Li Cunxin’s memoir tells his incredible story of rising from extreme poverty and the politics of fear in Communist China to becoming one of the world’s most well-known ballet dancers. His story is made all the more impressive by his tenacity, evidenced in the fact that he defected from China while in the United States, thus defying the Chinese government in a public showdown that reached international acclaim.
The sixth son of Chinese peasants, Li was born in 1961, after Mao’s Great Step Forward but right before China’s Cultural Revolution changed the landscape of the country on a national and global scale. The memoir details Li’s experiences while living in extreme rural poverty. As a child, he witnessed firsthand the brutality of the government under the guise of Communist purification. One example Li gives is witnessing the horrific murder of fifteen individuals who had been deemed “counter-revolutionaries” by Mao’s Red Guards. Despite his poverty and the oppressive circumstances surrounding the regime, Li still finds himself embracing tenets of Mao and his social programs.
Li’s life is soon changed when, at the age of eleven, he is selected by Madame Mao’s cultural arts program to audition for and later join the Beijing Dance Academy. This stroke of luck affords Li a chance at a good job and alleviates the fear of going hungry. With the program and the Academy, Li must work hard at his new station in life. He trains hard, year after year, and in 1979, his efforts seem to pay off. A break comes through choreographer and artistic director Ben Stevenson. Li is selected to spend a summer under Stevenson’s tutelage at the Houston Ballet. This event is not only a breakthrough for Li, it is a boon for the political relationship between the two countries: it is the first such exchange of artists between China and America since 1949.
Li’s visit to Houston changes his views of the world and of politics. In America, Li gets a taste of what freedom means, and his ideas about both ballet and politics are altered. When Li finally returns to China after the exchange, he stops at nothing to return to America, and lobbies feverishly to bring about this end. He finally receives permission to return, and is granted a one-year stay. When it is time for Li to return to China, however, he refuses. The incident garnered international media attention, and April 1981 is forever known as the date that Li Cunxin defected while at the Chinese consulate in Houston.
In the United States, Li dances for the Houston Ballet, and marries a fellow dancer, Mary McKendry. Li rises up the ranks and in no time is renowned as the principal dancer for the Houston Ballet, and later for the Australian Ballet. Eventually, Li retires from dancing and switches to working in finance.
Li’s memoir is an easy-to-read account that is noted for its simple style and use of declarative sentences throughout the narrative. The memoir also adds a section with black-and-white photos for reference. Though some critics find Li’s style of writing wanting, it has also been admired as a way of making such a heroic and life-changing event as Li’s defection relatable and accessible to younger audiences. More importantly, the narrative is an honest portrayal of Li’s life both before and after fame, and highlights a period of time that put Chinese-U.S. relations to the test. Li’s defection from Communist China shows how dissolute Chinese citizens were becoming with promises and everyday life under Mao’s political rule. Li, as a beacon for his country, publicly defected in favor of the United States, showing how powerful the drive for individualism and autonomy are for people from all walks of life.