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Mao's Last Dancer

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Raised in a desperately poor village during the height of China's Cultural Revolution, Li Cunxin's childhood revolved around the commune, his family and Chairman Mao's Little Red Book.

Until, that is, Madame Mao's cultural delegates came in search of young peasants to study ballet at the academy in Beijing and he was thrust into a completely unfamiliar world.

When a trip to Texas as part of a rare cultural exchange opened his eyes to life and love beyond China's borders, he defected to the United States in an extraordinary and dramatic tale of Cold War intrigue.

Told in his own distinctive voice, this is Li's inspirational story of how he came to be Mao's last dancer, and one of the world's greatest ballet dancers.

480 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2003

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About the author

Li Cunxin

11 books99 followers
Li Cunxin (pronounced “Lee Schwin Sing”) is a remarkable man borne of a remarkable story. He has published a remarkable book about his extraordinary life. In his runaway best selling autobiography, Mao' s Last Dancer, Li recounts his determination, perseverance, vision, courage and hard work, and in particular, the sacred family values and integrity that he learned in poverty-stricken China, which has driven him to become one of the best dancers in the world. He tells of how the sixth of seven sons born to peasants grew up worshipping Mao Zedong before defecting to the United States.

Read more: http://www.licunxin.com/

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,038 reviews
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,735 reviews1,469 followers
March 28, 2013
I didn't love, love, love this book, but I found it interesting and inspiring. Three stars. I felt much of it read as a young adult book. I in fact stopped my reading to go and check if it was directed toward kids. What do I find? I see that there are two editions, this one, which is for adults, and another one just for kids: Mao's Last Dancer Young Readers' Edition! I have looked into how they differ and have discovered that the children's has less details and less historical facts.

The author writes in a straightforward manner. The presentation is dispassionate, and he never dwells upon suffering. Family circumstances during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine are related. Communism under Mao, Madame Mao, the Gang of Four and the transfer of power to Deng Xiaoping are briefly recounted, particularly in relation to how the political changes affected Chinese ballet. Events are simply stated, and then the next point is related. An emphasis is placed on positive experiences, be it the flying of kites, New Year's celebrations or family members support and encouragement. I like books that point out what is good even when much is bad, but this book goes a step further. It quite simply feels as if it is written for children, particularly for potential young dancers, to encourage them, to give them a hero in whose footsteps they can follow. A separate book devoid of the historical facts really is not necessary. Please note that according to the book description above this book, not the kids book, has won the Kids Own Australian Literature Award in KOALA).

Teacher Xiao's guiding advice comparing dance to a mango was beautiful and inspiring. Chinese fairy tales too! Yes, he did get help from the American President and his wife and other devoted friends, but don't think success was easy. It wasn't at all!. Chance and then LOTS of hard work and physical pain lie behind what Li Cunxin has achieved. He is now the Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet in Brisbane. I admire what Li Cunxin has accomplished. His determination and hard work makes him a viable role model for young adults, and really, for adults too.

If this book is to be judged as a book for young adults, than I would give it four stars. In that it is classified here as an adult book, and in that I didn't know it was written for young adults when I picked it up, I am judging it on its merits for adults, and thus I give it three. It is wrong to simply remove historical facts and in this manner reclassify a book. It is not just content but also tone that determines classification. Others think the simplicity of the writing is just Li Cunxin's style. I liked the book. I very much admire what he has accomplished, but my stars are for the book, not the person.
Profile Image for Krystal.
1,446 reviews363 followers
June 7, 2020
Well, it took me four months but I did finally finish this book!

WARNING: This review may contain minor broad spoilers. (Details will be spoiler-tagged)

It's not that it was bad, or boring, or anything like that ... it's more that it was hard for me to relate to. I generally hate reading about poverty on all occasions (which is why I stay away from war stories) so the early days of his life were just a real struggle to get through. I hate the thought of people having to live in such conditions.

The thing about memoirs is that they tend to be motivational stories about someone fighting to overcome immense obstacles and come out on top. And while you can't deny the author lived a really tough life in parts, he also had a lot of luck and mere chance on his side as well, which takes away a little of the triumph of his story.

The first half of the book is a real drag, but it does emphasise how important his family is to him. There were a lot of anecdotes, and their living situation is really drilled in - it totally sucked. I understand its necessary inclusion but it doesn't make for fun reading, and it's half the reason it took me so long to get through this book.

Then he's just randomly selected to go and study dance, and he gets all these injuries all the time and it made me cringe so often. Throughout the entire story he gets so many injuries and EVERY. DAMN. TIME. he just dances on. He talks about how excruciating the pain was, but it was easier for him than giving up. I just felt so sickened by that. The level of strength that takes is ridiculous and admirable, but at the same time it seems so foolish to carry on the way he did. If this was a fictional novel, it would just seem so unrealistic! I was so bothered by how much he placed honour and work ethic above his own health.

