A Frog Leaves the Well
Reading Mao’s Last Dancer I forgot that I was reading a book and thought that I was sitting across from Li over multiple meals and hearing his life story. It was redeeming to read about a child growing up under Chairman Mao who thrived as an artist despite the circumstances. Li’s success powerfully affected the living conditions of his family which got better and better over time.
One of the most compelling parts of Li’s story is the transformation in his thinking. Reading about reluctant self criticisms and devotion to Mao which included sympathy for the “poor Americans” whose lives were much worse because they did not have the dictator and almost watching his shock and amazement as he visited America and realized that what he had been taught was propaganda was fascinating. Li’s Dia (father) told him a story growing up about a frog stuck down in a well. The frog was taunted by the frogs above the ground because their limited well was not the great world and they did not know it. Even as a child, Li instinctively knew that he was in a well prevented from the world by “the party.” There is a precious moment near the end of the book, when the Li family reunites and Dia thanks his son for showing him the world outside the well.
Another powerful moment is when the realization dawns on Li that the only thing that separates him from his brothers is opportunity. Even though they are finally allowed to visit and keep in touch years after his defection their housing, careers, salary, and even number of children was dictated to them. One of the themes of the book is Li’s divided emotion. With every achievement and milestone in his life is joy but also the sadness that his family is not there to celebrate it with him and guilt that he has so much while they have so little.
Mao’s Last Dancer is one of the easiest memoirs I have read. The juxtaposition of peasant life under Mao with the dreams to be the best dancer fascinate the reader. Li pulls his audience into his life story even describing the food and bathrooms at each stage in his life. I’ll definitely read it again.