'Mao's last dancer' tells his story

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In 1979, Chinese dancer Li Cunxin was chosen to jet from Beijing to Houston as part of the first official exchange of artists between China and the US since 1949. To his astonishment, he was presented with an inflight meal by a flight attendant.

For a man who grew up in stark poverty, being waited on was an uncomfortable experience. Later, he offered to help the stewardess clean the dishes.

Anecdotes like that, woven into a grand tale of Cunxin's journey from a childhood in rural China to his high-profile defection to the US in 1981, have propelled the now-retired dancer's biography, "Mao's Last Dancer," to No. 1 on bestseller lists in Australia. The book's recent release in the US is attracting similar buzz: The memoir was named one of this year's Breakout Books by Amazon.com, and film producers are interested in telling Cunxin's story in a movie that could be billed as "Billy Elliot" meets "White Nights."

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"Obviously I'm reluctant about my life being made into a film," Cunxin says after an autograph session at a bookstore here. "I do not want to lose the heart and soul of my story."

It took Cunxin a year and a half to write "Mao's Last Dancer." He wrote the manuscript by hand on nights and weekends while maintaining his business as a stockbroker in Melbourne, Australia. The unedited version totaled 680,000 words.

"I found I had locked away so many of my memories throughout the years - and some of them are very sad," Cunxin says. "And all of a sudden the words and stories and these memories found their way onto the pages."

The Mao of the book's title doesn't just refer to the chairman who ruled China's Communist Party until his death in 1976. Cunxin was chosen to attend Madame Mao's Peking Dance Academy in Beijing at age 11 - a huge transition from Qingdoa, a remote commune village in northern China where he grew up as the sixth of seven sons. There, in a home shared with 20 relatives, food was extremely scarce.

Cunxin writes about the difficulties of leaving his family, as well as the physical challenges he endured. He paints his memories of China in elegant detail, remembering his parents' love and compassion - and how children were taught to say "I love you, Chairman Mao" before they were taught to say they loved their parents.

The memoir changes course when he first visits the West after earning a scholarship to dance with the Houston Ballet. Ben Stevenson, the company's artistic director emeritus, who visited China as part of a US cultural delegation in 1979, made it possible.

"There's no doubt [that] without Ben I would still be in China," Cunxin says. "Without him, I would not be where I am today. Without him, I would not be the dancer I was. He is one of the mentors of my life."

On his second visit to the United States, Cunxin fell in love with another dancer and decided to defect, realizing he might never see his family again. The action sparked an international incident. During a 21-hour standoff, FBI agents surrounded the Chinese Consulate in Houston as an American delegation, led by future President George H.W. Bush, negotiated with the Chinese for Cunxin's release. The dancer's freedom proved bittersweet. A career as principal dancer at Houston followed, but Cunxin's first marriage collapsed.

In one of the most touching scenes in the book, Mr. Stevenson arranged for Cunxin's parents to visit the US in 1984 with the help of Mr. Bush - by then the de facto US ambassador to China. This was the first time Cunxin's parents had ever seen him dance, and when they walked into the theater, the entire audience applauded.

The author, who has three children with wife Mary McKendry, herself a dancer, hopes the book will inspire readers. If sales in Houston are a reflection, it is doing just that. In one afternoon, Cunxin sold 450 copies. "I'm utterly thrilled with the success, but I'm quite surprised, really, with the way it's panned out, and the speed of things," Cunxin says. "I thought slowly this would touch people's hearts, but it took off from day one, really."

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