We were extremely privileged to have former ballet dancer Li Cunxin visit the Peregrine office yesterday.
Li is the author of Mao's Last Dancer, the 2003 Australian Book of the Year, which describes his journey from Beijing to America and finally to Australia where he still lives today.
Mao's Last Dancer begins in poverty-stricken Beijing, where more than 38 million people died of starvation between the years 1958 and 1961.
Born in 1961, Li was forced to live under the harsh rule of Chairman Mao, along with his beloved parents and six brothers. As Li spoke to us yesterday, he described life during "the unbelievable brainwashing of Mao's political propaganda". He told us that 99.9% of villagers in his hometown of Qingdao were uneducated, and the threat of illness and starvation was very real.
At the tender age of 11, Li was plucked from his school by representatives of Madame Mao to become a student in her Beijing Dance Academy. "I was one of only 44 children chosen in the whole of China. That one moment changed my entire destiny."
Li moved away from his beloved family, and endured seven years of strict routine, injury, sacrifice and loneliness. He was only able to return to Qingdao once a year, but he eventually learned that ballet was the ticket to a better life for both himself and his family.
A brave new world
Li's dedication was finally rewarded when he and a friend were invited to visit America on a dance scholarship in 1979. But this trip would also unlock something inside of Li that could never be closed again. His eyes were opened to a different world - the Western world; a world which he had been taught to fear his whole life. For the first time, Li started to question the Communist system and the teachings of Chairman Mao.
After returning to Beijing he fought for, and was reluctantly granted another chance to visit America in 1979. But this time, Li could not face the thought of returning to a country he no longer understood.
Yesterday he spoke of the struggle he felt between head and heart: the pain at leaving his family behind and the determination to create a better life for them all. "How do I find a new way forward? I needed to find the answer from within. I couldn't return knowing there was a better life out there."
A way forward
He defected in 1981, and his account of the negotiations between Chinese and US governments over his fate and being illegally detained by the Chinese embassy for 21 hours is a fascinating story.
Thankfully, Li's story has a happy ending. His determination, courage, strength and passion saw him became one of the world's best dancers, performing over 2000 times in many prestigious and historic settings. Then, in 1988 he was finally granted permission to return to China and see his family and friends after nine long years.
Now, Li is retired from dancing and works in Melbourne as a successful stockbroker. But his story lives on with every motivational speech that he gives, whether it is to a room full of bankers or a class of young children. His enthusiasm is infectious, and many of us wished we had a stage in the Peregrine office so we could ask him to dance for us again.
Li speaks fondly of his hometown, and said he still visits China often. As he remembers back to those days of poverty and starvation, he tells us how important it is to never give up hope, and to always strive for success:
'When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found."
(Image: Li Cunxin with Peregrine Managing Director Glenyce Johnson)
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