12 November 2009

Mao’s Last Dancer

by Li Cunxin

Penguin Books. Australian, Biographical. Softcover rrp $29.95

The autobiography of Li Cinxin, a poor Chinese farmer’s son, became an internationally world renowned ballet dancer, I didn’t think this was going to be an exciting read. I was wrong.

Li Cunxin was born the same year as me, but that’s where the similarities ended. Whereas I was a child who stopped ballet at the age of 11 because I chose to, Cunxin grew up under the restrictions of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward - communism . At the age of 11 Li Cunxin was chosen by chance from the country’s millions of rural children, based only on his physique and flexibility, to dance in Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.

“Do you know what your chances of being chosen were? One in a billion! That’s right, one in a billion! You are the lucky and proud children of the workers, peasants and soldiers of China! You will carry Chairman Mao’s artistic flag into the bright future.” Director Wang of Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.

Mao’s Last Dancer propelled me into Cunxin’s incredible life. My stomach ached as I read about his hunger and poverty in rural China in the 60’s. I felt tired and exhausted as he persevered to perfect his dance routines. A terrible overwhelming sadness went through me when I read about his homesickness. I gripped the book tightly, as he did with Elizabeth Mackey’s hand, when he was defecting to the US. When I read about him finally meeting up with his family again, I smiled and felt jubilant inside.

It takes a talented writer and a truly amazing story to bring out all these emotions in a reader. I thoroughly recommend Li Cunxin’s memoirs to all – even those that hate the ballet!


This book was reviewed in 2007 for our Issue 1. Due to the recent release of the movie, we thought it timely to post our review.

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