From the Publisher
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2011:
"A fascinating and memorable account of a life and times difficult to imagine today."
Booklist, September 15, 2011:
Leaving her poor, remote village in 1978, 11-year-old Zhongmei Li traveled an arduous three-day journey to audition for the Beijing Dance Academy. At the end of the highly competitive seven-stage competition, despite her rural background and lack of connections, she was one of the few girls selected. At the academy, a rigid dormitory supervisor and hostile teacher make life miserable for the young student, but the resolute Zhongmei survives the eight-year training and becomes a successful dancer. Written by her U.S. husband, this biography follows the steely, determined dancer through many adversities up to her academy graduation. Although the narrative is occasionally overly descriptive, it is packed with cultural information. It explains, for example, how a list of names is organized for posting, as there is no alphabetical order in Chinese. Inspiring for would-be dancers, Zhongmei Li’s gritty success story is also a revealing window into post-Mao China. — Linda Perkins
…A Girl Named Faithful Plum is a story rich with genuine heart, inspiring readers as well as making them consider what it takes to achieve true greatness.
The New York Times Book Review
Children's Literature - Michael Jung PhD
New York Times foreign correspondent Richard Bernstein tells the true story of his wife, Li Zhongmei (Faithful Plum) in this book, which takes readers back to the China of 1978 when many schools, including the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy, were being reopened and accepting a small number of new students. When this news reaches eleven-year-old Zhongmei in the humble farming community of Baoquanling, she begs her parents to send her to Beijing to auditiondespite their belief that a simple "farm girl" cannot compete against the wealthier city girls. Against all odds, however, Zhongmei makes it to Beijing, where her talent helps her stand out among thousands of other applicants. Yet being inducted into the academy proves to be only the first trial in an arduous year of grueling morning runs, calisthenics, and martial arts lessonsand her low class background makes her the subject of constant ridicule from not only the students but also her bigoted ballet instructor who refuses to teach her. Through it all, however, Zhongmei perseveres and finds some unexpected allies who help her succeed in a school famous for producing internationally renowned dancers. A dramatic story about determination and Chinese performance art, Bernstein's novel also serves as an intriguing glimpse into a China just beginning to transition out of Chairman Mao's regime. Notably, while many American writers have harshly criticized China's Cultural Revolution, Bernstein attempts to provide a slightly more balanced look, acknowledging the hardships suffered by the people while also showing how people like Zhongmei found true inspiration and drive in Chairman Mao's words. Bernstein also makes frequent comparisons between modern Chinese life and the lifestyle of Zhongmei's generation, which unfortunately cause him to make awkward transitions between past and present tense. Nonetheless, the story as a whole is solid, and all the more impressive when readers learn the events are all true, and led to the emergence of one of China's most celebrated dancers. Reviewer: Michael Jung, PhD
School Library Journal
Gr 5 Up—In 1978, 11-year-old Li Zhongmei traveled for three days and two nights from her remote town on the Chinese-Soviet Union border to Beijing to audition for the Beijing Dance Academy. Despite her lack of connections, she was one of a dozen girls chosen from more than 60,000 applicants. In addition to the rigorous curriculum, she faced ridicule from her urbane classmates and teachers for being a "country bumpkin," and initially was unable to take the required Fundamentals of Ballet class. Despite many hardships, Zhongmei became one of China's most famous ballet dancers. Written by her husband, the book reads more like a novel than a biography; it's full of re-created dialogue, letters, and visual detail. The vivid descriptions bring China in the post-Cultural Revolution, pre-Tiananmen Square era to life. While the book does not discuss present-day China, it mentions that the country was extremely poor at the time and that living conditions are different today. Unlike Li Cunxin's Mao's Last Dancer (Walker, 2008), this volume focuses less on politics and more on Zhongmei's struggles to succeed as a dancer. Readers of ballet stories and biographies, such as Siena Cherson Siegel's To Dance (S & S/Atheneum, 2006), will enjoy seeing how Chinese ballet differs from Western styles and appreciate Zhongmei's long hours of hard work and practice.—Jennifer Rothschild, Prince George's County Memorial Library System, Oxon Hill, MD
In 1978, an 11-year-old girl fights poverty and prejudice with gutsy perseverance and talent to fulfill her dream of studying at the Beijing Dance Academy.
