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Mao's Last Dancer, Young Readers' Edition Hardcover – July 22, 2008

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 12 - 17 years
  • Grade Level: 7 and up
  • Lexile Measure: 810L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Childrens; 1st edition (July 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802797792
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802797797
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.2 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (229 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #94,342 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This is the heartening rags-to-riches story of Li, who achieved prominence on the international ballet stage. Born in 1961, just before the Cultural Revolution, Li was raised in extreme rural poverty and witnessed Communist brutality, yet he imbibed a reverence for Mao and his programs. In a twist of fate worthy of a fairy tale (or a ballet), Li, at age 11, was selected by delegates from Madame Mao's arts programs to join the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1979, through the largesse of choreographer and artistic director Ben Stevenson, he was selected to spend a summer with the Houston Ballet—the first official exchange of artists between China and America since 1949. Li's visit, with its taste of freedom, made an enormous impression on his perceptions of both ballet and of politics, and once back in China, Li lobbied persistently and shrewdly to be allowed to return to America. Miraculously, he prevailed in getting permission for a one-year return. In an April 1981 spectacle that received national media attention, Li defected in a showdown at the Chinese consulate in Houston. He married fellow dancer Mary McKendry and gained international renown as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet; eventually, he retired from dance to work in finance. Despite Li's tendency toward the cloying and sentimental, his story will appeal to an audience beyond Sinophiles and ballet aficionados—it provides a fascinating glimpse of the history of Chinese-U.S. relations and the dissolution of the Communist ideal in the life of one fortunate individual. 8 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Grade 6–9—In 1961, just three years after Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, Li Cunxin was born, the sixth son in a family of Chinese peasants who eked out a meager existence on a rural commune. During his childhood he endured unimaginable poverty and hardships and witnessed the shooting of 15 "counter-revolutionaries" by Mao's Red Guards. When chosen to audition for Madame Mao's Beijing Ballet Academy at age 11, ballet became his chance for a good job and enough food for life. Many years of training, two U.S. trips, one premature marriage, and a defection later, Li joined the Houston Ballet as a principal dancer, paving his way to international fame. Although told in a rather bland style—mostly in basic declarative sentences—the information about the country at this time and the danger and angst that accompanied the dancer's decision to defect will be of interest to teens. This Young Reader's Edition of the adult book (Putnam, 2004) gives a much fuller portrait than the author's picture-book version, Dancing to Freedom (Walker, 2008). The black-and-white photos, the abbreviated history, and time line will help students place Li's life story into historical context. With the current interest in all things Chinese, and with the immigration debate in full swing, this is a good choice, both to promote an understanding of Chinese culture and to provoke a discussion about the issues facing today's immigrants.—Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, LaSalle Academy, Providence, RI
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

This book was very well written.
Phi Phi
A great insight into life in rural China under Mao's rule, poor people, what a hard life but what a lucky little boy to have such a close and loving family.
A wonderful true story of courage and love.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Cap'n Bob on May 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When my wife and I moved to Texas in the early 1980's, the Houston Ballet's performances were a refreshing antidote to the Southwest's unrelenting commercialism and fixation with football and barbecue. Under Ben Stevenson's lively direction, this troupe of superb athletes pushed the bounds of gravity with grace and verve. Among the foremost in their number was a supple young oriental dancer who was obviously feeling his way toward familiarity with American culture, but always showed uncommon spirit, sensitivity, and vitality in his approach to movement. This was Li Cunxin (pronounced Shwin-Sin). He became our favorite male dancer, and his photos are on our walls today.
This marvelous autobiography by Mr. Li opened our eyes to the unimaginable gulf he had to leap in order to appear before us. When he was plucked from among millions of other peasant children to attend Beijing Dance Academy, the train ride to Beijing was his first. His meals at the Academy were the first time he'd ever had enough to eat. His untrained tendons and muscles were ruptured repeatedly by the contortions he was forced into. Beijing's approval for him to leave China on scholarship to Houston Ballet Academy was China's first such concession to an artist in almost forty years. The first time he ever felt air-conditioning was on the plane to America. His first automobile ride was from the Houston airport to Ben Stevenson's house. And so on - the simple dance outfit purchased for him upon his arrival cost the equivalent of two years of his father's salary in China.
The book contains hundreds of poignant reminders of the risks Mr. Li took in breaking the bounds of his peasant heritage and infuriating both the Chinese government and his American friends when he defected.
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94 of 104 people found the following review helpful By Eric Langager on November 1, 2006
Format: Paperback
There seems to be no end of stories by and about people who came of age during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution. This book is different from most of them in a couple important respects. First of all, Li Cuxin's family were peasants. Perhaps it would be a bit strong to say that they "missed" the revolution, because Li Cuxin does describe one particularly graphic scene where he witnessed an execution. But they were not personally struggled against. The peasants were the idealized heroes of the Cultural Revolution. Li Cuxin's suffering was poverty, pure and simple. But there are lots of poor people in the world. Secondly, the benefits Li Cuxin was given were unique in that they were not given him by the country he went to (America). They were given to him by the People's Republic of China. And the life he went to was really unreal. Most Americans do not live like the people Li met when he came to America. So this book is not a classic story about a persecuted person who somehow managed to find freedom in the West. As such, I must admit that I often had mixed feelings while reading this book. I don't want to spend too much time on that, but I want to address it, because it is central both to what is right and what is wrong in this book.

For me, the centerpoint of this book is Li Cunxin's decision to defect to the West. He married one of his fellow dancers secretly, and told his benefactor from the Houston Ballet that he was not going to return to China. It is this decision that really defines this story, because everything that happens before it can in some way be considered an influencing factor. And everything that happens after it is a result of it.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Margaret Miller on April 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
Li Cunxin in a Chinese Frank McCourt: with vivid detail and warm humor, he describes growing up cold, poor, hungry, and surrounded by a big family and memorable neighbors. But Li's life journey is even more improbable. Against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, Li moves from rural poverty to defection, then international acclaim as a ballet dancer, and finally a reconciliation, of sorts, with his homeland.

Although it was written for adults, my 5- and 7-year-old kids loved the storytelling about Li's mischievous childhood in the first third of the book. The chapters about his rise in the ranks of international ballet were less entertaining. I've read dozens of China memoirs, and this is among the best.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Lesley West on February 26, 2007
Format: Paperback
Li Cunxin has had a somewhat different life. He was almost doomed to obscurity like the vast majority of people in this world, living the life of a poor peasant in rural China, but for a stroke of luck when his teacher suggested him as a potential ballet student. This changed his life from one type of hardship to another with markedly different challenges, but one which left him lonely, confused about the dogma he had so wholeheartedly embraced and geographically isolated from his family.

It is interesting to read as the young man goes from blind adoration of Chairman Mao and all the things that come with Communism, to a dawning awakening that the West is not the den of inequity that he has been led to believe. But is is the latter half of the book that has led me to offer 4 stars instead of 5 - I felt it was a little rushed, especially his well publicised defection, and efforts to settle in the west and raise a family. I guess we in the West are more interested in his early struggling years, but the challenges he faced as an adult are nonetheless fascinating.

There is no doubt that this is a sincere and amazing story. It is written with a wry humour that makes the tales of wrenching poverty readable (I have no desire to ever taste dried yams!), and gives us an interesting insight into how difficult life was in China under Communism. Mr Li seems a happy and settled man now with a lovely family - I would say he has had a fair fight to get there.
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