The story is very much about communist China and the effect it had on his life. I'm not big on politics so a lot of it was confusing and hard to comprehend for me because I've been fortunate enough to have been born with white skin and live in a Western country where I have the freedom to essentially do as I please. In this story, it's when that finally I began to comprehend the gaping chasm between his way of life and mine. That's when the story really got interesting for me.

I think you really need the comparisons to understand the true trials of his life. While reading, there was a lot of stuff that I disagreed with and felt uncomfortable about, but on reflection and actually pausing to consider the nature of his upbringing, I began to understand his choices a little more.

I think part of why this book took me so long to get through is that his personality is just so different from mine, and so it was really hard to relate to and therefore appreciate his decisions. There really is also such an element of luck to his story - he just happens to meet the right people, who have powerful friends who can pull the strings that need to be pulled. His story is so incredibly rare, and I don't think anyone can read this book and feel that the same could happen to them. It's definitely full of inspiring moments, but so much of his being able to live his dream depended on chance.

I like memoirs that show me people who overcame the odds with their own strength, resilience and determination. He certainly has all of those qualities, but his success as a dancer by itself wasn't enough. To me, the moral of the story is that it doesn't matter how much hard work or talent you have if you don't know the right people. As far as morals go, that's not exactly inspiring.

So , in summary, I can't say I enjoyed reading this book but I am glad that I did. There is a lot of stuff in it that is hard to relate to, and it's not exactly an inspiring story that motivates you to go out there and chase your own dreams, but at the same time it was really fascinating to read about a life so far removed from my own, and try to understand the cultural differences, and a little about how one's upbringing can make such a drastic impact.

Li Cunxin is an inspiring man, and I'm glad he chose to share his story.
Profile Image for Kristie.
844 reviews365 followers
November 12, 2017
It was ok. There were interesting parts and humorous parts, but a bit too meandering for my taste. Some of it was repetitive as the author seemed to really want to get certain points across.
Profile Image for Jelinas.
173 reviews16 followers
August 23, 2010
Fact: I'm actually North Korean. My parents lived most of their lives in the South, but both of them originally hail from the North.

When we were kids, my dad would occasionally gather us all 'round the table and tell us tales of North Korea. He would tell us about how his family struggled to survive during the war, and how Communism had ruined the country so that everyone was poor. Families only got a small ration of beef every year, that they would boil over and over again in order to make it last. He would tell us harrowing tales of poverty and oppression.

Then, I grew up and studied the Korean War and realized that my dad wasn't even in North Korea at that time. In fact, he was only an infant when his parents fled -- before the DMZ was set up.

As a result, I grew callous to the suffering of people in Communist countries. In the back of my mind, I always just kind of thought that these tales of poverty were just over-exaggerated by people like my dad who wanted to scare their kids into behaving and being grateful.

But reading Li Cunxin's autobiography set me straight. In a nutshell: Communism sucks.

Li grew up in rural China. His family did okay for themselves, and he loved both his mother (niang in Chinese) and his father (dia in Chinese) dearly. He particularly loved his mother and craved more time with her. But, as the sixth of seven sons, he didn't get much.

He describes his parents' sacrifices for their survival, and how they worked hard to keep everyone alive. The family, as well as everyone else in the area, survived on a meager diet of dried yams and the occasional protein.

Li's life changed forever when he was selected to go to Beijing to become a dancer in Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. He was only eleven years old, and leaving his beloved niang was tortuous. But he knew that he had to do this for the family's honor.

Li excelled as a dancer under the careful tutelage of many teachers. As he continued to excel, he was offered an opportunity to visit America.

One visit to America was all it took to shatter years of Communist propaganda. When he saw the freedom that the Americans had, he knew that he could never be content living in China again. Li eventually defected to the United States and became a principle dancer for the Houston Ballet.

Oh, and there's plenty of ballet-stuff in the book, too. As an unashamed owner of Center Stage on DVD, that was super-fun to read.

Li's life is an amazing tale of courage and determination. But the parts that resonated most with me were his accounts of his family life. In Communist China, all the Li family had was each other. Their love and devotion to one another helped them to survive conditions that I can't even imagine. Even after defecting, Li couldn't be truly happy until he knew that his family was safe.

The writing's a little clunky, but this isn't a book written for the sake of literature. It's the tale of a man, his victory over oppression and poverty, and how his family's love for him made that all possible.
Profile Image for Jülie ☼♄ .
489 reviews22 followers
July 13, 2015

I read this book a long time before joining Goodreads and writing reviews, so I didn't add anything here except my rating.
I do remember that I enjoyed (if you can enjoy such) reading about the cultural demands that were placed on those people. He truly was a brave young man!
I love historical and cultural books about Asia and Asian people.
Profile Image for Rhoda.
586 reviews25 followers
July 20, 2016
This is such a beautifully written memoir. It's not so much the language that is beautiful, but the content and the emotion captured in the words. The author details the hardships of his childhood and the life of his parents and his brothers in Communist China. It's such a stark contrast to the life he ends up living in the West and I so enjoyed reading about all the vast differences he found between the two countries and cultures.

