Saturday, 24 February 2018

Bookclub Read (book vs movie discussion): MAO'S LAST DANCER by Li Cunxin

Author: Li Cunxin
Paul English
January / February 2018
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟1/2

Book Description:

The extraordinary memoir of a peasant boy raised in rural Maoist China who was plucked from his village to study ballet and went on to become one of the greatest dancers of his generation.

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.

My musings:

Mao’s Last Dancer was our last bookclub read, and apparently I have been living under a rock, since I had not heard of the book OR the movie! Since a lot of my reading is escapist and a means to disengage from real life problems, I seldom delve into autobiographies – and am finding that I may be missing out! Li Cunxin’s account of his life, from a childhood in rural, poverty stricken China to his rise to fame, was interesting, humbling and inspiring in equal measures. It certainly provided a lot of material for our bookclub discussion. Personally, the one message that stood out most for me was how loving the Li family was, and how they looked out for each other. Living in unimaginable poverty, there was always plenty of love to go around, and each family member was willing to share what little they had with others. I found this so refreshing and humbling, living in a society where we tend to accumulate and hoard possessions and compete with each other, and where families are often fractured and family values lost as a result of this. Whilst the poverty and constant struggle for survival in Li Cunxin’s childhood sounded horrendous, it may have also set the foundations for his resilience, determination and inner strength that ultimately formed the cornerstones to his success.

Whilst I initially thought the story was off to a bit of a slow, rambling start and could have done with some careful editing, I found the small facts of Li Cunxin’s childhood and the political background fascinating. I’m a total numpty when it comes to ballet, but this posed no obstacle to my enjoyment of the book, as the underlying message could have been applied to any sport, or even any career where someone overcomes personal challenges through sheer gut and determination to become the best in their field. Through all the pain and hardship Li Cunxin endured, he always held out for the goal to achieve something better and to make his family proud. Li Cunxin never complains about anything, dispassionately recounting tales of hunger and hardship that would make our toes curl. It is this positive, hopeful outlook and his stoicism that ultimately makes him succeed where others have tried and failed.

On our bookclub night, we watched the movie to compare it to the book, and I found that the film skipped over two of the most memorable moments in the story for me: the time teacher Xiao prompts Li Cunxin to confront the bullying behaviour of another teacher (which taught him to confront problems head-on); and the moment Li Cunxin realises that communism isn’t the perfect ideal he had been forced to believe all his life. A few of us found that the movie missed some of the messages that stood out for each of us individually in the telling of the story, so whilst the movie was ok, I recommend reading the book first!

I listened to the audio version of this book, and credit must go to Paul English for his wonderful narration – I really appreciated his accurate pronunciation of the many Chinese names, which would have made me flounder in the printed version.


All in all, Mao’s Last Dancer was an interesting and humbling read that will appeal to anyone looking for inspiration and hope. Containing fascinating historical details of life under Mao, a strong armchair component, and hidden messages in its pages that will mean different things to individual readers, Mao’s Last Dancer made for a perfect bookclub read.

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