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Mao's Last Dancer
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Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
May 2019 Buddy Read -- who is joining?


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
From Wikipedia:

Li Cunxin is born into a poor family commune in a small rural village in Shandong Province, where he is destined to work in the fields as a labourer. At first overlooked but selected after a suggestion by his teacher during a school visit, Li seems bewildered by the gruff preliminary inspection screening at the provincial capital city of Qingdao. Selected to travel to Beijing to audition for a place in Madame Mao's Dance Academy, he is admitted to its ballet school after passing a series of physical tests.

Seven years of arduous training follow. He struggles at the academy, failing to excel as he tries to cope with his homesickness. There is no freedom within the rigid schedule, where he must balance hours and hours of dance classes along with strenuous academic classes. He also campaigns to be part of the Communist youth party, surviving rigorous interviews; after he is let in, an additional portion of his time is given to meetings. But Cunxin doesn't mind; he has a calling now: serving glorious Communism. The arrival of a new teacher, this one less likely to shout, changes his grim outlook on dance. He puts more emphasis on having fun and on knowing strengths and weaknesses. Teacher Xiao keeps an eye on Cunxin, spotting something other teachers hadn't yet seen. The teacher also (dangerously) differs from others at the academy because of his devotion to classical ballet, considered too Western to be taught at the school (as opposed to the politically motivated, strident form favoured by Madame Mao). His determination and courage, paired with Teacher Xiao's advice and motivation allows him to be the top of the class, offered more and more roles. This leads to him being grudgingly permitted by the Academy to travel abroad to Ben Stevenson's Houston Ballet company as a visiting student for six weeks as the government has slightly slackened its censorship of Western culture due to upheavals in position.

In the United States, he begins to question the Chinese Communist Party dictates upon which he has been raised. America is not filled with filthy-looking capitalists, and the sheer wealth and size of the buildings and the people clearly indicate that China is the poverty stricken country, not America. However, he knows this sentiment is too dangerous to be spoken, and upon return to China, even though he loved every bit of America, he tones it down and recites some Communist propaganda for the report to be filed so he can return in two months time. However, despite the lies, the government refuses to let him return to the U.S. Three months later, he manages to get his visa and goes—this time for a full year dancing in the Houston Ballet. He starts a secret romance with aspiring American dancer, Elizabeth Mackey, keeping it a secret so his government doesn't find out and send him back. He is quickly promoted to soloist position and allowed five more months. In the last month, Cunxin is reluctant to leave, so he and Elizabeth rush their marriage so that Cunxin can remain in the United States indefinitely, thus avoiding a defection which may have consequences for his family. Visiting the Chinese Consulate to announce his decision while trying to prevent the sure backlash on Stevenson, the resident Chinese diplomat forcibly detains Li in attempt to coerce his return to China; when he continues to refuse to go willingly, the Party agrees to release and allow him to stay, but revokes his citizenship and declares he can never return to the land of his birth. Full of concern for his family, Cunxin continues to dance, but his relationship with Elizabeth ends in divorce, and he cites his youth and cultural differences as the reason.

Cunxin is quickly promoted to principal dancer status, making numerous premieres and winning awards, but severely injured his back, putting him out of commission for over two months. Despite the setback, he continues dancing, and soon after, the Chinese government allowed his parents to come to America to visit him after six years of being cut off from his family. They arrive to watch him in the Nutcracker, and sob as they reunite, and the audience gives a standing ovation. Li meets and marries Australian ballerina Mary McKendry, and they finally go back to his old village. Cunxin meets with his old Teacher Xiao, and performs for him and his parents, but feels an inexplicable amount of guilt for the huge difference in how he lives and how the rest of the village lives, but consoles himself in thinking that he has fulfilled all his mother ever wanted for him. They return to America and continue dancing.

Sophie, Cunxin and Mary's first child, is born profoundly deaf, to their devastation. Mary gives up her career to take care of her, and Sophie has led a normal life because of it, also taking dance classes in following in her parents footsteps. They go on to have two more children, perfectly healthy, but decide to move to Mary's home country, Australia. Their farewell performance, Romeo and Juliet, is broadcast live throughout China to five hundred million viewers. In Australia, he keeps dancing, but also gets a job managing one of the largest stock brokerage firms in Australia. He continues to visit his mother and his village, never forgetting where he came from.


Diane Zwang | 95 comments I am joining in. I am reading the book and it is long about 500 pages. I am a slow reader but will try and chime in along the way. There is a movie if anyone is interested and it is good. I actually saw the movie first and then figured out there was a book.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Diane wrote: "I am joining in. I am reading the book and it is long about 500 pages. I am a slow reader but will try and chime in along the way. There is a movie if anyone is interested and it is good. I actuall..."

Glad you will be joining us!


Diane Zwang | 95 comments I finished part one. It reminded me of other books I have read about Mao's revolution: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Red Scarf Girl and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I am amazed at the depth of poverty. I am enjoying the book so far.

