Using the Movie in the Classroom
Students should at least know the following information about the movie, China, and ballet before watching the film. The following short introduction will supply these facts.
Introducing the Movie — General Comments
This movie closely follows the autobiography written by Mr. Li Cunxin. A few factual changes have been made to make the movie more dramatic, but these changes are true to the spirit of the story and to the times in which Cunxin lived. Many fascinating details about Cunxin's life that are included in the book have, in the interest of time, been left out of the film.
Introducing the Movie — China in the 20th Century
China has the second largest economy in the world and is set to surpass the United States in economic output at some point within four to eleven years, depending upon which economic forecast works out to be true. China is almost as large as the U.S. in terms of size but dwarfs the U.S. in terms of population. It is the most populous nation in the world, with approximately 1,340,000,000 people as of 2010. Only India, with a population of 1,210,000,000 people can challenge China in population. The U.S. is the third most populous nation in the world with about 313,000,000 people as of December 2011.
China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with about 3700 years of recorded history. It has gone through a series of imperial dynasties and kingdoms that alternated with periods of disunity and internal warfare. In the 19th century, China was invaded and forced to agree to onerous trading concessions by European imperialist powers and the U.S. The most notorious of these concessions was the requirement that China allow the English to import opium into China. The English were interested in finding a commodity to trade for the Chinese tea which the English loved so much.
In 1949, after a long Civil War, China became a communist state under Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao ruled China until his death in 1976. During Mao's rule, most people in China were required to study Mao's communist philosophy. Mao's governance of China was characterized by various campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward (1958 - 1961) was an attempt to quickly industrialize the country and to force farmers into large collective farms. This effort to create factory farms caused a famine which killed from 18 million to 32 million people. The Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976) was an attempt to impose Maoist/communist ideology in the country and to root out anti-communist elements. Mao claimed that there were counter-revolutionaries in the government and society who wanted to restore capitalism. People who were suspected of adhering to capitalist or traditional philosophies were removed from positions of responsibility and power. Mao mobilized Chinese youth into "Red Guard" units to find and root out capitalist as well as traditional cultural influences. Over time, the Cultural Revolution grew in scope to include challenges to leaders of the Communist Party, the military, the medical profession, the universities and schools, and virtually every element of Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution lasted for 11 years and cause widespread dislocation and reduction of skill in the professions, schools, universities, the military, and the government.
China is still ruled by the Communist Party; however, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, pragmatists led by Deng Xiaoping took control of the Communist Party stressing economic development rather than ideological purity.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Chinese society consisted of a vast impoverished peasant class, dominated by the military and by bureaucrats from China's government service. In addition to the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, other famines in China killed tens of millions of people. After 1980, vast numbers of Chinese peasants began to move to the cities, as China's economic development began to expand.
Introducing the Movie — Ballet in China, Russia, and the U.S.
Ballet is a dance form in which lyrical beauty is attained through athletic prowess and rigorous training. While ballet started in Italy and France in the 1700 and 1800s, it transcends cultures and has adherents and enthusiasts in almost every country in the world. Most developed countries and some underdeveloped countries have ballet companies.
In the movie, Cunxin admires the dancing of a Russian named Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest dancers the world has ever produced. In the 1800s, the Russian Imperial Court imported French and Italian ballet dancers and choreographers. The art form flourished in Russia and during the 20th century, Russia had the strongest ballet tradition of any country. During that period, Russia routinely produced the top-ranked ballet dancers in the world. By the turn of the 20th century, ballet had pretty much died out in Italy and France. However, after the Russian revolution some dancers and choreographers fled the communists to the West and helped to establish dance companies in Western Europe and the U.S. However, the primacy of Russian ballet continued. During the Cold War (1946 - 1991) several of the best Russian ballet dancers defected to the West, including Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, and Natalia Makarova.
