A prominent ballet dancer revisits the strange course that led him from a Chinese hamlet to the world stage.
Mix Billy Elliott with Torn Curtain and you’ll have some of the tale in very broad outline. Born in 1961, Li lived his early years under the shadow of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which had impoverished the already poor countryside to an almost unbelievable extent. “Dried yams were our basic food for most of the year,” Li writes. “We occasionally had flour and corn bread for a treat, but those were my [mother’s] special reserves for relatives or important visitors. . . . Dried yams were the most hated food in my family, but there were others in the commune that could not even afford dried yams. We were luckier than most.” Luck came in another form when Madame Mao decided that recruiting ballet dancers from the provinces would prove to the world that Chinese Communism was truly egalitarian, whereupon Li was packed off to dance school. “The officials mentioned ballet,” he writes, “but all I knew about ballet was what I’d seen in the movie The Red Detachment of Women.” Willing but slow to learn (“I was considered a laggard by most of my teachers,” he writes with characteristic modesty), Li eventually found his feet, at the same time finding a purpose: “to serve glorious communism.” One exchange trip to Texas, though, and Li, now in his late teens, was ready for something else. Li’s well-paced account of the ensuing cloak-and-dagger episodes that led to his defection to the West adds suspense to a tale already full of adventures, but there are no conventional bad guys to be found in it. Indeed, he writes with fine compassion for the Chinese consul who attempts to dissuade him from becoming an outcast; “unlike me, he had to go back and would probably never manage to get out again.”
Nicely written and humane: for anyone interested in modern Chinese history or for fans of dance.