Seeing “Mao’s Last Dancer” through a different lens

September 23, 2014

When I saw the film Mao’s Last Dancer—unlike most U.S. citizens—I went with two people who grew up in China and survived the Cultural Revolution.

As we left the theater, my Chinese friends made these comments. “Great movie. Well done. It shows what China went through. If American audiences don’t see this movie because the lead is Chinese, they don’t want to learn about China.”

The evidence seems to support this thinking because Mao’s Last Dancer only earned $4.8 million from the box office in the U.S. while earning almost $17.5 million in theaters outside the U.S.  Maybe the distributor had something to do with the results, because the film at its widest release was only in 137 theaters. In fact, we had to drive more than thirty miles to see it, because in the film’s first week, it was only in 33 theaters.

However, for the first showing of the day, it was a nice audience—several hundred at least.

Mao’s Last Dancer was a great but misleading title. When the dancer, Li Cunxin defected to the U.S. in 1981, Mao had been dead six years. How could he be Mao’s last dancer? In addition, there are ballet troupes all over China—even today—including Beijing where Li learned ballet.

The Huffington Post review said the movie was middlebrow and rises above the pack if only by a little.  The film critic was Marshall Fine, and I disagreed with him.

If Fine knew more about China’s history, he might understand why I disagree.

When Li was a child, China was in the middle of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a form of national (or collective) madness that lasted about a decade and was ended by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death in 1976

Mao’s Last Dancer does a subtle but good job showing what rural life was like during the Cultural Revolution and afterward as attitudes started to change in China.

The movie also shows how tough the Chinese are when it comes to education. Working to gain an education is serious business in China—even today.  What you see while Li and the other children are learning ballet reveals the Chinese mindset.

The New York Times review was kinder but still off the mark.  Mike Hale, writing for the Times, said, “Mao’s Last Dancer is a story of a young and flexible Chinese man who comes to America, where he’s seduced by disco, creative freedom and a honey-haired Houston virgin–”

Can anyone blame young Li for being seduced by a glitzy party country build on debt while the early 1980’s China is a drab, colorless place just emerging from its shell? At the time, China’s metamorphosis was just beginning.

If Li had gone home to China and married the Chinese ballerina he was courting, today he would be living a lifestyle similar to what he saw in America. China has changed that much.

What took the U.S. more than a century to achieve, China accomplished in the thirty years since 1981. In fact, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a scene near the end showing one of China’s modern cities that compares to the Houston Li saw when he first arrived in the U.S.

Hall’s conclusion was wrong. Mao’s Last Dancer is not “strenuously brainless”.  If Hall knew more about China, he would understand why my two Chinese friends believed the movie was worth seeing for its story and its educational value.

It seems that the Amazon reviewers of the film for Mao’s Last Dancer might agree with me because 133 of the 170 reviews have 5-stars.  The average for the film was also 4.6 of 5. The book had 215 reviews for another average of 4.6 stars, and there were 156, 5-star reviews.

In the previous video, Li Cunxin mentions the poverty and hunger he knew as a child under Mao’s leadership of China.

However, while true, it would be misleading to think that conditions were better before Mao. Under Mao—even with the purges, the Great Famine (1959 – 1961) and the Cultural Revolution—the quality of life for the average Chinese improved steadily, if slowly, and the strongest evidence of that is life expectancy. Life expectancy was only 36.5 years in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded, and the population was 400 million. In 1976, when Mao died, life expectancy had increased by 20 years to 56.5 with a population of 700 million. Today, life expectancy is 73.3 years with a population that is more than 1.3 billion.

In fact [China is known as the land of famines—Between 108 BC and 1911 AD, there were no fewer than 1,828 famines in China, or one nearly every year in one province or another. However, the famines varied greatly in severity.], throughout most of Chinese history the majority of Chinese have lived in poverty. As the hundreds of famines that have killed millions of Chinese attest, Chinese poverty has often been absolute, i.e., lacking the very material resources needed to sustain life and maintain health. … The PRC is the first Chinese government [in China's long history] to attempt systematically to reduce both inequality and poverty. Griffith University, Australia. Poverty by David C. Schak

The Word Bank says, “Between 1981 and 2001, the proportion of population living in poverty in China fell from 53 percent to just eight percent.”

