For your reading pleasure please enjoy an interview with Li Cunxin (2004). Li talks about Mao’s Last Dancer which was released recently as a movie and his recollections on growing up in Qingdao. Of particular interest is his journey away from and back to China and his astute insights on the arts and business.
Conan: You were born in New Village, Qingdao, what are your memories of living in Qingdao in the 1960s and 70s, it has obviously changed enormously, but what strikes you the most when you come back?
Li: As I’d described in my autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, that life Qingdao (matter of fact, throughout China) in the 60’s and early part of 70’s was extreme poverty and hard ship. People struggled to get food on the table. So many nights my entire family had to go to sleep starving. In certain years, people even ate tree barks to survive. We had no running water, little or no heating. The temperature in Qingdao could drop down to 15-20 degrees below zero. We had couple of hours of electricity if we were lucky, often we lived in total darkness. There were very little arts or entertainments when I grew up. A touring film crew was the biggest thrill of our lives. Compared to today, it’s night and day! I couldn’t believe what’s happening in China today and how much people’s living standard have improved. It all due to Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door” policy. What struck the most when I go back to China these days it’s how free they are, not purely in the physical sense, I’m talking about their mental state. There is a “can-do” attitude and an entrepreneurial spirit that’s sweeping all through China.
Conan: Your career began when you attended the prestigious Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy, and went on to become a world-class ballet dancer, how were you selected?
Li: How I was selected by the Beijing Dance Academy (BDA) was a fateful chance, a chance that was beyond belief. Just before I turned 11, sitting in a freezing (heatless) classroom studying Mao’s golden words, four dignified looking men walked into our classroom, they were introduced as Madame Mao’s cultural advisers from the BDA to select ballet talents. Of course I k new nothing about ballet. I had never seeing a live performance before. They asked us to all stand up and sing propaganda songs, as we sang, they walked down the isles and watched our facial expressions, at the same time tried to get an idea of our figures through the snowball-like thick cotton quilted coats and pants. They passed me by without taking any notice, and they selected one girl out of over 40 kids. Just as they were about the walk out of the door with that lucky girl, my teacher hesitated, eventually tapped on the shoulder of the last gentlemen from Beijing, “what about that one?” she pointed at me. Strangely, for all those years, I never thought to ask this teacher why she singled me out that day, only three and half years ago, when I started to write my autobiography, I reflected upon that fateful moment, I then tracked her down in Qingdao and asked her the reason. She told me that “for all those years I wondered, I still don’t know why!” Of course the audition process was extremely hard, they measured every inch of my body, bended it in all directions and had indeed torn both of my hamstrings during the audition process. As they lifted my legs higher and higher, and asked me if this hurt. It was excruciatingly painful. But stubbornly I smiled, shook my head and answered “No”. Even as a young boy, I knew then that was one possibly the only opportunity in life which could allow me to pursue a journey that’s different to my father and forefathers. It was the opportunity that I had been secretly dreaming for so long, and it’s an opportunity that may allow me to go back to help the rest of my family one day. To say the least that my seven years at the BDA was extremely tough. We started the day at 5.30 am; it went to 9 pm six days a week. No phone calls, only enough money to send very few letters home each year. I missed my parents, especially my mother dreadfully in the first few years. So many nights I clutched on to my mother’s quilt, sobbing myself to sleep. For me to eventually become one of the best dancers in China and the world, it took enormous discipline, determination, passion, dedication and most importantly, a lot of hard work. I went to extreme measures to achieve my goals, from strapping heavy sandbags on my ankles, hopping on one leg, up and down four flights of stairs at 5 am to practice my turns in front of the candle light when others are asleep. I felt like that I had climbed many tall mountains and made so many impossible dreams come true through sheer determination, perseverance, passion, self conviction and belief.
Conan: You were among the first Chinese dancers of the time to leave China on a cultural exchange, now when you look to promote Chinese artistic talent, how is it different from your original cultural exchange to America in 1979 with Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy?
Li: I left China in 1979, I was one of two first cultural exchange artists been allowed to go to the West. I knew it was such a rare opportunity and I had to treasure it by giving my utter most to achieve excellence. I didn’t speak a single word of English when I was told that I was one of the lucky students been selected to go to study at the Houston Ballet Academy. I knew I had to study hard in every aspect, in both language and dance, which I did. I put my whole heart and soul into each minute of my day while in America and what an experience those six weeks gave me. I was never going to take that opportunity for granted. There were very limited opportunities during my youth compared to the opportunities young people enjoy today. Not only they have better education and better lifestyle, they also have more of opportunities within China. I truly believe that luck and opportunity can only get you so far in life, at the end it’s the passion, determination, dedication, perseverance and big dreams that set you apart from others.
