Mao’s Last Dancer – An Audience With Li Cunxin
“When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found.”
Last week, Li Cunxin –best known for being the real “Mao’s last dancer” – came to New Zealand to talk. Apart from having been one of the world’s best ballet dancers, a best-selling author, choreographer, stockbroker (!) and father of three, Li Cunxin is also an avid, successful and very entertaining inspirational speaker, who has travelled the world using his own personal “rags to riches” story to help others gain some insight into their own story.
One of the first things that Li Cunxin tells his audience is that one of his greatest desires growing up poverty stricken in Quingdao, China – apart from wishing there was something else to eat than tree bark – was to own a pair of underpants. Remember, this is a true story. Li Cunxin’s family were so poor that underpants were a luxury item which were handed down from the oldest son to the younger siblings. And here is the rest of the true story: One of the rare days that Li had been desperate enough for underpants, and had “borrowed” them from his older brother, was also the day that Government delegates working for Madame Mao’s vision to recruit the best ballet dancers in China came to Li’s school, and ordered all the children to strip down to their underpants for assessment of body shape, flexibility and stamina. Extraordinarily, Li was wearing the shared underpants, and even more astonishingly, Li’s teacher – for no reason that Li could understand, even to this day – pointed him out to the selectors, even after they had already chosen another child and were on their way out the door. The exercises they asked him to demonstrate that day tore both of his hamstrings right then and there, and yet, he remembers that he felt compelled to keep smiling regardless.
What happened next – Li’s selection into the Beijing Dance Academy, his years of rigorous, impossibly hard training, followed by his opportunity to train and perform in the USA for the Houston Ballet, and his eventual, dramatic defection from China – are all well known through the 2003 book and the film that followed. What is perhaps less well-known is that Li has put a lot of thought into the small but intricately connected series of events which got him there. The underpants, possibly, were the beginning of a series of “one moments”, that conspired to change everything about his life and the path that he had assumed would be his. “Never accept or conform to your fate,” he states, reinforcing that “we don’t know what we don’t know,” and that his ultimate success came from that very moment. And when it came it arrived like a “nothing moment; there were no banners flying or sirens blaring”, no dramatic background music a-la-Hollywood movies, just a small moment that snowballed into more frequent, and greater moments.
Li Cunxin believes that there is no moment too small, no opportunity too meagre to let it pass us by without grabbing onto it. “Treasure every opportunity, don’t take them for granted. Work your hardest to see what kind of success you can make out of that moment – if you do that time and time again, all the small opportunities mount up.” So, a ballet-dancer’s version of “carpe diem”, but an unbelievably convincing one, as Li Cunxin is the living example of his own theory – listening to his lecture and later meeting him in person it turns out he is not just skilled at inspirational rhetoric, but an approachable and genuine person.
Li tries to live in the moment, in a place where “your actions today have a direct correlation to the future.” If you could believe that to be more than a random thought which sounds good in theory and if were able to practice it, then there is the real possibility that your actions at every single moment may be quite different to what they normally are. For Li it is a kind of freedom –a very precious commodity during his early years in China – to be able to make those considered choices. “Time is like liquid gold, flowing down the river – it can just pass you by,” he muses, adding “do yourself the justice to see what kind of success you can make out of your life, as life is too short to be mediocre.” For Li, hard work and persistence are a kind of “stockpiling” for future hardships which, invariably, will come your way: “The question is not whether you will face challenges, but how you will deal with them. This is where your self-belief and hard work will come in.” The relationship between resilience and success are thereby inextricably connected, and as a final motivating thought Li challenges his audience to think about their own deathbed scenario. He stipulates that at an early age everyone needs to write down a list of their dreams, hopes, wishes and goals, and then put that paper away until the moment of their death: “What is the expression on your face when you open that piece of paper? Are you angry, disappointed, regretful? Or are you smiling?”
There would have been very few people in the audience who did not go home that night and re-consider their own “piece of paper”. The lists we have of hopes and dreams and goals – often seemingly wildly inappropriate or impossible to achieve – are what Li Cunxin hopes to inspire his audience to seriously contemplate. This is a man who – when faced with the real possibility that China would execute him for his refusal to leave the USA – decided that his freedom and dignity were more important than his life, and who saw his subsequent “second chance” at life as a treasure which obligated him to make a difference to the world. If his lifetime commitment to inspiring people through dancing and his uncompromising sharing of his life experiences, as well as his ability to be honest and thought provoking are anything to go by, I think it may just be that Li Cunxin is well on his way to having a very broad smile on his face when his time comes to open his piece of paper.