The writing about China during that period was certainly interesting, particularly from the perception of someone who lived through it.

The book has certainly given me a new appreciation of dancers (ballet in particular) and their utter dedication to their art. The author showed great tenacity and determination in perfecting his dancing and the blood, sweat and tears that went with it.

This is an inspiring and touching book which gives you a look into a peasant's life in communist China and that of a ballet dancer. On a more personal level, the author shows a lot of raw emotion (particularly for his family), determination and inner strength. You cannot help but be moved by his story and his passion for his family and dancing. A very "heartfelt" piece of writing.
Profile Image for Jeann (Happy Indulgence) .
1,006 reviews3,584 followers
January 16, 2017
What an inspirational and touching book! My heart soared and I shed some tears of happiness about Li Cunxin's story, a peasant boy who lived in poverty during Chairman Mao's rule. With hard work, determination and perseverance, he goes on to achieve his wildest dreams as one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time.

Full review on Happy Indulgence Books.
Profile Image for La Tonya  Jordan.
289 reviews90 followers
November 18, 2018
It was an interesting book. I knew so little about Chinese culture when I read this book. The author told his life story through vivid detail imagery. He began with his parents wedding, the birth of his brothers and himself, poverty, government, and traditions. His love for ballet is evident on every page.
Profile Image for Benjamin.
656 reviews
September 12, 2009
I started off unimpressed by this book; daily life in China during the Mao years is sad, yes, but familiar to anyone who has read anything set in that era. However once he was plucked away from his family and started his education proper the book really began; Li as an author found his voice around this part of the book and it was around this time that I decided to continue reading (I had been toying with the idea of giving up).

His struggles at school are familiar, but I'm not sure if Li examines hard enough what makes him so talented as a dancer. We get the impression of the capriciousness of luck and how utterly his life was changed simply because—initially—his home commune teacher recommended him. His sense of guilt is understandable and he never seemed to take his fortune for granted.

As always the look at Chinese culture is interesting; the importance of family, respect for elders and the great delusion of communism. As I mentioned in a previous review, the centrality of food to the Chinese is something I find entirely compelling.

While I thought the book ended too soon, the post script was helpful and gave a sense of finality. Li perhaps does not give us an insight into his flaws; he seems a little too perfect, but perhaps I'm just being cynical.

The writing is simple and occasionally quite moving; I became teary more than once at a few stages in the book.

Worth reading!
Profile Image for Mary Etta.
332 reviews
December 17, 2011
November book group choice. Loved the film. Vicky recommended the book.

Many reasons to really like this book. It's a remarkable story of an admirable life in unusual circumstances. There is a continuity of influences, the foundation of his parents and family as well as influential teachers and friends, the Chinese fables that encouraged him in very hard times--the mango and the well. Many keeper scenes/quotes.

“Mango is the most wonderful fruit with the most unique taste… Admire the unique shape, notice the colour, enjoy the smell. Feel the weight, cut the skin and savour the fragrance. Then taste the skin and even the nut if you are daring. Then comes the ultimate satisfaction, the pulp.”

Chinese fables:
The Frog in the Well ("You can only see the world above you through the size of the well. The world up here is enormous." The frog tried and tried but "the big world above remained only a dream.") Cunxin in his frustration used his kite to send messages to the gods.
The Emperor and the Cricket
The Millet Dream (Fragrance of the poor soup inspired dreams of success. Dreams inspire but, "Great things don't come easily."
The Archer (Importance of keeping ones promises.)

There are no shortcuts. Work is required for success.

The many references to ballets has prompted me to see more than I've seen to date. My appreciation of dancers and their great commitment and preparation has greatly increased.
Profile Image for David.
193 reviews7 followers
September 10, 2009
Li Cunxin was the 6th of 7 sons born to a poor family in rural China. When Chairman and Madame Mao started their "cultural revolution" and decided to revive the Peking Dance Academy, they sent representatives throughout the country to find promising musical and artistic talent specifically from the children of peasants, workers, and soldiers. Li was chosen at age 11, taken from his family, and sent to the "big city" for rigorous training and indoctrination. He overcomes homesickness, lack of motivation and understanding, accidents, and other obstacles to eventually become a world-class ballet dancer. Along the way, there are some interesting insights into Communist ideologies and the history of US/China relationships. After a cultural exchange visit to the USA, Li's eyes are opened to the difference between the propaganda version of western capitalism and the opportunities he actually viewed. Then he falls in love, and decides to marry an American and defect, knowing the profound impact it will have on his own life and the lives of family and friends. We follow the years of joy in his exploding career but the agony of separation from his family and homeland, until there is a poignant reunion and reconciliation. Though occasionally sentimental, it's a fascinating story of cultural, artistic, and political discovery - whether you're a ballet fan or not!
Profile Image for Maureen.
329 reviews77 followers
December 19, 2020
This is a wonderful memoir of a young man’s life during the Mao’s regime.
He lives in a very poor village in North East China. He is given the opportunity to go to Being to study ballet. He is only eleven years old and must leave his beloved family. He is the 6th son in a family of 7 sons. He misses his family dearly and is very homesick. His training is very rigorous and he succumbs to many painful injuries, but his determination prevails.
This is Li Cunxin’s own story and is truly remarkable. It is a story of courage and strength and the love of his family.
He never would have dreamed that one day he would dance with the greatest ballet companies of the World.
This is truly an inspirational story. It should be read by all.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
844 reviews
August 31, 2015
I really enjoyed this. I listened to it as an audiobook and enjoyed Paul English’s accents. It still astounds me to read about people living in communist states who have nothing but think they are living in better conditions than the rest of the world. It’s amazing to think of the work that goes into brainwashing the people.

