Friday, April 2, 2010

Review: Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

Title: Mao's Last Dancer
Author: Li Cunxin
Genre: Non-Fiction/Biography
Publisher: Penguin, 2003


This is the true story of how one moment in time, by the thinnest thread of a chance, changed the course of a small boy's life in ways that are beyond description.

Born in 1961, Li Cunxin was the 6th son of a Chinese peasant family living in poverty-stricken conditions near the city of Quingdao.Struggling to survive on a diet that seemed to consist mainly of boiled yams this close and loving family could see no future other than what already was.
At the age of 8 he began school where his learning consisted of reading, reciting and writing 'Long Live Chairman Mao' and the contents of the Red Book.
Until the day the talent scouts came - Madame Mao was reviving the Beijing Dance Academy and they were seeking recruits. The finger of fate pointed at Li Cunxin and he was chosen.

The book is divided into three parts and it was this first part , Childhood , that I found most interesting. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not some long ago tale of peasant suffering - this is the 1960's and an account of how Chinese people were living under the oppressive regime of the time. But it also contains some lovely old folk stories that I enjoyed reading and the deep ties of family love and filial duty that Li Cunxin felt for his parents and brothers shines through.
The randomness of the selection process is mindboggling. This little boy who had never danced a step in his life was not chosen for his talent or potential but simply a 'What about this one".

In Part 2 we travel with Li Cunxin to the Beijing Dance Academy.........share the long , lonely months of homesickness , the physical pain of his tortuous daily training and the arrival of  a new teacher Xiao Shuhua who will provide the encouragement and inspiration he needed to become the best. He's also fully committed to serving Chairman Mao and becomes a member of the Communist Youth Party.
A visit from Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, to teach two master classes was to bring another opportunity - he offered two scholarships to his summer school and again Li Cunxin is chosen.
This first journey out of China is another fascinating part of the story. To view the western world through the eyes of someone from such a different background, the observations and comparisons he makes about simple things we take so much for granted and the difficulties in adjusting to a complete new culture. The sadness and disillusionment as his loyalties and beliefs are stripped away. He returns to China determined to return which after some difficulties he manages to do.

Part 3 follows his career and his rise to become one of the world's greatest dancers. There is the drama of his defection, his ill fated first marriage, his longing to see his family......

He spent 16 years in the USA , married an Australian dancer , Mary McKendry and eventually made his home in Melbourne, Australia where they live with their three children. After retiring from ballet he began a new career as a financial analyst.

It's an inspiring story. That one moment in time gave him a chance - what he achieved was the results of hard work, determination , self discipline and the courage to follow his dreams despite seemingly overwhelming odds against him.


  1. Wow.. this books sounds so good!! Good review!

  2. I always enjoy stories where they escape China, or the horror they faced there. The realism since it is real. I still remember one that wrote about the cultural revolution and how they burned books and destroyed old buildings. Broke my heart

  3. I know's awful!

    Aths....I enjoyed it but mainly for the parts set in China.

  4. This sounds fantastic. I love these inspirational stories! I'll certainly be on the lookout for this in the library.

    from Une Parole