The communist leaders of Russia touted that country's ability to produce great dancers as a triumph of the Soviet system. The communist leaders of China sought to emulate Russia and show the benefits of Chinese communism by establishing a strong ballet program. Despite the differences in Chinese and Western culture, there were people such as teacher Xiao who saw the beauty in ballet and were devoted to it. The Chinese communists tapped them to train the country's young dancers. This was the program in which Cunxin was placed when he was 11 years old.
While Russia still has a great tradition for ballet, it's primacy it is now being challenged by the United States which has ballet companies in most major cities and which requires increasingly difficult athletic and artistic achievements by its dancers. The Houston Ballet, at which Cunxin danced, is one of those companies.
In Li Cunxin’s autobiography ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’, there are a series of events about Li growing up in rural Shandong province. It clearly shows the readers his impressive childhood. We can see everywhere is full of love and in Li’s family, although his family wasn’t rich. I have a better life than Li and my family is also crowded with happiness. Love always exists in a family, no matter rich or poor. Our life is affected deeply by family’s love on our way of developing as a person.
Sharing food in the family is a way of conveying love. Li’s family had to fight for survival. There was always not enough food for everyone. At meal times, Li’s parents gave food to each other. Li’s father is the breadwinner in the family, so his health is most important. Li’s mother left the best food for Li’s dad, but he said he wasn’t hungry and passed it back to Li’s mum. Li’s parents would eat slowly to allow their sons more food. Compared to Li, people of my generation have higher standard of living. My family has enough food to eat and we never suffer in hunger. However, my parents will still leave the good food for me and buy me the food I want.
I went to a bonding school. When I went back home on the weekend, my mum would spend hours in the kitchen and make many dishes. All of them were my favourite food. The meals on weekdays, it wouldn’t be as bumper as on weekend. My parents just ate the food that left from weekend or cooked with some cheap ingredients. Li’s and my parents both care a lot about their children. They want the children lead a better life and have better things to live with. The things that share at mealtimes in the family are not only food that can fill our stomachs, but also the love that maintain our life.
Concern from grandparents is unforgettable in our childhood. Grandparents always care about their grandchildren and protect them from being hurt. Once Li broke his mother six precious newly purchased plates by accident, he went to his grandmother and told her what had happened. Then his grandma decided to help Li without hesitation. She took the blame for him and lied to Li’s mother. Li’s grandma covered her beloved grandson and saved Li from trouble because she didn’t want him to be punished. This is how much she loved Li.
My grandparents love me as well. When I was in kindergarten, I lived with my grandparents because my parents were busy at work and they went on business sometimes. My grandparents spent plenty of time in looking after me every day. My grandfather sent me to school and picked me up with his bike regardless of sunny day or rainy day. I sat behind him and saw his hunchback. When he fed me, he put on his glasses and painstakingly took out the bone from the fish first. My grandmother told me stories and stroked my forehead gently before I slept. Sometimes she was too tired and fell asleep while she was telling stories. My grandparents took good care of me. For Li and me, grandparents’ love takes an important part in our life.
Love is mutual. Not only other family members give us love, but we also care about them. When Li was a little boy, he dreamt that he could help his family. He hoped he could turn himself into cricket and save his family from poverty, like the boy in the cricket story. He always worked hard so that he could get out of the village life, like the frog in the well. He would fly a kite to send the gods wishes of his mum’s better situation and his dad’s good health. When Li was in Beijing, he still considered the feelings of his family, even though he was away from them.
He never told his parents how homesick he was, because he didn’t want to cause them sadness and make them worry about him. I have the same thoughts and feelings with Li. I feel like I have the responsibility to do my best and live up to my family’s expectation of me. I hope my parents can be proud of me. When I talk about my life in Australia, I will keep my sadness to myself at times and only share the good things with them. Li and I both love our family so much and we would do something for it.
The love that passing between, the love that the elders give us, and the love that come out from the bottom of our hearts make up simple but eternal love within a family. Familial love is like a strong support to our life. It means a lot to us and we can’t live without it. It is a big felicity that Li and I both have it and we enjoy what it brings to us.