Maos Last Dancer

Maos Last Dancer was hard to put down!

It tells the reader so much about Mao's China & the Cultural Revolution but without the tediousness of ploughing through a text book.

It's an amazing true story, written from the heart & with passion. It is a Cinderella story!

Li Cunxin's tale is about history & indoctrination; family & its values; chance & dreams; hard work; inspiration & determination.

The Plot

Li is a young boy living in Mao's Communist China with his family in the province of Shandong in absolute poverty.

By luck he is picked to train as a dancer for Madame Maos dance academy in Beijing.

He is taken away from his entire family (whom he misses terribly) and starts an arduous regime of becoming a dancer.

To start with, he flaunders at ballet and dancing in general and is very homesick and unhappy.

But after a pep talk with his father, who reminds him how important this opportunity is for him and their entire family, he strives to work harder.

He pushes himself to the limit, working ridiculous hours, over and above the already gruelling regime.

He is triumphunt and gets picked to represent his school and study in The USA.

The USA is not quite what he has been lead to believe from the Chinese government, and slowly he starts to doubt everything that he has been brainwashed into believing.

He refuses to go back to China, which causes an absolute stir at the Chinese Embassy. He goes on to be a very famous dancer and does finally get to see his family again and is reunited with his beloved China.


History & Indoctrination.

For much of the story, the writer tells us about the Cultural Revolution under Mao in the province of Shandong in China.

It tells of the harsh reality of everyday life for families, trying to provide for the children, in Li's case, seven boys.

They work hard in the fields, & need, though rarely get, much sustenance. The regime is harsh, restricting & frequently cruel.

They are indoctrinated into believing what the state tells them to believe. For instance, they are told that other countries are worse off than the Chinese. What a shock Li is to have years later when he visits America for the first time! The ordinary people are too afraid to question their regime. The consequences could be horrendous.

Inspite of the terrible poverty his family & extended family suffer, they bathe him in love & give him good values which will carry him through the rest of his life. A good example of this is when he steals a toy when he is five years old & his Mum points him in the right direction. And the story of his Grandmother is both touching & heartfelt. And from them, he always knows about hard work.


This theme plays an important part in the story of Maos Last Dancer. It is by pure chance that Cunxin finishes up in Mme. Mao’s Dance Academy in Beijing. He happens to be the right age, the right height & has the right measurements. And though he has considerable misgivings about leaving his family, he enters a completely different world, a world which will lead him in a few years, to a totally different way of life.


His early years at the Dance Academy are hard & harsh; not only does he miss his family but he isn’t very successful as a dancer. Later, as a result of inspirational teachers, he works incredibly hard, and eventually becomes a very worthy dancer. Also during this time, he becomes a devoted member of the Communist Party, giving us more of the history of the time. His hard work & devotion is inspirational though he puts his health at risk at times by dancing five times a day.


Attitudes start to change in China when Chairman Mao dies & especially for Li, when he is chosen to go to America to dance for six weeks. Here, not only does he begin to realise his dreams but he comes to see that life in the west is not as he has been led to believe all his life. And he loves what he sees & experiences. It’s not surprising that when it’s possible, he defects to the west giving up his family for several years as well as his membership of the Communist Party. His dreams come to fruition.


What do you think are the biggest differences between Li's life in China and his life in the US?

How would you describe the writing style?

Was it obvious that English is not Li's first language? If so, did it detract from the book?

Were the characters developed enough for you? Or is this a general downfall of biographies?

Did you learn something new from reading Maos last dancer? If so, what?

Did you enjoy the fables that have an impact on Li's life? (the frog in the well and the Archer) Or were they a distraction from the main story?


Maos Last Dancer scored 7/10 at our book club.

This book is well worth reading. It is easy to read; it is educational, inspirational & written from the heart.

The reason it didn't score higher was for the following reasons:

  • Some felt that once Li went to the US, the book was less interesting. Everyone unanimously loved the China part of Maos Last Dancer though.
  • The writing was a bit too simplistic at times - some of us loved this fact though and found the book to be a real page turner, despite such a dry subject matter.

Overall, I recommend Maos Last Dancer wholeheartedly. We were able to have some interesting discussions, albeit around the story rather than the actual writing.

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