#2 Mao’s Last Dancer


Li Cunxin grew up as part of a peasant family in communist China. His mother was known locally as ‘the lucky woman with seven sons’; Cunxin was son number six.

Growing up in extreme poverty, his family would play the ‘game’ of pass the once piece of meat in the dish to the other, who deserved it more, he spent time searching for overlooked vegetables in fields and half burned coal and and ate horrible dried yams, but one day all that changed.

Cunxin was selected for the Beijing Dance Academy which radically changed his life. After years of harsh training, he was selected to travel to the United States and perform with the Houston Ballet. He became a smash hit, but most of all was blown away with the sheer opulence and freedom available in the West. This caused him to defect from China, causing an international incident.

Cunxin went on to improve his ballet skills and further his career, becoming an international success before settling down and having a family with Australian ballerina Mary McKendry.

This book blew me away with the descriptions of Cunxin’s upbringing and life in communist China under the rule of Chairman Mao. His descriptions of his and the country’s extreme love for Chairman Mao despite the extreme poverty experience by most of the country. This is explored much more thoroughly than in the film, which I have seen and isn’t as good.

This love is something that is challenged and ultimately destroyed when he visits the US and realises that almost everything he was told about America was a lie. Cunxin’s reasons for wanting to remain in America and the international incident surrounding his defection are again better covered than in the film and create a much better understanding of the situation and emotions involved.

Overall it is a well written and compelling book which offers an insight into a world which was mostly shut off from the rest of the world and is very different from the one found western countries and indeed the Modern China. It is an uplifting story of determination and triumph despite circumstance.


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