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Li Cunxin

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Mao's Last Dancer

Posted: 08/27/10 06:58 PM ET

It's truly surreal to watch the movie based on my autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer, unfolding on the silver screen. Considering what kind of life I came from, how could anyone even dare to dream of such a journey?

In 1972, I was selected by Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy to become a classical ballet dancer at the age of 11. During this period, art of any kind was far removed from our daily struggles, especially when you consider that over 35 million people died of starvation in China under communist rule between 1958-1961. I was born in 1961.

How I was discovered was a rather bizarre but magical moment in my life: it was one of the coldest days I could remember. The temperature in my hometown could get down to between 15-20 degrees below zero in winter time. There we were, around 40 peasant children sitting in this heatless mud shack which served as our classroom. To survive the bitter cold, we all wore thick quilted coats and pants, and we all looked like little snowballs. Our teacher instructed us to read and memorize the "We Love You Chairman Mao" texts. On this particular day, four men from the Beijing Dance Academy entered our classroom and walked around examining our body types while we sang political songs. They passed me without taking any notice, but just as they were about to walk out, my teacher hesitated then suddenly stopped the last man by the door and said, "What about that one?" She pointed at me. That moment dramatically changed my peasant life forever.

I was subsequently trained at the Beijing Dance Academy for seven years. Our life was disciplined and challenging. We started our daily routines at 5.30 am and finished at 9.30 pm, six days a week. Not only did they train us to become the best dancers, more importantly, they wanted to mold us into Mao's young communist "red guards," to serve Chairman Mao's political revolution. The brainwashing was extreme. Political studies occupied much of our first few years at the Academy, while dance practices played a secondary role. You would be hailed as a role model if you excelled at the political related studies and classes. Conversely, you would feel guilty, uncomfortable and even criticized if you spent your free time practicing ballet rather than studying Mao's political books. So, for the first few years I was not bad at the political studies but terrible at ballet, although this didn't worry me because after all, we were taught and believed that ballet was only a political tool to serve Mao's grand communist vision.

Prior to her losing power, Madame Mao was the Honorary Artistic Director of the Academy. She often visited us, watched our performances and gave orders. One of her strict orders was that we were required to project political values through our dance steps. As a result, our ballet training syllabus was modified and we were encouraged to carry images of the Red Army soldiers in the battleground holding guns or grenades in our hands while we pirouetted and leaped. We had to finish our adage exercise with a death-like eye stare that could spear a capitalist enemy. Madame Mao also supervised some so-called "Model Ballets" such as The Red Detachment of Women and The White Haired Girl. These were ballets full of red colored communist flags with plenty of swords, guns and grenades. It was political ideology gone mad.

In my time in China, the government propaganda machine ridiculed Western ballets such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty as artistically unsuccessful and politically dangerous. The Chinese people whole-heartedly believed that Madame Mao's "Model Ballets" were the best in the way that they pushed the artistic boundaries and raised the international dance standard to new heights. Through such ballets, we could finally show the world something uniquely Chinese which would enlighten and give people hope: That hope was communism.

After Mao's death and the demise of the Gang of Four (including Madame Mao), things started to change under Deng Xiaoping's Open China policy. The death-like stares and images of holding grenades as part of our dance training were no longer required. There was a certain sense of relief amongst artists across China. However, the dreadful memories of the Cultural Revolution were still too fresh in the minds of intellectuals and artists that the limited artistic freedom was greeted with suspicion and disbelief. It was during this time that I was chosen under the communist regime as one of the first cultural exchange students ever allowed to study in America. The year was 1979.

The shock I experienced when I first arrived in Houston was hard to describe. For the first 18 years of my life under Mao, I grew up believing that Mao's children lived in the most privileged and lucky country on earth and that the Western world lived the most miserable and difficult lives. So, not in a million years could I have dreamed of seeing such prosperity, boundless opportunities and the incredible freedom people enjoyed. As an artist, experiencing that kind of freedom: freedom to dream, freedom to think, freedom to create, freedom to achieve and freedom to make your life as successful as you possibly can, was simply unbelievable. It was as though I had woken up from an 18-year slumber and discovered a world that never existed in my wildest imagination. I can honestly say that nothing is more important than freedom in life. Freedom gives you hope, freedom allows you opportunities to realize your dreams and freedom brings the best out of a person. Freedom has certainly brought the best out of me as a principal ballet dancer. It was for the pursuit of freedom that I nearly lost my life in Houston when I chose to stay in the U.S. with my newly wedded wife. It was as recent as 1981 when the Chinese officials held me against my will and locked me up at the Chinese Consulate in Houston for 21 hours. The Chinese officials overreacted with fear and belief that the best thing for me was to return to China and continue to serve the communist cause. Looking at the Chinese attitude today, it is almost unthinkable how quickly China has accustomed itself to unrestricted emigration of its citizens, including artists like myself. Perhaps my defection played a small part in this transformation.

My last words on freedom: freedom should be a birth right to all human beings no matter where you are or where you live. So, I hope we never take our freedom for granted. We should all treasure it, value it and make the best of it.

The movie, Mao's Last Dancer, directed by Academy Award nominee Bruce Beresford, is now playing in select cities.