he is a peasant boy, born into a family rich in love, pride and dignity, but struggling to meet their meagre material needs.

Born a peasant, die a peasant—that may well be the lesson to be drawn from one of the fables he is taught as a child. But this is not to be Li’s destiny.

A visit to his school by a team of Madam Mao’s cultural delegates will change the 11-year-old’s life. They are looking for children with particular physiques and high levels of flexibility to take to the city, to train to become the best artists and dancers in China. Naturally, in this process they will learn to become loyal servants of Mao.

Li is chosen.

In Beijing, at Madam Mao’s Dance Academy, he undergoes extreme difficulties, but he also experiences a world no peasant child could ever imagine: eating fresh fruit twice a week and meat almost daily, becoming a student of ballet and, through years of rigorous, highly disciplined training, acquiring an understanding of the nature and essence of ballet, of movement and music, and the joy of performing for an audience.

Ballet becomes his obsession. He sets his course. He will become one of the best. And there are
mentors and teachers at the dance academy who see that he has what it takes, who guide him, who recognise how to bring out the best in him, who believe in him.

When Li first sees a video of Baryshnikov dancing, it dawns on him that there is so much more to be achieved through his art form.

Li is soon offered coveted solo roles. He becomes known. With each taste of success he becomes more determined. Obstacles will not deter him.

Ballet continues to open up the world for Li. Not only China, but eventually the United States. He travels the first time on a two-month scholarship to the Houston Ballet Academy, returning soon after that for 12 months.

He has treasured memories of these times—his first time on a plane, seeing an ATM machine—and anxieties too. Yet he revels in the creativity, the freedom—of speech, of movement, of expression in dance—that being in the West offers him.

Li soon realises that he cannot return to his restrictive life in China. One of the most dramatic parts of
the book is his defection to the US—he has secretly married another dancer.

What follows are the contrasts of his life: success not only in his performances with the Houston Ballet  in the US, but in Europe, and the personal cost of the breakdown of his marriage, of being separated from his family, not knowing what difficulty his defection has caused them.

Eventually Li finds his soul mate in Australian Mary McKendry, a gifted dancer whom he marries. When they travel together, to visit his family back in the village he grew up in, one senses that the peasant boy has finally gone the full circle.

The postscript reveals that the couple returned to Australia where they performed with the Australian Ballet, eventually settling in Melbourne, that towards the end of his dancing career Li studied stockbroking, and that they now have three children.

Mao’s Last Dancer is a story of inspiration and hope: about the value of persistence, and striving to become what you hardly dare believe is possible.

The story is told with simplicity and packed with emotion. Li takes readers on his journey, tells them about his fears, his loneliness, the tears he shed being separated as a young boy from his family, and his enduring love for them. He also shares his successes and his accolades, the pride he has in his family and in his life partner, McKendry.

The book is written in the way that he danced—straight from the heart. ‘Whether people agree that Li had the best technique or not, that’s one thing, but they could never question that I danced with my heart,’ he says.

In person, Li has a gentle presence and is as warm and humble as he appears on the page. But what intrigues me is the story behind the book and how it came to be written.

Li says that when he first defected, he had plenty of offers for his story from publishers and filmmakers in the US and Britain. But he declined.

‘When I defected I was just turning 21,’ he says, ‘and I felt my journey had only just begun. And how much can you write about somebody who is only 21? I thought if someone wrote my story or made a film about my life then, it would never be that full journey. There wouldn’t be much to portray apart from my poor life in China or the defection story, and that would be too limited.’

He pauses, and adds, ‘Actually I’m a very private person so I just kept resisting.’

Yet as his career blossomed internationally, the offers continued. Then, about four years ago, Li and his family spent the weekend at Lorne, on the Victorian coast, with several other families, among whom was well-known children’s author Graeme Base.

‘One night I was chatting with him,’ Li recalls, ‘and when he heard my story, he quietly said to me that he thought I should write it down. He thought it was an inspirational story that would give hope and encouragement to others.

‘Because he used the words hope and encouragement, I started to think about it. Those things were so important to me. I’ve had inspirational people along my journey who gave me hope and courage—people like my mother, my wonderful mentors, and my wife. I feel that we can’t get enough of this in our lives. So it was this that made me really start thinking seriously about writing.’

But still he had reservations.

‘At the beginning, like many of the rewarding experiences of my life, it was so scary. It was such a daunting thing … I didn’t even learn English until I was 18, and I didn’t go to a proper school to learn. Who was to say that I could write a book? But I guess I had been lucky to have those experiences that went against the odds, so I knew that if I persisted, if I put the hard work in ...’

Li wrote an eight-page summary of the book he imagined, and gave it to Base, who passed it on to Penguin. They loved it and encouraged him to write.

‘But even at this stage I wasn’t sure … So I called up Peter Rose, and we had a coffee. I had just read his book Rose Boys, which I thought was beautiful; written with heart and soul. I thought he would be a good person to talk to. We talked about my fears and concern that my English might not be good enough. But he said something that really shocked me.

‘He said, “Li, there are people like me who try to really craft our writing skills, and spend years doing so, but writing my own book, I had to get back to the basics and use the language that can most directly touch people’s hearts … The simplest language sometimes can be the most powerful.”’

It then took Li just over 12 months to write the manuscript, working by day as a stockbroker and writing each evening.

‘I wrote 680,000 words—all longhand,’ he says with a laugh. Typing, he explains, would have taken him far longer. ‘I couldn’t stop writing in the end. The words just burst out of me … I did feel when I was starting to write that my dance career had come to an end, and I was reflecting on that journey.’

Li has been delighted with the response from readers. ‘It seems to have struck a chord,’ he says. And he’s thrilled with the launch of the Young Readers’ Edition, which is a condensed version with an extra section giving background information on China.

It’s been an impressive journey, and another generation of Australians are now set to enjoy it.

Michele M. Gierck  is a freelance writer.



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