It’s sobering to think of how hard life was for Li Cunxin (and the rest of his family) in his early years. I enjoyed reading the wedding customs of his mother and father - things that sound a little bit tacky in our Western culture (e.g. at the wedding, the bride and groom share a bowl of “open your heart” noodles), but which actually might serve a purpose to make the couple stop and think about the life they will share together.

Even after he started dancing, Li Cunxin’s life was still difficult - physically demanding both in Beijing and in the States. I couldn’t believe his account of dancing with various injuries - torn hamstrings (I think it was) and a back problem during a competition! But I guess that is why I’m not a dancer.

This was a great read. I know Li Cunxin had something to do with the Queensland Ballet - I think he was the director - not sure whether he still is, but he makes me a little bit proud to call Queensland my home!! As well as all the other great things about our state!

Profile Image for Caroline.
516 reviews21 followers
July 29, 2010
A simple and yet beautiful memoir of a ballet dancer, who was taken from his peasant classed family as a young 11 year old boy in Qingdao, and brought to Beijing, to attend a dance school that received the patronage of Madam Mao Tze Dong.

Cunxin takes us through his childhood, growing up as one of 7 sons of poor peasant family during China's Cultural Revolution. They are all subjected to Mao's communist propaganda, believing China to be a glorious nation and that despite the fact that they are poor, often hungry and also overworked, other countries in the West were far worse off then they were. His descriptions of their living conditions as seen through his eyes as a child were matter-of-fact. The commune they live in provide them with a close community wherein everyone in the village shares in one another's joy and troubles. Although they are poor, Cuxin and his brothers are brought up by their parents and grandmother to be dignified, carry themselves with pride, and more importantly, never to do anything that will bring disgrace to the Li name. His descriptions of his family was nothing short of touching in the depth of love that their parents showed each other and their children.

When he's selected among the many students in his school to attend the illustrious dance school in Beijing, he faced loneliness and homesickness for the initial years at the school. He was allowed home only once a year for one month, for the Chinese New Year. He saved what he could of his meager allowance to buy gifts for his family and friends, and also money for his parents.

Through his term at the dance school, he was fortunate to meet teachers who became his mentors and guided and encouraged him to strive to become the best that he could be. What was interesting was that, even as a child, although he was an enthusiastic communist and a Young Red Guard, he provided a blunt look at the many restrictions placed on all their lives during this period in China, and the irrational policies issued by Mao and the Gang of Four that caused greater suffering among the people.

His grit and determination opened opportunities to him beyond his wildest dreams. He was selected as the first of Mao's dancers to represent China together one of his classmates in a cultural exchange with the US. His success during this trip led to another longer stint in the US with the Houston Ballet Academy, his growing success as an acclaimed dancer and his ultimate dramatic defection. This defection will cut him off from the family that he misses and his friends.

