Book Review: “Mao’s Last Dancer” by Li Cunxin

This is a wonderful American dream story. For a peasant boy an impoverished village in Qindao under the Chinese communism in the 70’s to an accomplished ballet dancer, Li Cunxin gave his all and lived his life to the fullest with some luck and influence of his teachers, friends and, most of all, the love from his family.

The story was truly inspirational. It taught us that determination combined with hard work paves the way to greatness. And never forget the people who made it possible for you. There are more people cheering you on than you can imagine.

Li’s ballet teachers, Mr. Shao and Mr. Zang, portrayed in the book can be a model for all the teachers out there. They saw the strong will inside Li and went on to inspire and push him to become the best dancer he could possibly be. The strangest thing is that Li did not make his own decision to become a ballet dancer. He was “accidentally” chosen by the central planning of the central Communist government, as a pawn for the government to advance its own art agenda. In other words, sometimes the passion can be shaped at the early age. I don’t know what Li would be doing had he not been picked to be a dancer or his school teach did not tap on the shoulder of the selection committee member to “take a look” at Li.

Told over and over, the frogs living inside a well epitomized his life and the life of his family. From the village to Beijing and to eventually America. He saw a bigger and bigger world that shook his belief in communism. The shocks he encountered along the way can easily be compared to the Tarzan movie. China certainly did a good propaganda job in convincing the people that they were living in heaven and yet in extreme poverty.

The author went into lots of details on various steps of Ballet. Not being a Ballet expert, it’s hard for me to visualize how difficult the dance steps are. But from his struggle, I can tell it’s no small feat. I can tell that he is an intense perfectionist carried with him a mission to accomplish the dreams of his family – his mother, father, and the six brothers. It’s a heavy burden that he was able to let go after his triumphant return to his family, after being barred for 8 years after his defection to USA.

Based on my Google search, Li has turned into an inspirational speakers and security exchange manager after his retirement from dancing. I think he has a lot to offer given what he has gone through. But I would love to see him perform his ballet dance.

The narrator, Paul English, of the audio book had a British or Australian accent that took a while to get used to. But he carries the emotion of text or the author’s intent so well, it was like being told a very interesting bed time story. Sometimes, he came through as the original character in the book. He kept me captivated throughout the 15 1/2 hours. Wonderfully done.

I really enjoyed this book. This true story is many times better than the Joy Luck Club. It’s honest, sincere and full of emotion – a triumphant story of human spirit.