You would think that starving people would not have money to shop for stylish, new peasant clothes or wear them on the set of a movie. Of course for a movie like “Mao’s Last Dancer,” Chinese actors can be fitted with just about any clothes.
You would think that starving people would not have money to shop for stylish, new peasant clothes or wear them on the set of a movie. Of course for a movie like “Mao’s Last Dancer,” Chinese actors can be fitted with just about any clothes. But there were no department stores around in the ‘60s, when Li Cunxin grew up in communist China. Definitely not in his village, Qindao City, where people were destitute.
In 1972, Li (his last name) was chosen by representatives from Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy to try out for the privilege of attending the academy; his teacher randomly suggested that he be chosen for the opportunity. Not only did he pass a rigorous physical examination, he became one of the best dancers at the Beijing Dance Academy, which he joined in 1973 at 11 years of age. He trained there for seven years, when he was discovered by Ben Stevenson while the American was visiting China on a cultural exchange. Stevenson was a world-renowned teacher, choreographer and the artistic director of the Houston Ballet. In 1979, Li traveled to Texas for a cultural exchange. He managed to defect to the U.S. two years later.
Li wrote a book about his life, “Mao’s Last Dancer,” published in 2003. It was made into the movie by the same name, which premiered in Australia in 2009. The film was directed by Bruce Beresford and produced by Jane Scott, with a screenplay by Jan Sardi. Li maintains a website, www.licunxin.com, which briefly describes his struggle and work to become a disciplined dancer who would become a star ballet dancer for the Houston Ballet for 16 years.
Nearly two thirds of Li’s book describes many of China’s trials during Chairman Mao’s reign. On his website, Li describes poverty and hunger in China: during some years, people in China ate tree bark to survive the famine, he recounts. There are other trials mentioned in the book. Many of them would be shocking to Americans not familiar to Chinese life under Mao. What is remarkable about the movie is that the majority of the trials are simply left out of the movie. In one scene in the movie, the family is seen arguing over a piece of meat, since it meat was scarce. In another scene, Li’s parents are persecuted by the Chinese government after he defects to the U.S.
But these skim the surface of important events in Li’s book. He offers not an exhaustive list of oppressive conditions in China, but examples from the eleven years that he spent growing up in Qindao City. When he arrives in the U.S. he is a state of disbelief or shock of the standard of living. He was told that life in the U.S. was much worse. Likewise, it would be hard for Americans living in the ‘60s, to comprehend the degree of suffering endured by the people of China - or the random persecution of innocent people at the hands of communist extremists - Mao’s Red Guard.
An example of this is the difference between healthcare in the U.S. and in communist China at the time. Healthcare in the U.S. in the ‘60s was among the best in the world - comparable to other western nations like France and Germany, improving with advances in surgery and medical specialties, as was expected. With the cultural revolution in China, advanced and even basic medical care evaporated. In China, trained doctors were to live like peasants and go barefoot. A shortage of doctors prompted Mao to declare doctors trained after they complete a brief course; they read “The Barefoot Doctors Manual,” and were declared doctors. One could say that not all Americans had access to health care, which is true. But people were generally not starving in the U.S. during the ‘60s.
Even something as basic as band-aids, adhesive bandages were unheard of in Li’s village. (They were invented by an employee of the Johnson & Johnson company in 1920). The home remedy for serious cuts or worse in Li’s household was dust applied to the wound from a window sill. Chinese living rural areas were essentially living without basic medical care - because they were too poor and it was simply unavailable. When Li was 15 days old, his mother was holding him wrapped with clothing to her body, while making bread rolls for the Chinese new year. One of his arms came out and was badly burned.
A child with a serious burn of this nature would be taken to an emergency room or at least be treated by a family doctor. He was never treated. After two days, his entire arm was swollen and turned bright red. The burn eventually filled with pus, and he developed a dangerously high fever. The only real remedy was amputation if the infection were serious enough. Fortunately it wasn’t. His only contact with the medical community in Qindao City was when he got a smallpox shot. The nurse used the same needle to inject everyone, cleaning the needle with the same cottonwool to clean both the needle and skin. The remedy for severe coughs was to eat snakeskin wrapped around a piece of green onion.
Surgery in Beijing was just as unrefined. While at the dance academy in Beijing just before turning 16, Li had to have his tonsils taken out. A nurse poked some acupuncture needles into him for an anesthetic, but it didn’t work. As he recounts, he could feel his tonsils being cut out by the doctor with what seemed like a dull knife during the hourlong operation.