Be aware that China’s critics are always quick to cherry pick any facts that will make the PRC look bad without history or context.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Zheng He’s 15th Century Chinese Armada

September 17, 2014

When the Yongle Emperor died in 1424, China’s Hongxi Emperor stopped the voyages of China’s largest fleet. Source: BBC

A century later, about 1529, another Ming Emperor burned all records of the fleet. This decision to withdraw from the world may have resulted in China not being ready to confront the Western Imperial powers that would arrive in the 19th century starting the Opium Wars, which would devastate China.

The voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s armada were rediscovered in Fujian province in the 1930s. The story was etched in a pillar. By the final, seventh voyage, the fleet had covered over 50,000 kilometers or 30,000 miles and was comprised of three hundred ships and 28,000 men.

By comparison, Christopher Columbus set sale in 1492 with 3 small ships and 88 men. Erik the Red, a Viking explorer, also crossed the Atlantic in even smaller ships to build a settlement in Greenland around 1,000 AD. Some archeologists suggest that the Phoenicians may have reached the Americas before the Vikings and Columbus around 500 BC. Some even say as early as 1500 to 1200 BC.

A joint Chinese-Kenyan expedition of archaeologists continues to search for a ship from Zheng He’s fleet, which may have sunk during a storm near the Lamu islands. ( Old Salt Blog )

Many layers of myth surround China’s ancient mariner. According to Kenyan lore, some of his shipwrecked sailors survived and married local women.

DNA tests have reportedly shown evidence of Chinese ancestry and a young Kenyan woman, Mwamaka Shirafu, was given a scholarship to study Chinese medicine in China, where she now lives.

In addition, National Geographic.com reports on the discovery of an ancient burial site found in Kenya’s Lamu archipelago: “These burial places, with their half-moon domes and terraced entries, were virtually identical to the classic Ming tombs that dot hillsides above Chinese ports from which shipwrecked Treasure Fleet sailors might have hailed.”


Another invention from ancient China still used in modern ships today.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Spilling oil is something China may have in common with other countries, but who spills the most?

September 16, 2014

MSNBC reported on BP’s April 20, 2010 oil spill disaster. After an explosion that killed 11 workers and injured 17, more than 200 million gallons of crude oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Fishing industries and tourism was devastated while oil washed ashore turning beaches black with goo.

A few months later in July 2010, the BBC reported on China struggling to recover from their worst oil spill disaster ever—about 18 to 28 million gallons of crude oil spilled.

China was new to this type of disaster and yet, they quickly mobilized an army of volunteers and anglers to help clean the pollution from the area around the port of Dalian, one of China’s most important strategic oil reserves.

China’s oil spill came from an explosion in an oil pipeline. Witnesses report that China may have responded faster than the US did for the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline that exploded belonged to China National Petroleum Corporation.

Using this list published by Foreign Policy Magazine of the world’s largest oil spills, let’s see how China’s oil spill compares? I mean, who spilled more oil?

In January 1991, As Iraqi forces withdrew from their position in Kuwait, they sabotaged hundreds of wells, oil terminals, and tankers. Between 160 million and 410 million gallons poured into the Persian Gulf.

In June 1979, the IXTOC 1 Oil Well exploded spilling 138 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.

In July 1979, 90 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean 10 miles off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago.

In February 1983, 80 million gallons of oil spilled into the Persian Gulf during the height of the Iran-Iraq war when an oil tanker hit the Nowrux Field Platform causing a leak that couldn’t be capped for months because the platform was under constant attack by Iraqi planes.

In May of 1991, 80 million gallons spilled into the ocean 900 miles off the coast of Angola when a tanker holding 260,000 tons of crude exploded.

Foreign Policy Magazine didn’t list the Exxon Valdez oil spill of March 1989 where about 11 million U.S. gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound. For a more complete list of global oil spills, check this list on Wikipedia. Make sure to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page so you don’t miss anything. You may notice that only 3 are listed for China versus the 62, I counted for the U.S.

Is this the price we must pay for a world that depends on oil/coal for electricity and transportation while the oil and coal industries all but ignore alternative sources of power, and people like the Koch brothers often succeed at pressuring the U.S. government to do little to nothing?