Faithful Plum, or Zhongmei, lives in a remote area of China near Siberia. The standard of living is so low that she and her siblings eat one egg a year on their birthdays. She loves to dance, though, and upon hearing that the Academy is holding national auditions she sets her mind on going. And go she does, when a hunger strike and the kindness of her community overcome her parents' initial refusal. After a horrific three-day journey by trains and buses, Zhongmei comes through the difficult audition only to face an extreme daily regimen of exercise and instruction, an appallingly rigid dormitory supervisor and a ballet teacher scarred by the Cultural Revolution. Fortunately, a wise and kindly administrator recognizes her extraordinary talent. Bernstein, a noted columnist and author of books on China, is married to Zhongmei, who enjoyed a noteworthy career. In his first book for children, he has taken her voice as his own and written a riveting account of her first year at the Academy. The conversations ring true, albeit "imagined," and events have been compressed to keep the pace flowing.
A fascinating and memorable account of a life and times difficult to imagine today. (glossary) (Historical fiction. 10-14)
Read an Excerpt
One sunny morning in 1978 in the remote, very northernmost part of China, a slight eleven-year-old girl named Zhongmei Li got on a bus for the first leg of a journey to Beijing, China's capital. Zhongmei had gotten up that morning as she always did, to the sound of roosters crowing and hens clucking in nearby yards. She was so excited, hopeful, and nervous that she could barely eat the breakfast of rice porridge and corn fritters that her older sister Zhongqin made for her, because this was indeed a very big event in the life of a young girl who had never been more than a few hours from her hometown. It was even a noteworthy event for the town itself, a place called Baoquanling, most of whose residents had never been to Beijing and never expected to go.
When Zhongmei got to the bus station, just a patch of open ground alongside the town's main street, she found that most of the people she knew were there to see her offher classmates from her fifth grade in elementary school, her neighbors, and a few of her teachers. Her two older sisters, her older brother, and her younger one had accompanied her to the bus station as well, though her mother and father couldn't be there because, like all the adults in this region of China, they had to put in a full day of work, whether their daughters were heading off to Beijing or not. In all the trip would take three days and two nights on two buses and two trains. But Zhongmei wouldn't be alone. On the first part of the journey to Jiamusi, which was two buses and four hours away, she was going to be accompanied by Zhongqin, who was not only the older of her sisters but was also her best friend.
"We're going to miss you," one of her classmates called out as Zhongmei and Zhongqin turned to get on the bus.
"I'll miss you too," Zhongmei replied.
"Do your best," one of her teachers said, raising a clenched fist in the air, looking a bit like a figure in one of the posters that were up all over China in those days, urging people to fight for the revolution. "Try hard. Be strong."
"I will," said Zhongmei.
Zhongmei shook hands all around, gave her younger brother a pat on the head, hugged her second sister, and smiled at her older brother, who gave her a cheerful thumbs-up. Standing on the first step of the bus entrance, she took one last look around the place where she had spent her whole life. Baoquanling was about as remote as remote gets in China, pressed against the border with Russian Siberia, blazing hot in summer, freezing in winter, battered by strong winds in the spring and fall. The air on this early morning was cool and fresh, though it would get scorching hot in a little while. The sky was a pale blue stained with yellow dust and streaked with high, thin clouds. A Chinese flag, five white stars on a field of red, hung limply from a nearby flagpole. Through a gap in the buildings that lined Bao-quan-ling's main street, Zhongmei could see a row of men and women, pitchforks and rakes slung over their shoulders like rifles, marching out to the wheat and vegetable fields of the Baoquanling State Farm.
Zhongmei and Zhongqin pushed their way into the bus, Zhongmei carrying the small cloth suitcase that Zhongqin had bought for the occasion at the local department storenone of the Li children had really been anyplace before, so they didn't have any travel accessories. There was a good deal of pushing and shoving as passengers scrambled to find seats, or risk having to stand in the aisle all the way to Hegang. Zhongqin was lucky to get a spot in the very first row just behind the driver. She relieved Zhongmei of the suitcase and put it on her lap. Zhongmei, a bit less lucky, sat on the cushioned engine cover that occupied the front part of the aisle, which warmed up from the heat of the engine and vibrated the whole way to Hegang.