His humility and integrity shines throughout the book and we cannot help but cheer him on from the sidelines. What shouts the loudest though from the start to the finish, is that of love. There is so much love and support among his family and his close friends, love that even prolonged separation is unable to dim, and it's the lessons of love he learns from his family's side that I think gives him the strength to be the person he becomes.
Profile Image for Lilisa.
411 reviews59 followers
August 17, 2014
Li Cunxin overcomes life's challenges and through sheer discipline, drive and the motivation to break through the shackles of communism, does just that. Born in a commune in northeast China, Li's impoverished family struggled to put food on the table, making sacrifices for each other as the bare essentials for basic living were virtually nonexistent. Despite the challenging conditions of everyday life, his parents taught him the values and principles that became his life compass as he overcame the harsh obstacles and struggles of Mao's regime, and against all odds became an international ballet dancer in the western world. From early childhood, despite their intense poverty, his parents instilled in him a sense of pride, self-determination and responsibility. His break comes in the form of a delegation from Madame Mao's Dance Academy - he's selected at the last second for a ballet program in Beijing at the age of 11. Separated from his family, thus begins his lonely quest to excel through sheer determination, focus, hard work and the knowledge that ballet is the key to his destiny...and it is. A story of sacrifice and success, endurance and emotion, of family and friendship, Mao's Last Dancer is a contrast of two worlds, simply told but yet moving and motivating. A remarkable life and one to be admired.
Profile Image for Tisha.
147 reviews2 followers
August 12, 2012
I read this book in a little under 24 hours, almost unable to put it down. In this memoir, Li writes of an impoverished childhood in rural China in the 60's and 70's under the Mao Zedong regime. He deals frankly with his everyday realities: disease, starvation, accidental injury and the lack of basic survival needs intertwined with unconditional love, laughter and the incredibly strong value system of a proud family. He writes of being snatched from this world to the only slightly less brutal world of homesickness, compulsive exercise, political brainwashing and fierce competition in the world of Chinese ballet. From there, he seizes a chance to defect to America. How he deals with the never-ending push to be better, better, best within the world of ballet, broken dreams of love and family and his "survivor's guilt" regarding his estranged family back in China makes for a wonderful read. This book made me laugh, made me cry, made me think hard about my own privilege and what it means to live in America...and what it means to have the freedom to determine my own destiny. Highly recommend!
Profile Image for Vicky.
550 reviews5 followers
October 4, 2011
A Goodreads friend had seen the film and recommended it so I watched the DVD first and highly recommend it both for the dramatic story and the beautiful dancing (Li Cunxin is played in the movie by a dancer) I liked it so much I went to the library and got book. I am a ballet fan and I am embarrassed to say that I had not heard of Li Cunxin, although he performed with the Houston Ballet for 16 years and made guest appearances with most of the major ballet companies. There are more elegantly written memoirs, but the story is riveting, including the role the elder George and Mrs. Bush played in his life (Barbara Bush was a patron of the Houston Ballet). There are many moving scenes but certainly one of the most moving is when he is finally able to return to his village in China and he and his wife dance for his family, friends and villagers. It also presents the Cultural Revolution through one individual's life and his responses at the time and as he grows older. It really is just an amazing story.
Profile Image for Rebecca Carter.
154 reviews92 followers
June 26, 2015
This book is written in a simple style, yet is still incredibly inspiring and thought provoking with its glimpses into communism in China and the stark differences with the west.
I loved the little Chinese fables that were included to show where Li got his drive to succeed and strength to grow from.
It's not often a book can bring tears to my eyes, but this managed it on more than one occasion!
You don't have to be a fan of dance or ballet to enjoy this book, although being a ballet fan I may be a little biased in how much I loved this book, but I would recommend this to anybody to read.
Profile Image for Emma.
86 reviews5 followers
March 6, 2016
Wow, this was such an amazing read! It inspired me so much! It was the perfect mixture between ballet and history. I would highly recommend it!
2 reviews1 follower
May 11, 2018
Autobiography with Wrong History

Mao’s Last Dancer was published in 2003 and quickly became a best seller in Australia. Li, Cunxin, the author, was an acclaimed ballet dancer before he wrote the book, which eventually was cast into a touching movie in 2009. He is a celebrity. His extraordinary experience was shared with thousands of readers. Many people, especially young readers, get the book as it is either required by the school or the book club they join, including my daughter.

After she bought the youth version book from Dymocks, I got a chance to flip through a few chapters. The author crafted a storyline starting from 1946 until 1981 when he defected. There seemed many extraordinary personal stories but my history knowledge was challenged immediately by the first paragraph of the first chapter, “Now, a year after the end of that war, the village was controlled by one of the peasant communes that had been set up throughout the countryside by China’s central communist government”.

In 1946, the author’s parents were living in the suburb of Qingdao, about 20 km from city. KMT, the ruling political party, controlled most of the central cities in Shangdong province, while communist party had some control of more rural area. The battle in Qingbao during the domestic war started in May 1949, and a month later, Li Cun, the town where they lived, was occupied by the communist army. Clearly in 1946, their village was not under the ruling of communist government.

Commune is a social system implemented during Great Leap Forward when the communist party thought it had accomplished most of the job to clean up enemies and the main job should be switched to boost economy so as to solve the dilemma of mismatch between “advanced social system” and “lagging behind economy”. It started in 1958 and faded out in 1984. The author was born into the commune system in 1961, at the place known as Li Cun Commune, but his parents did not live in the commune system until twelve years later after they got married.

The author frequently used “Madam Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy” throughout the book. According to the school website, Beijng Dance Academy was originally founded in 1954, called “Beijing Dance School”. At the beginning of Culture Revolution, it was shut down in 1966 together with all other major art schools. Six years later, Madam Mao, who was mostly known as Jiang Qing in China, helped set up a new school called Central Wu Qi Art School in 1972 in order to employ art to accelerate her propaganda. The school name changed to Central Wu Qi Art University a year later. Therefore it is not surprising that the author sometimes wrote “university” in the book when he talked about his school.