Conan: You were born in a time when China was still a mystery to the outside world, but you went on to international fame, what obstacles did you need to overcome when you left China?
Li: So many obstacles and challenges that I had faced when I first went to the West. First and the foremost, was the language barrier and the cultural understanding. Again I tried my utter most. Every free minute away from dance (my main focus) I was memorizing new English words, either showering, walking or on the toilet. I started reading English books even though I had very limited vocabulary. Indeed, everything was a shock at the beginning. The wash machines, dryers, dishwashers, garbage disposal machines, juicers, toasters, and yes, the ATM machines. Watching money spilled out of a wall was simply amazing! And been offered English muffin for breakfast was a shock, because “muffin” in Chinese means “horse shit”…The biggest surprise was that how much freedom the Westerners enjoyed and what a prosperous life they lived compared the kind of life I came from.
Conan: At the height of your renown in ballet you went back to school to become a stockbroker while still dancing full-time. What drove you to do it, and what kind of new rigors did you go through, and how did your old self-discipline help you?
Li: At 35 years of age, I realized that my ballet career wasn’t going to last for ever. As a parent of three young children, I had to start to plan my future after dance even though I dreaded about. And staying in dance after a stage career wasn’t really an option due to the low pay. My wife Mary (a Queenslander) and I wanted to give our kids the best possible education. At the same time I had been an investor in the share market and was fascinated by
the financial world. I set myself goals in educating myself. I spent three and half years studying the financial diploma courses by correspondent at the Australian Securities Institute. And eventually ANZ Securities offered me a job as a stockbroker. From there, I went on to found the Asian Desk at one of the largest stock broking firms in Australia called Bell Potter Securities based in Melbourne. Yes, I used what I’d learnt at the BDA and ballet, which are discipline, determination, perseverance, passion and hard work into studying and stock broking. These are qualities that I relied on again and again to get me through the tough times throughout my journey.
Conan: Your autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, has been an international best-seller, and ran 14 editions in Australia alone, will you publish it here in China? If so what will that entail, it was written in English would you do the translation yourself?
Li: Yes, Mao’s Last Dancer was an incredible success. It’s in the 23rd printing now, it stayed on the top ten best seller list for over twelve months in Australia, and it’s been published in many countries and been translated into several foreign languages. A young readers edition will be published in Australia in May this year and a possible featured film is in the works too. I’m working with a Chinese writer friend translating into Chinese currently, I have no expectation as to how the Chinese government would feel and react. But all I hope is that China indeed has moved on, and they would regard my book as a true reflection of the China when I grew up, and view the work as a positive human interest story like millions of people worldwide who’d read my book have felt.
Conan: When you come back Qingdao, where do you stay? How do you like to spend your time?
Li: I always stay with my parents in the New Village. My wife and I had bought an apartment for them. All my six brothers are still either living at the same village or near by. I don’t do much sightseeing when I go back, mostly visiting relatives and friends. And most importantly spend as much time with my parents as possible.
Conan: As an artist returning home how do you feel about Qingdao’s developing art scene?
Li: The arts scene in Qingdao has progressed along with the rest of the Chinese arts scene, but it’s not comparable to Beijing or Shanghai…I don’t really have much contact with the artistic people in Qingdao
Conan: As a businessman, how do you feel about Qingdao’s development?
Li: Qingdao is going through an amazing boom time like most of the coastal cities there. It’s very exciting indeed. For me though, after couple of failed business ventures in China (one in Qingdao and one in Beijing), I am an admirer not an investor.
Conan: What do you think Qingdao needs to further develop as a world city before the 2008 Olympics?
Li: I’m not an expert about what Qingdao needs before 2008 Olympics. But I would thought that for Qingdao to become an international status and destination, they need to further develop their arts sector, expand the airport and port facilities, and like all fast growing cities in China, they need to develop their infrastructure of all kind.
Conan: What do you think about the lifestyle in China now?
Li: Much improved. But I do worry about what the KFC and McDonalds of the world have on the good traditional Chinese diet. And I hope their new-found prosperity doesn’t destroy their sacred family and social values
Conan: Do you have any plans to return permanently? How do you feel when you return?
Li: I don’t have any immediate plan to return to China permanently. But I do enjoy go back to China to show my wife and children. I feel important for my kids to learn about their Chinese heritage and to keep that family ties with their cousins there.