There was no running water or bathroom in his house (Qindao City) since there was no modern plumbing - typical of developing communist countries like China the Soviet Union under central planning. Cunxin and his brothers had to carry water from a well, in two big buckets balanced on a bamboo pole. The well water was not safe to drink. Unboiled water would cause worms and trouble for him and his brothers; they would get knotted stomachs and bad pains. There was a public toilet, but it had no roof, so it was exposed and cold in the winter. The toilet hung over the outside of the building, so the man who collected the excrement could haul it away. One time the man who collected the excrement was hauling it down and street and collided with someone on a bicycle, spilling it all over the street.
Li and members of his family were fortunate that they did not starve to death after the Great Leap Forward, which ended the year he was born. Three years of bad weather caused a great famine, resulting in the deaths of nearly 30 million people, although estimates of the total number of deaths vary. Li was born during a time when starvation was part of everyday life in China.
Lice was also. When he was in his school classroom, the entire class was itching from lice, including his teacher. The lice lived in their cotton quilts, coats and pants. If one family had lice, everyone else would get it too. Lice was everywhere in China. Everyone scratched constantly.
The room where Li’s family dwelling was filmed was probably a mansion compared to the living space where he grew up. There was so little space that they had to sleep end to end, smelling each other’s feet. Moving to Beijing meant having his own bed, and not smelling his brother’s feet in his face.
Landowners and people of wealth were treated harshly, and Mao’s cultural revolution essentially "cleansed" the nation of these individuals. Before being allowed to attend the dance academy, Li’s family tree had to be researched to determine if there were any people of wealth, or property owners, since they were considered class enemies. Fortunately for Li, they had always been peasants. One day a well-respected head of the village was accused of being a counterrevolutionary. Li's parents told him that this man, a head of the village was a good man. Yet he and a group of them were paraded through the village, with heavy blackboards around their necks and tall, pointed white paper hats on their heads. People shouted and jeered. They had to duck to avoid getting hit by flying objects. They were hit and kicked by people, accused by the mob of having an “evil landlord-like attitude.” A man with a handheld speaker shouted revolutionary slogans like “Knock down and kill the capitalists.” Because the attackers, pulled their heads back, the accused had shaved their heads to prevent their hair from being pulled out.
He recalls another similar but more sinister assembly. A communist leader read out sentences for about fifteen landlords, factory owners and counterrevolutionaries. Then they were loaded on a truck. They wore pointed white hats, with a red cross crossing out their names. Adults warned him and his friends not to follow the mob. The men stood against a mud wall. The men begged for mercy. One cried, “I’m innocent, I’m innocent! I didn’t do anything wrong! Please let me live!” Another screamed, “I have young children! They’ll starve to death without me! Have mercy for my family!” Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Someone counted two three, “Yi, er, san!” And that was the end of them. He heard gunfire and their blood spatter. Their bodies fell to the ground. He screamed and ran home. He regretted the day he ran after the mob, only to witness cold-blooded murder of the enemies of Mao and his revolutionaries. He was warned not to follow and witness the mob. He wished he had not followed and witnessed the mob action.
The irony is that although neither of these scenes were included in the movie, a family friend taking a group picture does say, “yi, er, san,” before Li leaves for Beijing.
Producing a film about one’s life, an autobiography is usually beyond the financial means of most authors. And it is difficult for an author, like Li, to make demands on the producer and director when the offer is made. The subjects rely on the good will of both. Still, it isn’t as though movies have not been made about people living in poverty, countries that are destitute. The U.S. during the Great Depression is one example. Other countries have been devastated by famine. But maybe that amount of suffering does not play well with the art of ballet.
Watching the movie, it is easy to see how lost a production crew can become, depending on a stray ideal. Even details like itching in class from lice was simply removed from the movie. The cinematographer talks about changing the appearance of the film in China, to give it a different appearance, a distressed look. Is a change in film treatment really enough to make people look poverty stricken and starving? A slight change in appearance could render the actors models for a retail clothing photo shoot. They would have been in serious trouble during Mao’s cultural revolution. Instead of “Mao’s Last Dancer,” it would be called “Mao’s Last Model.”
© 2011 Larry Ingram
Based in St Louis,
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