Culture Revolution ended in 1976 after Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four were arrested. In November 1978, the school was reborn with a new name, Beijing Dance Academy, which was used since then. The author graduated from Beijing Dance Academy only months after it got this new name. The new school abandoned the curriculum from the Culture Revolution and replaced with a more normal one close to western. I am not sure why the author only mentioned “Beijing Dance Academy” in the book, but not “Wu Qi Art School” with which his life was more associated. A convenient error? It is a humiliation to Beijing Dance Academy if it is called Madam Mao’s, because she shut down the previous dance school, twisted the ballet, and was in prison when the school got the new name.

In chapter thirteen, the author vividly recounted the journey to Tiananmen Square where Mao appeared on the podium of the Gate Heavenly Peace meeting millions of people. Mao famously met his Red Guards in Tiananmen Square in 1966 for eight times since August 18, 1966. It was the way Mao ignited the fire of revolution. People’s Daily well documented each event with large pictures on the front page and huge titles in red color. Some videos can also be found in youtube nowadays.

However, in the spring of 1974, both Mao and Zhou’s health were deteriorating. Deng Xiaoping was the person in charge of the day to day government before he was arrested again. It was impossible for these two old people to meet millions people like they did eight years ago. Nothing like this was mentioned in the newspaper either in the first half of 1974 when I checked People’s Daily archive on its website. It would be very odd if this happened and People’s Daily didn’t cover anything about it. According to history, Mao’s last time to Gate Heavenly Peace was in May 1971.

Gang of Four were arrested in the evening of Oct 6, 1976. The action continued until 4am next morning and remained as top secret for several days. Most people learned it when People’s Daily published it in Oct 18, 1976. However, in this book, the author said people were celebrating right in the evening of Oct 6, 1976. He made his own version of history.

These wrong facts cast a huge shadow for me to read the rest “incredible” stories. The author blurred the line between autobiography and fiction, and didn’t bother to check the history at all. As a person growing up in China during Culture Revolution, all of these extraordinary stories in the book are not unheard of. Many of these stories lack a sounding logic. But I am more care about whether those belong only to this autobiography or not. More over, I am deeply concerned that his celebrity authority will dictate a wrong version of history to the young generation who just start learning history, especially from another country with a different language.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,306 reviews752 followers
November 16, 2020
America! I heard everyone there carries guns. If they don't like you they'll just shoot you.
There was a time when I believed reading autobiographies/memoirs/nonfiction (however 'non' it actually ended up being) of that sort would get me closer to the 'truth,' whatever that was. These days, I know that anywhere between 75%-95% of the works of that sort put out these days are written by those who don't attempt to accurately contextualize themselves in the bigger picture. That alone would be normal, but throw in how well the US publication industry works as status quo propaganda the less white and/or domestic the writer is, and you have the reason why I've been less than impressed by my reading of the autobiographies and co. that I amassed in the last decade or so. This one had its moments of insight, pathos, and even charm, but much as Li was likely only helped as much as he was due to how useful a figure he would be to the US and co. media machine during the latter days of the Red Scare, having this work published in the 21st c. with absolutely no mention of Tiananmen Square allows Neo-Euro publishers to put forth a careful mix of othering and the kind of tact that generates billions for 'Western' companies invested in building the Great Wall of Censorship. So, clearly a work that would have benefitted had I read it all the way back in 2012, but how much would have such a reading benefitted me? Enough to outweigh the unpacking I would have had to do for the next eight years? I have my doubts.

I remember the days of having to do little more than what I was told, a portion of which involved my participation in an intensive sport that I had no control over the choosing of. The sport infrastructure and pedagogical guidance were certainly better equipped, less confusing, and more mindful of my physical limits than were Li's, but I can't say that my awareness of the international scope of the WASP capitalism that I subconsciously imbibed day in and day out was any better than his was regarding Chinese communism. If I had been pulled out of school, rigorously boxed into my respective sport, chosen for an international delegation, and then flown off to China, much as how Li did not see a single percent of the true landscape of the United States, I would not have toured the regions that he was born and bred in in full exposure to the political reality of his nation. Put Li of the '70s and '80s in a the region of, say, Oakland in California, or Detroit in Michigan, or any of the countries that 'disaster capitalism' had designated as feeding grounds for the blessed denizens of the country he chose to defect to out of personal principle (and no small amount of hedonism), and he would have seen a truer representation of Houston in Texas, if one too complicated for him to grasp at the time. I'm not faulting Li for writing what he knew, but I do hope he realized at some point how much his success is due to how useful a political pawn he was for a country that, a year after he defected, all but pardoned the highly publicized white supremacist murder of Vincent Chin. At the very least, I would hope the readers of this work would acknowledge such, but I don't have much faith in the 'reading for pleasure' crowd when it comes to that kind of critical legwork.