Maybe move this thread up by BOTM since we are doing a buddy read this month? Maybe others will join us.


Gail (gailifer) | 140 comments The library just now alerted me that my hold on this book is ready to be picked up. I start reading this weekend. I thought I would watch the movie after I read the book.


Diane Zwang | 95 comments Yes watch the movie it is good.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Diane wrote: "I finished part one. It reminded me of other books I have read about Mao's revolution: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Red Scarf Girl and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I am amazed..."

Great idea! So, I couldn't help it... I just kept reading. I loved this book. Sometimes I don't enjoy memoirs as they feel a bit manipulative and don't flow for me. But this book almost feels like fiction -- it reads so smoothly. I really liked the story.

I have read Wild Swans and liked it. But I liked this one better.

My great aunt lived in Tsing Tao from 1929 until 1949. So it was interesting to see the same city in the years that followed her eviction from the country.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Is the movie of the same name? Do you know if it is on Netflix?


Diane Zwang | 95 comments Kelly wrote: "Is the movie of the same name? Do you know if it is on Netflix?"

Same name. It is available on Netflix but DVD only. My library also has it.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Diane wrote: "Kelly wrote: "Is the movie of the same name? Do you know if it is on Netflix?"

Same name. It is available on Netflix but DVD only. My library also has it."


I will have to check my library. Thanks!


message 12: by Gail (new) - rated it 3 stars

Gail (gailifer) | 140 comments I finished reading Mao’s Last Dancer and it was a very interesting read. I especially enjoyed the early years where Li, an under-educated peasant boy, is mystified by why he is in ballet school at all and then all his subsequent struggles to become a premier dancer. I learned a great deal about how US/Chinese relations worked through one person’s story. For example, I understood that Li’s defection could potentially harm his family back in China but I had never thought about how it would harm Ben, his master at the Houston Ballet.
I felt that Li’s later years were not as well portrayed but obviously, an adult life is harder to encapsulate. For example, I would have liked to have found out how his brothers had progressed from being peasants to business men. However, I guess that would be another whole book.
Overall, I am really glad I read it.
I am now going to look for the movie.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Gail wrote: "I finished reading Mao’s Last Dancer and it was a very interesting read. I especially enjoyed the early years where Li, an under-educated peasant boy, is mystified by why he is in ballet school at ..."

I would have liked to know about the brothers' progression too. I think, because he had left the country and it was a memoir, we followed him and his life and lost much of what I loved about the story in China.


Diane Zwang | 95 comments I just finished Part Two Beijing. It was interesting learning all about Li's school life. Again, I am shocked by the depth of poverty. His first trip to America was eye opening. It is also nice to hear an immigrant story about America. Looking forward to part three.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Yes, and yet his school life was such a step up from his home life. He was able to be full! It must have caused so much guilt in a young boy to be able to eat and know that his family couldn't.


Diane Zwang | 95 comments Kelly wrote: "Yes, and yet his school life was such a step up from his home life. He was able to be full! It must have caused so much guilt in a young boy to be able to eat and know that his family couldn't."

Yes, Kelly I couldn't agree more.


Diane Zwang | 95 comments Thank you all for reading this book with me. I have had it on my book shelf for quite a long time.

I really enjoyed this memoir about Li Cunxin's rise to fame to a world class ballet dancer. This is one of the few books that I have seen the movie first before reading the book. I actually didn't know the movie was based on a book until I saw it in my local library. This book ticked a lot of boxes for me. As a former dancer, I am fond of books on dancing. I also enjoy books about China and learning more about Mao's Cultural Revolution was enlightening. Some of the most memorable moments for me were learning about Mao's Cultural Revolution, close family ties (if you have family you have everything), seeing America through the eyes of an immigrant and enjoying the pictures included in the book.


message 18: by Gail (new) - rated it 3 stars

Gail (gailifer) | 140 comments Yes, I also enjoyed seeing how close family ties can be even if the family is far away and also the pictures in the book. I refrained from looking at the pictures in the book until I got to them so I had interesting images in my head that I could compare them to. I was really impressed that the initial people Madame Mao sent out to find young talent were able to see in the rather squat and small boy the dancer he could become. I know I would not have been able to see that!


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Diane wrote: "Thank you all for reading this book with me. I have had it on my book shelf for quite a long time.

I really enjoyed this memoir about Li Cunxin's rise to fame to a world class ballet dancer. This..."


Oh, I listened to audio so no pictures. Bummer.


Kelly_Hunsaker_reads ... | 867 comments Mod
Diane wrote: "Thank you all for reading this book with me. I have had it on my book shelf for quite a long time.

I really enjoyed this memoir about Li Cunxin's rise to fame to a world class ballet dancer. This..."


Thanks for nominating it! I hadn't heard of it and really enjoyed it.


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