10 May 2018
Autobiography with Wrong History
Mao’s Last Dancer was published in 2003 and quickly became a best seller in Australia. Li, Cunxin, the author, was an acclaimed ballet dancer before he wrote the book, which eventually was cast into a touching movie in 2009. He is a celebrity. His extraordinary experience was shared with thousands of readers. Many people, especially young readers, get the book as it is either required by the school or the book club they join, including my daughter.
After she bought the youth version book from Dymocks, I got a chance to flip through a few chapters. The author crafted a storyline starting from 1946 until 1981 when he defected. There seemed many extraordinary personal stories but my history knowledge was challenged immediately by the first paragraph of the first chapter, “Now, a year after the end of that war, the village was controlled by one of the peasant communes that had been set up throughout the countryside by China’s central communist government”.
In 1946, the author’s parents were living in the suburb of Qingdao, about 20 km from city. KMT, the ruling political party, controlled most of the central cities in Shangdong province, while communist party had some control of more rural area. The battle in Qingbao during the domestic war started in May 1949, and a month later, Li Cun, the town where they lived, was occupied by the communist army. Clearly in 1946, their village was not under the ruling of communist government.
Commune is a social system implemented during Great Leap Forward when the communist party thought it had accomplished most of the job to clean up enemies and the main job should be switched to boost economy so as to solve the dilemma of mismatch between “advanced social system” and “lagging behind economy”. It started in 1958 and faded out in 1984. The author was born into the commune system in 1961, at the place known as Li Cun Commune, but his parents did not live in the commune system until twelve years later after they got married.
The author frequently used “Madam Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy” throughout the book. According to the school website, Beijng Dance Academy was originally founded in 1954, called “Beijing Dance School”. At the beginning of Culture Revolution, it was shut down in 1966 together with all other major art schools. Six years later, Madam Mao, who was mostly known as Jiang Qing in China, helped set up a new school called Central Wu Qi Art School in 1972 in order to employ art to accelerate her propaganda. The school name changed to Central Wu Qi Art University a year later. Therefore it is not surprising that the author sometimes wrote “university” in the book when he talked about his school.
Culture Revolution ended in 1976 after Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four were arrested. In November 1978, the school was reborn with a new name, Beijing Dance Academy, which was used since then. The author graduated from Beijing Dance Academy only months after it got this new name. The new school abandoned the curriculum from the Culture Revolution and replaced with a more normal one close to western. I am not sure why the author only mentioned “Beijing Dance Academy” in the book, but not “Wu Qi Art School” with which his life was more associated. A convenient error? It is a humiliation to Beijing Dance Academy if it is called Madam Mao’s, because she shut down the previous dance school, twisted the ballet, and was in prison when the school got the new name.
In chapter thirteen, the author vividly recounted the journey to Tiananmen Square where Mao appeared on the podium of the Gate Heavenly Peace meeting millions of people. Mao famously met his Red Guards in Tiananmen Square in 1966 for eight times since August 18, 1966. It was the way Mao ignited the fire of revolution. People’s Daily well documented each event with large pictures on the front page and huge titles in red color. Some videos can also be found in youtube nowadays.
However, in the spring of 1974, both Mao and Zhou’s health were deteriorating. Deng Xiaoping was the person in charge of the day to day government before he was arrested again. It was impossible for these two old people to meet millions people like they did eight years ago. Nothing like this was mentioned in the newspaper either in the first half of 1974 when I checked People’s Daily archive on its website. It would be very odd if this happened and People’s Daily didn’t cover anything about it. According to history, Mao’s last time to Gate Heavenly Peace was in May 1971.
Gang of Four were arrested in the evening of Oct 6, 1976. The action continued until 4am next morning and remained as top secret for several days. Most people learned it when People’s Daily published it in Oct 18, 1976. However, in this book, the author said people were celebrating right in the evening of Oct 6, 1976. He made his own version of history.
These wrong facts cast a huge shadow for me to read the rest “incredible” stories. The author blurred the line between autobiography and fiction, and didn’t bother to check the history at all. As a person growing up in China during Culture Revolution, all of these extraordinary stories in the book are not unheard of. Many of these stories lack a sounding logic. But I am more care about whether those belong only to this autobiography or not. More over, I am deeply concerned that his celebrity authority will dictate a wrong version of history to the young generation who just start learning history, especially from another country with a different language.