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Mao's Last Dancer by Cunxin Li
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Mao's Last Dancer (2003)

by Cunxin Li

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When people talk about the lives of the famous, they often describe them as "extraordinary." Yet that descriptor is overused to the point where it hardly has any meaning now. But extraordinary seems inadequate to characterize the life of Li Cunxin, a member of the last class of China's ballet students trained in the Mao era.

In this autobiography, Li describes his youth as one of seven brothers, living in poverty unimaginable to Western readers. In spite of a subsistence diet during famine years of dried yams; in spite of only an outdoor privy shared by all Lis; in spite of sharing a mud sleeping platform with his entire family, Li's lived surrounded with love and warm security.

At 11 he was selected to attend Mdme Mao's Dance Academy outside Beijing in spite of having never danced and having received such a rudimentary education (begun at age 10) that he could barely read and knew little other than the sayings of Chairman Mao. The conditions at the school were barely above those of his home commune, and Li experienced devastating homesickness. But he was determined to be the "frog who escaped the well," as his father had told him in a Chinese folk tale.

When still a teen, his life's course changed forever. He became one of two dancers sent by the government to study for a month with the Houston ballet in a cultural exchange program. The artistry, freedom of expression, and his witness to the truth about America as opposed to the Maoist propaganda he'd known that bore no resemblance to the facts affected him profoundly. He would never again be satisfied with the regimentation and restriction to his individuality in the Academy.

From his return to China until the day he left it once more for a year of study with the Houston Ballet, Li fought for his freedom and finally won it when he defected.

Without maudlin sentimentality but with true and raw emotion, Li tells of the sacrifices, privations, and discipline he willing bore to find self-fulfillment in the West, even when it meant ostracization from China and complete loss of contact with his family for many years.

Li reveals a special kind of courage and mettle few men can summon for so long as he persisted in pursuing a life that allows him to fully live (now in Australia). He writes with a certain naivete and naked honesty that makes this book a compelling read about a truly extraordinary man who integrated himself into a whole person made of two disparate halves. ( )
  Limelite | Aug 6, 2017 |
This is author, Li Cunxin's memoir of growing up in communist China during the communist revolution of Chairman and Madame Mao. It is an extraordinary tale of his poverty stricken life and his rise above it by being accepted at the age of 11 into Madame Mao's dance academy and defecting to the United States at the height of his ballet career.
Because his age is close to my own I couldn't help comparing his early years in China to my own as a person living in a free country. It was incomprehensible to imagine the lifestyle he endured as a communist as compared to mine as a person living in a free society. I was by no means living in luxury during my childhood but can now appreciate the simple freedoms I had as compared to his during that time.

A story well told and well worth reading to encourage hope and courage when neither seem attainable. ( )
  morningwalker | Jan 12, 2017 |
Loved it. ( )
  essjay1 | Jan 11, 2017 |
This is the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who as a young boy was chosen from his very poor peasant village in China to attend Madame Mao's Dance Academy in Beijing. This occurred during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 70's, and Li details the brutality of growing up in the very rigid and oppressive environment of Communist China. Yet he also addresses the strengths of family, virtue and culture that lived on despite the harsh realities of the peasant life.
I suppose if I knew anything about ballet, I would have recognized the author's name since he is known as one of the most talented ballet dancers in the world and his story made national headlines in the 1980's. But with my ignorance I had to Google the author to find out if the book was fiction, since I only had the downloaded audio version. I can't say much more in case someone else chooses to read this and is as ignorant as I was about Li's life story.
I usually do not enjoy reading autobiographies, but this one was quite enjoyable. I learned much about Chinese culture, customs, and traditions. I highly recommend it with the caution that my analysis is based upon hearing it and not reading it. I have found that the quality of the reader can have a huge impact on my enjoyment of a book. This reader was excellent! ( )
  TheresaCIncinnati | Aug 17, 2015 |
A very interesting book about a young peasant boy who is chosen to go to Madam Mao's dance school and eventually becomes a principle dancer in the US. The most interesting thing is the first hand account of what it was like to grow up in Communist China: the lack of food, the children's attitudes towards Mao, and the Chinese value system. ( )
  KamGeb | Nov 1, 2014 |
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To the two special women in my life - - my mother and my wife
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On the day of her marriage, a young girl sits alone in her village home.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0425201333, Paperback)

From a desperately poor village in northeast China, at age eleven, Li Cunxin was chosen by Madame Mao's cultural delegates to be taken from his rural home and brought to Beijing, where he would study ballet. In 1979, the young dancer arrived in Texas as part of a cultural exchange, only to fall in love with America-and with an American woman. Two years later, through a series of events worthy of the most exciting cloak-and-dagger fiction, he defected to the United States, where he quickly became known as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. This is his story, told in his own inimitable voice.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:20 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

"From a desperately poor village in northeast China, to a career that took him across the world, this is the incredible story of Li Cunxin -- a story that almost vanished, like so many other peasants' lives, amid revolution and chaos. At age eleven, Li was chosen by Madame Mao's cultural delegates to be taken from his rural home and brought to Beijing, where he would study ballet. In 1979, the young dancer arrived in Texas as part of a cultural exchange, wary of class enemies and prepared to "serve glorious communism." It didn't take long for him to fall in love with America -- and with an American woman. Two years later, through a series of events worthy of the most exciting cloak-and-dagger fiction, he defected to the United States, where he quickly became known as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. This is the remarkable story of his journey -- a heartening rags-to-riches story [and] a fascinating glimpse into the history of Chinese-U.S. relations and the dissolution of the Communist ideal in the life of one fortunate individual."--From p. [4] of cover.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 067004024X, 0670029246, 0670073482

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