It doesn't surprise me that not only is there a young reader's version of this work, it only cuts out around a hundred pages or so of the original material. Other than the references to sex and gun violence, all of this reads not that differently from your standard small European child bildungsroman, albeit with some cultural differences and the lack of such things such as boarding schools and tea time. I imagine they cut out the references of the antiblack violence specific to the US as well, which if left in would have just been too much for the coddled little white kid that that kind of edition is always largely aimed towards. In any case, this was over and done, and it was admittedly nice to have something that wasn't too intensive when reading about disaster capitalism and Nazi philosophy and some truly nasty neoliberal fantasies became too much. Such is the price one pays when one has my kind of reading appetite during Nonfiction November, so my following this work with the next volume in a series of fiction that I have on a yearly schedule will likely prove a needed respite. All in all, this is a work that has its strengths and its weaknesses. I just wouldn't recommend it to anyone old enough to drink.
Those normal European countries (with their strong social safety nets, workers' protections, powerful trade unions and socialized health care) emerged as a compromise between Communism and capitalism. Now that there was no need for compromise, all those moderating social policies were under siege in Western Europe, just as they were under siege in Canada, Australia and the U.S.

-Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine
Profile Image for Sookie.
1,139 reviews86 followers
October 23, 2015
Li Cunxin narrates his story in a matter-of-fact fashion that comes off as incredibly naive or coolly detached. His childhood narrative is expected since its set in Mao era. Poor people become poorer or just manage to get through the day while the propaganda machine churns faster and makes lives of these peasants volatile.

Li Cunxin provides anecdotes from his childhood that characterizes Mao's philosophy. His young mind tries to find parallels between the folktales he is told as a child and implications of Mao's philosophy on his village. The entire narrative runs along with changes that is taking place in China under Mao's rule and Madam Mao's obsession with art and culture.

He undergoes struggles, as anticipated, and comes off as a better student. He visits America as an exchange student and his life changes from that point onward. He defects to America during his second visit which causes tension and much drama. His marriage to the woman, Elizabeth, doesn't last and eventually he finds love in another dancer.

Li Cunxin works hard, carries the teachings his parents taught him (pride), loves his family, adores his friends and continues to be humble. Its his humility and hard work that takes makes him famous. Even at the peak of his career, his tender heart yearns for his parents and when they visit him (much thanks to G.W.Bush), he becomes a child again.

Li Cunxin is a simple man with simple desires and a simple goal. Maybe that's why things fall into place for him.

Take away from this book: hard work and perseverance for the win!
Profile Image for Roz.
908 reviews53 followers
August 29, 2020
How disappointed am I that I have the Young Adult version? In case you haven't guessed - VERY. Apparently my edition of this book is missing a lot of the history of China.

But having said all that, let me talk about the book I did read. Li Cunxin's life was definitely unusual. The reader cannot help but admire his tenacity and determination. He is a man who has deserved every ounce of fame and respect he has for his dancing because he has worked for every inch of it.

This story starts with Cunxin's mother and father getting married. The reader expects life to be all right for this couple, but China was in such poverty that even though his mother married into a family better off, there was still not enough to go around. The first part of the book looks at life for Cunxin's family under this level of strain.

In the second part, the reader follows Cunxin to an area near Beijing where he is trained to dance. I felt that one of the most interesting parts of the story was when Cunxin realised that the ideal he was missing, longing for, was in his imagination; and that the life his parents and brothers had was far different and far more difficult than his own. It was with this knowledge that he finally gave up on his homesickness and applied himself completely.

As with most stories based on real experiences, this autobiography shows the strength of the human spirit. It also shows the complex emotions experienced when one learns that everything they thought they knew was lies. Cunxin's discovery that China was not rich and that her people were not thriving was a bitter pill. His eventual defection was quite gripping.

I was disappointed with the language in this book if I were honest. I had bought it almost a decade ago because it was a setwork book at a school I did a teaching prac at and I thought it would therefore be a good book to read. While the story was motivational and enlightening, I did feel that the language was a bit simplistic. But. You can call me mean. My Chinese consists of 7 phrases. Who am I to judge Cunxin for his English? It's just... I would have loved to have tasted China - maybe.
Profile Image for Regina Andreassen.
314 reviews49 followers
August 5, 2021
Mao's Last Dancer is a truly enjoyable biography yet flawed. The style is not sophisticated and at times Li Cuxin can be overly verbose, but the writing is engaging and of delicate simplicity. Li's story is a journey of love, friendship, sacrifice, perseverance, and search for personal freedom.

Li Cuxin takes a political stance but it is important to note that, as it happens with most memoirs, his point of view may be biased. Personally, I feel that Li Cuxin's portray of Mao's rule in China is mostly accurately described and I am sure that, compared to other Chinese families, Li Cuxin’s family was fortunate in spite of their very precarious life.

My issue with the book is that, I feel that at time, it just drags, some information is redundant. This seems to be a common criticism of this memoir. Li Cuxin’s writing should have been further edited, it would have helped maintain the reader’s interest. Personally, I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half. I think the first part was better written.