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Are there hidden flaws to Piety?

September 10, 2014

I’ve heard that it was Confucianism that caused China to fall victim to Western Imperialism in the 19th century, and the reason Mao started the Cultural Revolution his last decade was to correct this imperfection.

However, I believe that the collective culture created in China by Emperor Han Wudi (156-87 BCE)— considered one of the most influential emperors in Chinese history—is the reason that China’s civilization survived for thousands of years without suffering the fate of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The problem is not from Confucianism but a flaw in the way an element of Confucianism has been interpreted over the centuries.  In fact, this flaw is buried so deep in the Chinese psyche that Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the tragic Cultural Revolution were not stopped because of it.

There were powerful individuals in the Communist Party who did not agree with what Mao was doing but did not speak out when they could have. Some of those individuals even suffered during the Cultural Revolution but still kept silent due to the power of piety.

It wasn’t until after Mao’s death that those same people acted and Deng Xiaoping came to power stopping the madness of the Cultural Revolution.

To criticize an elder in China—even when that individual is power hungry, senile or maybe a bit crazy—is considered similar to Christian heresy during the Spanish Inquisition. Piety means elders must be treated with respect as if they can do no wrong. Is there a way to find a balance and fulfil the duty of filial piety?

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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China’s Kaifeng and India’s Bnei Menashe Jews returning to Israel

September 9, 2014

The first YouTube video is about the Chinese descendants of the Kaifeng Jews of China returning to Israel.  Three Chinese women living in Israel wait at the airport for their arrival.  Several years earlier, these women went through a similar experience when they arrived from China.

All of the Chinese, those arriving and those already in Israel, are descendants of the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, that was established either during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), or earlier during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and some argue it may have been even earlier.

Michael Freund, Chairman of Shavei Israel, talks about the Kaifeng Jews and how they lost their identity through assimilation.   What’s left of that Chinese Jewish community has made great efforts to hold onto their Jewish identity.  Now, many of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants are reconnecting with their Jewish roots.

The Shavei organization has been guiding and supporting the descendants of the Kaifeng’s Jewish community for several years, and Kaifeng Jews have traveled to Israel to study Hebrew and the Jewish culture. After arriving in Israel, the Kaifeng Jews went straight from the airport to the Western Wall.


Another lost Israeli tribe, the Bnei Menashe, were discovered in India—a fascinating story.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden: Part 2 of 2

September 3, 2014

Easy Diving Blogspot.com posted a piece (with a few stunning winter pictures) about Suzhou. Easy Diving said the city’s history goes back to 514 BC.  The gardens were built by imperial officials to create an oasis of tranquility intended for inward reflection.

That tranquility was shattered several times.  The gardens were first destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion.

Then the Japanese invaded China during World War II, and the gardens were destroyed a second time.

During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, many of the gardens were destroyed a third time.

It wasn’t until 1981, several years after Mao’s death, and Deng Xiaoping ruled the Communist Party, that most of the gardens were rebuilt along with many of China’s Buddhist temples that had been destroyed.

Start with or return to Return to Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden: Part 1

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden: Part 1 of 2

September 2, 2014

Suzhou was the cradle of Wu Culture, a city with more than 2,500 years of history that is located in the southern portion of Jiangsu province about 50 miles from Shanghai along the old Grand Canal.  By the 14th century, Suzhou was established as the leading silk producer in China.  Suzhou is also known for Kun Opera with roots in folk songs from the mid 14th century.

The photos were taken by Nancy Williams, my sister.

The Japanese art of bonsai originated from the Chinese practice of penjing (盆景), and the earliest illustration of penjing is found in the murals at the Tang Dynasty tomb of Crown Prince Zhanghuai, 706 AD. Penjing is known as the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, other plants, and landscapes in miniature.

In fact, classical Japan borrowed China’s ancient architecture, Buddhism, a centralized, imperial state; Confucius ethics and political thought in addition to the Chinese writing system.

However, it’s crucially important to understand that what the Japanese borrowed from China, they also adapted and made Japanese.

Continued on September 3, 2014 in Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden: Part 2

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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