Whenever we examine especially turbulent periods of history, we’re warned that history is written by the victors. This is unfortunate for many reasons, one of which is that the most interesting stories we can tell are those of our defeats. That’s not to say that the stories we do hear aren’t compelling, but rather that in learning about the past, we often lose some of the color from the narrative. As I read Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin, I found myself continuously reflecting on this dynamic.
The book – which I first read in middle school many moons ago – recounts Li’s life, from growing up in the poverty-stricken Chinese countryside during Mao’s regime to his admission to an elite ballet academy and finally to his first experience of America. Interestingly, as he shifted from countryside to urban dance academy, my response to the book shifted correspondingly. In the first part of the book, I mostly focussed on specific details about his upbringing: the use of dirt as an antiseptic, for example, or the logistics of where his family arranged their clothes in their small house.
In the later two-thirds of the book, though, I found myself considering more deeply the sense of separation he felt from his past: whether boarding at the academy or as a cultural exchange student in the US, Li constantly writes of the incompatability of his wanting to be home with his family and pursue his own goals. At one point, he recounts how his dance teacher in the US bought $5000 worth of Christmas presents, equivalent to 65 years of salary for Li’s father, and how guilty that made him feel. Therein develops a fascinating dichotomy of Li’s definition of home: at once, it’s both the rural Chinese countryside which shaped him and the urban (and eventually American) dance academies he trains at. Each is fundamentally important to his identity, and each comes with its pains: being scarred for life by a boiler during a nap in his parent’s house, or tearing a hamstring while frantically practicing a ballet move. The sense of anguish he writes about as he tries to balance these two parts of his identity is tangible, and I found myself resonating easily with it. My circumstances obviously aren’t anywhere near as extreme as his, but as my adult life and future become less and less hypothetical, I’m also spending more time wondering how a live well lived weights your past, present and future.
Returning to my introduction, though, I think the thing that struck me most about Li’s story is how easy it would have been for me to not have read it: I would still feel like I had a solid sense of Chinese history with no clue that struggles like this were even possible. With enough distance between me and him, it’s clear that Li’s story (mostly) worked out for him, but the writers of history have somehow managed to relegate it to the annals of autobiography. I’m left to wonder what other kinds of stories I’m not hearing, and how I can find them. In fact, the next book I read this summer also kind of relates to this theme from a very different perspective. On that engimatic note, I’m headed back to the ol’ Kindle.