x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A life in the spotlight

The Chinese performer Li Cunxin's autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer, has been made into a movie, the production of which highlights both the old China and the new.

Mao's Last Dancer, the story of Li Cunxin, a famous Chinese performer who defects to America, shows the People's Republic at its most magnanimous and most vindictive. In 2003, Li published his autobiography, detailing his treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. When he announces his decision to remain in America, Chinese authorities detain him at the consulate in Houston, Texas, with a view to repatriating him by force. Li is released 24 hours later, only to be told he can never return to China to see his family.

But some years later, the Chinese government does an about-face. High-ranking officials help secure visas for his parents to visit him in the States, and eventually Li, himself, is granted permission to return to China. Recently, Li's autobiography was made into a film of the same title. And once again, the Chinese state flashed the two sides of its nature. Just before production was due to start, the government rescinded all permits to film in China. The decision was part of a government clampdown on international filmmakers in response to what it saw as a series of slurs against the People's Republic. The first came from Steven Spielberg, who pulled out as artistic adviser for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, citing China's failure to pressure Sudan to end the suffering in Darfur, a region engulfed by ethnic conflict.

A month later, the Icelandic singer Björk touched on another sore point: Tibet. At a concert in Shanghai in March 2008, she sang a song she had written called Declare Independence, about an unrelated conflict. But at the end of the performance she yelled out "Tibet, Tibet", driving home a none-too-subtle protest against China's occupation of the Himalayan country. The screenwriter for Mao's Last Dancer, Jan Sardi, recalls that after these two incidents, producers were told they could no longer shoot on location in the country. But they ignored the directive and pressed ahead anyway.

The absence of permits was not the only concern. Chinese authorities told Bruce Beresford, the film's director, to omit all references to a title character in the story - advice he refused to follow. That character was Madame Mao, the wife of Mao Zedong, who was imprisoned after her husband's death for "counter-revolutionary" activities. Speaking over the phone, Beresford recalls: "We thought we were going to get in trouble with the authorities. We had thousands of extras and everyone seemed to know that we had Madame Mao in the film. I thought the police were going to turn up but they never did."

The making of the film says as much about old sensitivities, as it does about a cautious tolerance arising among a new generation of Chinese leaders. Li's autobiography paints an often unflattering picture of China. The author criticises the blinding communist indoctrination of the 1970s and 1980s and the state's treatment of dissidents, who were marched through the provinces in dunce caps lugging blackboards that detailed their crimes around their necks. Li recounts his detention at the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas, which caused an outcry in the West that embarrassed China on the international stage. And he implies throughout the book that his creativity was blocked by the communist regime: Li defects believing his career can only flourish in the bosom of a democracy.

There is plenty there to offend hardliners. The Chinese government has a long tradition of suppressing books deemed inappropriate for mass consumption. In 2000, the popular novel Shanghai Baby, about China's rave and drug subculture, was branded "decadent and debauched", and banned outright. Thousands of copies were publicly burnt. But Mao's Last Dancer, by contrast, was published in Mandarin by a prestigious Chinese company without incident.

Li says that it is too early to know whether the film will be screened in China. But he sees the publication of his autobiography as evidence that China has "moved on". "I think it shows that China is opening up, maybe very slowly. Sometimes they come forward one step then come backwards half a step- It may look like they're going backwards but over time China is gradually progressing." But he says that the world's most populous nation needs to end its revisionist policies and look truthfully at the past. He regards China's policy on Madame Mao and other disgraced former leaders as a mark of deep political immaturity. "It's very childish," he says. "They try to erase people from history. You see old pictures of Chinese leaders and all of a sudden there are blank spots of people who have been erased. But you know who they are and who they were."

Li lives in Melbourne with his Australian wife, Mary McKendry, a former dance partner, and their three children. He now works as a stockbroker, having retired from dance aged 38. Li sits in a plush boardroom, framed by a panorama of the city from the Dandenong Ranges to Port Phillip Bay. The only thing about him that hints at his former career is his thick, muscular neck. He's softly spoken, solicitous and engaging, even though he has lost count of the number of interviews he's taken part in to promote Mao's Last Dancer.

