The fable of a frog in a deep well opened to Li Cunxin the possibilities of a life beyond the dismal present
In an open and inspiring talk, Li Cunxin, a ballet dancer who went on to write a bestseller on the story of his life, begins by showing the picture of a rundown village in China, saying that is where he came from. “This picture takes me back to conservative Mao’s Communist regime of that time. If I tell you the kind of atmosphere that existed then, you will wonder how a ballet dancer came from there. At the time when I was born, in 1961, roughly 30-40 million people died of starvation. My childhood was full of brainwash about Mao’s political propaganda. On the other hand a strange thing my uneducated father used to tell me, evoking fables that he had heard through generations, passed down verbally. One little fable he liked to repeat to us, particularly during the times when there was no heating in the room... the temperature in our town could drop to anywhere between 15-20 degrees below zero... not enough food to eat... we knew we would go to sleep starving yet again. Through these moments he would tell us these stories. One story stuck with me, became my favourite. Sometimes when I was satisfied with my work or truly thought there was no way forward this simple fable would remind me where I have come from and how creative I would have to be if I want to keep my journey forward.”
Cunxin continues, “A frog which was born in a deep well. The limit was the sky and occasional stars and the moon which he saw, but for the most part he was told life was dark and cold... this dreadful cold and dampness was all life had to offer... until the land from above him told him there was a better world there, a bigger one to enjoy... far more to enjoy, experience and explore. Of course he did not believe that and went to his father and said, ‘Father, please tell me that is not true.’ Only at that moment his father confessed to him that he too had heard of a better and more beautiful world out there and all his life he had tried and tried with utter desperation to get out of the well he had been born into. He told his son there is just no way. Land was too far away for them to ever escape. So he told him to give up hope. The sad fate, the limiting environment they were born into.... this sad story my father told me. Perhaps he and his forefathers had given up hope of ever living in a bigger and more beautiful world. Somehow for me that planted in me the seed of imagination. What if I had the opportunity to get away? What would I do with my life? My dreams ran wild.”
Cunxin goes on to recount how one morning when there was several inches of snow on his way to school and he was ploughing through it in his thick, quilted cotton pants his mother had stitched, this opportunity did come! He was selected to train as a ballet dancer by the Beijing Dance Academy. The selection was preliminary. The second selection, where only 44 students were selected throughout China, was more challenging. Fortunately he succeeded there too, but without a lot of physical pain.
He trained for seven years in the Beijing Academy. His bigger break came when a ballet master from the West identified him and took him abroad. The freedom of America was terribly exciting. “If you have work ethics there is no limit to what you can do here,” says Cunxin. He was on the verge of losing his life when China wanted to take him back, but when he did survive he decided he would make use of every moment and achieve success after success. He did; both as a ballet dancer and author. “The few ingredients that stand out for my success... dream big and trust your instincts... make them a reality. When you fall down, bend and pick up these shattered pieces and carry on as if nothing had happened. Creativity is about breathing it, living it and dreaming it.”
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