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Mao's Last Dancer - Book Review

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by Gillian Ching (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane who loves exploring quirky places with my dog. Join me in my quest to find, experience, and share fun things to do and interesting places to go.
Published October 7th 2018
A journey to freedom through dance
Photo courtesy Australian Ballet


Mao's Last Dancer is the true story of Li Cunxin - a peasant boy from a poverty-stricken commune in rural China. Li is the second youngest of six sons who lives with his hard-working parents and extended family under the communist regime of the Chinese government.

Despite his father's endless and demanding hard working days in the fields, there is never enough food for the family, no health services and cramped and impoverished living conditions. Even with their difficult life circumstance, they are rich and abundant in love and a hope that somehow, someday their lives may improve under the political leadership of Chairman Mao. As readers, we come to understand his love for his beloved Niang (his mother), his Dia (Father) and his 5 brothers.

One day during school, Li is presented with an unexpected and one in a billion chance to be selected to attend Madam Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. Without any real understanding or interest in dancing, 11 year old Li knows that being selected would mean leaving his family but also embracing the chance for a better life. And so he takes it.

He reflects, "I was just a peasant boy. I knew nothing of ballet. I was homesick. A lost cause." Eventually he made lifelong friends and found inspiring teachers who taught and cared for him."We follow Li through his struggles to learn and eventually grow to love and excel at dance".

In his final year at the academy, Li is again afforded the unlikely opportunity to take a 6 week scholarship to the Houston Ballet Company in the USA - a move that would change the course of his life forever. During his second placement at the company, he makes the brave and dangerous decision to marry an American dancer and defect from China to America. Having experienced a level of freedom and lifestyle that he could never have imagined -skyscrapers, air conditioning, at machines, and an abundance of food and resources, he knows that he can not return to China.

Photo courtesy Museum of Brisbane


The book gives us an insight into the social, cultural and political system of communist China at the time of the cultural revolution through the eyes of a young boy with courage and resilience to overcome the harsh struggles of poverty with fierce determination. We see his vulnerability and unending love for his family.

The book was subsequently made into a film which was directed by Bruce Beresford.

Life for Li today and The Queensland Ballet Company
Following the book's release, Li's life took on a Brisbane flavour. In July 2012, Li was appointed as the fifth Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet company - a position he continues to hold today. Mao's Last Dancer is an inspiring read which crosses cultural divides. It shows us that anything is indeed possible if you take the chance to dream.
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