Zhongmei watched as the bus driver revved up the engine and put it noisily into gear. She turned to wave to her friends and family, but the bus kicked up such a thick cloud of dust and smoke as it roared into motion that nobody was visible. Zhongmei felt a wave of disappointment at that, but then she figured it didn't really matter. For weeks everybody had been telling her that she was bound to fail in Beijing and would be back in Baoquanling pretty soon, after which everything else would go back to the way it had been beforeexcept that her hard-pressed family would have to pay back the money they borrowed for one expensive train tricket. This was not what Zhongmei hoped for, and she was determined not to fail. And yet so many people seemed to think that she was making this big trip for nothing that she had begun to wonder if, maybe, they were right.
The flat, straight road leading out of Baoquanling was lined with gray birch trees whose trunks were painted white so they could be easily seen at night. It teemed with bicycles, oxcarts, and three-wheeled farm trucks filled with trussed pigs, slatted chicken crates, bricks, cinder blocks, mounds of cabbages or turnips or eggplants or straw, or mesh bags bulging with garlic heads, onions, potatoes, beets, and white Chinese radishes. Blackbirds perched on the electricity wires strung across the endless rank of telephone poles parallel to the road.
The bus rumbled and bounced on the rutted track. Trucks, crowded with farm workers whose legs dangled over the edges of their flat wooden beds, passed from the other direction. They were being taken to Baoquanling's more distant fields, and Zhongmei strained to see if her mother was among them, since she was a fieldworker herself who often traveled that way, but she caught no glimpse of her. Her bones beat to the vibration of the engine. Her bottom was warm.
In the distance on the left side of the bus was a range of purple hills where in the spring and summer members of Zhongmei's family searched for medicinal herbs and mushrooms. These were the peaks in the name of Zhongmei's hometown, whose three Chinese characters, Bao Quan Ling, mean "Precious Water from the Mountain Peaks," and Zhongmei remembered her excursions there with her two sisters. As the youngest, Zhongmei was only allowed to go to the crest of the first hill, where the sisters gathered pine nuts and mushrooms. Wolves lived beyond that spot and over the next hills, and often at night the Li family could hear their distant howling. Sometimes one of Zhongmei's older cousins went deep into the mountains to hunt for wild turkey and pheasant, and when he was successful, there was meat for dinner, a rare event for the people of Baoquanling.
Once Zhongmei's younger brother, Li Feng, got sick, and her second sister, Zhongling, took it on herself to go into the mountains to gather a special grass that could be brewed into a medicinal tea. Zhongling climbed through the woods and over the first hill where the sisters usually stopped for their mushrooms and nuts. She walked over the second hill and into a valley where, as she gathered the grass, she noticed two puppies in a nest of leaves and twigs under a big tree. Or at least she thought they were puppies. They were cute and playful. Happily Zhongling put them into her sack and brought them home, shepherding them under a table in the kitchen and feeding them some scraps.
That night the howling of the wolves wasn't as far away as it usually was. It was alarmingly close. There was a scraping noise just outside the house, canine nails sliding down the brick walls. Suddenly the gray head of a wolf, its fangs showing, appeared in a window, just like Zhongmei imagined in the story of the three pigs, which she'd read at school. It seemed to be looking inside the house, trying to find what everybody now knew were wolf pups, not dog pups. Zhongmei remembered not sleeping much that night as she huddled against her big sisters, listening to the wolves as they prowled outside, sniffing at the window, scratching the walls, howling at the moon just outside the gate.
"Don't be scared," Zhongqin said to Zhongmei and to Li Feng, who was equally terrified. "It's a strong brick house."
Zhongmei finally fell asleep, and when she woke up at dawn, the wolves had left. A car belonging to the state farm was called. Zhongling put the two adorable wolf pups in her sack, scurried through the yard, ran out the gate, and jumped into the car, looking out for the wolves she feared might still be roaming the alley outside the house. Carrying the sack over her shoulder, she climbed over the first hill and, not daring to go any farther, released the two pups, and then watched as they scampered over the hill toward the deep forest. That night, Zhongmei remembered, now smiling at the thought, the howling of the wolves was reassuringly far away, though it was still a little scary.