Before finishing my review I would also like to leave a comment about the movie: I didn't enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the book so read the book first. The former was just fine, whilst the latter one was notable in its genre, but if you have the opportunity to watch the film, do it 😀
Profile Image for Kani.
226 reviews
June 13, 2009
Hooks you right in with the description of his parent's traditional wedding in China. This is a true story of a real person who is still alive and riveted me because he was growing up when I was and living this amazingly different life over there in China. That's the China of "Finish your dinner! Think of all the starving children in China." So it was really insightful for me to listen to a true account of what it was like for this starving child of China. The way Cunxin uses drive and discipline to escape his parent's fate and sheer determination to get him there, is extremely inspiring and frankly, makes me feel inadequate in my response to difficulty! It's a strong and true tale and perhaps told with a bit of sentimentality, or so I thought at first (syrupy perhaps?), but in the end Cunxin's sincerity comes through and makes this a truly inspiring read. By sincerity I mean willingness to do whatever it takes to follow your dreams, wherever they lead. Dulce Suenos!
Profile Image for Christie.
505 reviews
April 25, 2009
This is not the type of book I normally pick up, but after reading the first through chapters through my email book club, I requested it from the library. Tim thought it was an unusual choice for me so he picked it up and started reading the middle of the book, as he is wont to do. He told me I would like it and find it fascinating. I already suspected that! This book was pretty hard to put down, and I could only think of two pages that were boring (and they were summarizing what happened over a long period of time so that's understandable). Everything else was fascinating. I highly recommend it, even if it's not the kind of thing you normally read.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,004 reviews36k followers
May 16, 2014
I got this book from a friend --- when he brought it back to me from Australia. My friend was leading a 'trading' workshop, and this author was in his course. The book was sooooooooo good. I never saw the movie. Has anyone? You, Susan?
Profile Image for Heidi.
1,038 reviews214 followers
February 25, 2018
Mao’s Last Dancer was our last bookclub read, and apparently I have been living under a rock, since I had not heard of the book OR the movie! Since a lot of my reading is escapist and a means to disengage from real life problems, I seldom delve into autobiographies – and am finding that I may be missing out! Li Cunxin’s account of his life, from a childhood in rural, poverty stricken China to his rise to fame, was interesting, humbling and inspiring in equal measures. It certainly provided a lot of material for our bookclub discussion. Personally, the one message that stood out most for me was how loving the Li family was, and how they looked out for each other. Living in unimaginable poverty, there was always plenty of love to go around, and each family member was willing to share what little they had with others. I found this refreshing, living in a society where we tend to accumulate and hoard possessions and compete with each other, and where families are often fractured and family values lost as a result of this. Whilst the poverty and constant struggle for survival in Li Cunxin’s childhood sounded horrendous, it may have also set the foundations for his resilience, determination and inner strength that ultimately formed the cornerstones to his success.

Whilst I initially thought the story was off to a bit of a slow, rambling start and could have done with some careful editing, I found the small facts of Li Cunxin’s childhood and the political background fascinating. I’m a total numpty when it comes to ballet, but this posed no obstacle to my enjoyment of the book, as the underlying message could have been applied to any sport, or even any career where someone overcomes personal challenges through sheer gut and determination to become the best in their field. Through all the pain and hardship Li Cunxin endured, he always held out for the goal to achieve something better and to make his family proud. Li Cunxin never complains about anything, dispassionately recounting tales of hunger and hardship that would make our toes curl. It is this positive, hopeful outlook and his stoicism that ultimately makes him succeed where others have tried and failed.

On our bookclub night, we watched the movie to compare it to the book, and I found that the film skipped over two of the most memorable moments in the story for me: the time teacher Xiao prompts Li Cunxin to confront the bullying behaviour of another teacher (which taught him to confront problems head-on); and the moment Li Cunxin realises that communism isn’t the perfect ideal he had been forced to believe all his life. A few of us found that the movie missed some of the messages that stood out for each of us individually in the telling of the story, so whilst the movie was ok, I recommend reading the book first!

I listened to the audio version of this book, and credit must go to Paul English for his wonderful narration – I really appreciated his accurate pronunciation of the many Chinese names, which would have made me flounder in the printed version.

All in all, Mao’s Last Dancer was an interesting and humbling read that will appeal to anyone looking for inspiration and hope. Containing fascinating historical details of life under Mao, a strong armchair component, and hidden messages in its pages that will mean different things to individual readers, Mao’s Last Dancer made for a perfect bookclub read.

3.5 stars

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Crimmel.
Author 11 books27 followers
December 18, 2010
Finished Mao's Last Dancer today. I saw the movie first and I found the book just as fascinating. The dept of poverty that Li came from and his luck to be chosen and became a dancer meant the stars were lined up for his success in the world. I now see how the Chinese are the best in gymnastics and other events they train for. The dedication that Li gave to dancing when he realized it was his way out of poverty, and the continued level of training he gave to dance after his defection to the states allowed his to be the best.

I still think the movie of this book was one of the best seen this year. I recommend the movie as much as the book so do one or the other. If you see the movie bring tissue. You will loose it in the end. An amazing story about how far complete dedication can take you. In the case of Li Cunxin all the way to the top.

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