According to Beresford, who worked closely with Li on the film, he remains even-tempered at the worst of times. "The way he is when you meet him, that amiable manner, never leaves him," he says. "It's not a façade, it's just what he's like. He's one of those rare people with enormous determination and enormous will but is not a pain in the neck." In the early 1980s, when Li was living in America, two separate Hollywood producers offered to make films about his life. But he dreaded the exposure, and refused to co-operate. Then, after his retirement from dancing more than a decade later, Li began to take stock and sat down to write his memoirs. It took him 18 months to complete a draft, which was snapped up by Penguin. Sardi later bought the film rights and engaged Beresford, whose film credits include Driving Miss Daisy, as director.

The film occasionally deviates from fact. In one of its most touching scenes, Li is reunited with his parents, on stage at the Houston ballet, before hundreds of spectators. But in realty, the reunion was a private affair. However these kinds of flourishes don't bother Li, who was overwhelmed the first time he saw it. "It was quite surreal and quite emotional. It was too emotional for me to enjoy it but it took me back to- real-life experiences, to relive those moments of my life again," he says.

Li's autobiography is a deeply personal story of ambition and exile, but it also reads like a treatise on modern Chinese history. His fortunes are beholden to the changing whims of foreign policy; when China remains closed off from the rest of the world, Li is banished and disowned, but as the country relaxes its isolationist policies, he is brought back into the fold. Mao's Last Dancer is on the high-school syllabus for Australian students studying Chinese history. It is not hard to see why.

Li was born in 1961 in the eastern Shandong province, when China was in the grips of a devastating famine that claimed tens of millions of lives. His parents were illiterate farmers, who struggled to feed their seven sons. Dried yams became the household staple and they all came dangerously close to starvation. Li tells of how, as a small child, he was reduced to stealing peanuts that a rat had buried in its hole for safekeeping.

When Li was 11 years old, talent scouts from Madame Mao's elite dance academy in Beijing visited his school and invited him to audition. He had never danced before, and his knowledge of ballet was restricted to a propaganda film he had once seen. The talent scouts manipulated his limbs at impossible angles, but he didn't so much as whimper when his hamstrings tore. Almost a decade later, Li was offered a scholarship to dance with the Houston ballet. It was with great trepidation that he left China.

"All I knew of America were images instilled in us by Mao's political propaganda. America was a very bleak, scary world. It was stark, no colour no freedoms. We were told that we lived an incredibly privileged life under Mao," he recalls. In America, Li met and married an American dancer. The marriage didn't last long, but Li's career thrived. Shortly after his defection, Li was named principal dancer at the prestigious Houston Ballet, a role that allowed him to perform worldwide and rub shoulders with the likes of President George HW Bush. McKendry was his dance partner, and the couple married in 1987.

The following year, the Chinese government finally allowed Li to return home, and he has been coming and going ever since without hindrance. Although Li laments China's new "crazed pursuit of materialism", he is heartened to see his brothers operating successful businesses and his parents leading more comfortable lives in a new apartment, gifted by the government. Their old village house, without hot water or a flushing toilet, was demolished.

Li says that he sometimes wonders how his life would have unfolded, had he not caught the eye of Madame Mao's talent scouts. "I think I would have done better than most with that kind of drive, with that kind of energy, with that kind of determination. I would probably have made the best peasant in my village. I wouldn't be satisfied to be the head of a village I would want to go on and lead a commune," he says

In his autobiography, Li cites a Chinese proverb about a conversation between two frogs. The first frog lives deep inside a well and the second inhabits land above. The former frog cannot conceive of life beyond the well and believes that the entire world is contained within its stone boundaries - until the latter sets him straight. For Li, the proverb encapsulates the dilemmas, and awakenings of his early life. But in today's China, its dark-pit analogy doesn't seem to hold anymore.