Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Just Finished: Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

This is not a book I ever would have chosen myself, but, in an effort to broaden my literary horizons I've joined N's book club. The reason I would never have chosen it is that it's an autobiography - whenever I hear that a 25-year old footballer or Z-list Big Brother survivor is penning a written account of their life thus far I get angry. I understand that not all autobiographies are written by brainless, gold-digging halfwits though, and that many have a true story to tell.

That's the case with Mao's Last Dancer - Li Cunxin is not a writer, so the writing style can be a bit difficult at times, but for me this made it that bit more real - it reads like he's telling the story himself, there's little embellishment or polish, it's raw. And it's really interesting - Li Cunxin grew up under Chairman Mao's regime, and was chosen by Madame Mao to leave his poor commune near Qingdao to study dance in Beijing. The effect of Mao's politics on China is well documented through Li's descriptions of his life in the dance academy and at home in the commune, particularly the indoctrination of the populace and the fear of being seen to disagree, or question, any of Mao's teachings.

I'm still not a fan of the autobiography as a genre - one thing that got on my nerves was Li's sentimentality, but then again how difficult must it be to remain objective when you're writing about your own life and the people you love.

Li Cunxin did lead an incredible life - from intense poverty in communist China to affluence in the West - and his story gives a fascinating glimpse into both the hardship of living under Mao's regime and the heartache of being separated from everything you've ever known. I suppose I should give his autobiography a little more credit - if it had been labelled as a novel I probably would have moaned about how grossly unbelievable the plot was - it's definitely a story worth telling.

That said, I'm ready for a bit of fiction now so have chosen a big fat novel to sink my teeth into.

Next up - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


  1. But there are some amazing autobiographies and memoirs out there!

    Vesna Goldsworthy: Chernobyl Strawberries
    Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking
    Augusten Burroughs: Running with Scissors

    To be fair, the above are definitely memoirs as opposed to autobiographies. Perhaps then, it should be memoirs that are taken note of?

    Let me know what Wolf Hall is like!

  2. I know, that was a fairly sweeping statement, but I can't help being a snob :(

    I will do - it's weighing my bag down as we speak...it's immense.

  3. I agree with you - I'm not that big on autobiographies. The only one I've read was Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" - that one was very good, but I do prefer fiction!

  4. This sounds good :) but like you,I'm not big on autobiographies either.
    Good review :)