Mao’s Last Dancer

I saw the movie, Mao’s Last Dancer today.  Unlike most Westerners, I went with two people who grew up in China and survived the Cultural Revolution.

As we left the theater, my Chinese friends made these comments. “Great movie. Well done. It shows what China went through. If American audiences don’t see this movie because the lead is Chinese, they don’t want to learn about China.”

Evidently, the movie’s distributor agreed since Mao’s Last Dancer was only in one old theater near us that plays serious, artsy movies.

However, for the first showing of the day, it was a nice audience—several hundred at least.

Mao’s Last Dancer was a great but misleading title.  How could Li Cunxin have been Mao’s last dancer when there are ballet troupes all over China (even today) as in Beijing where Li learned ballet?

The Huffington Post review said the movie was middlebrow and rises above the pack if only by a little.  The film critic was Marshall Fine, and I disagree with him.

If Fine knew more about the Chinese and China’s history, he might understand why I disagree. 

When Li was a child, China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, a form of national (or collective) madness that lasted about a decade and ended after Mao’s death thanks to Deng Xiaoping.

Mao’s Last Dancer does a subtle but good job showing what rural life was like during the Cultural Revolution and afterward as attitudes started to change in China.

The movie also shows how tough the Chinese are when it comes to education. Working to gain an education is serious business in China—even today.  What you see while Li and the other children are learning ballet reveals the Chinese mindset.

The New York Times review was kinder but still off the mark.  Mike Hale, writing for the Times, says, “Mao’s Last Dancer is a story of a young and flexible Chinese man who comes to America, where he’s seduced by disco, creative freedom and a honey-haired Houston virgin…”

Can anyone blame young Li for being seduced by a glitzy party country build on debt while the early 1980s China is a drab, colorless place just emerging from its shell? At that time, China’s metamorphosis was just beginning.

If Li had gone home to China and married the Chinese ballerina he was sweet on, today he would be living a lifestyle similar to what he saw in America then. China has changed that much. 

What took America more than a century to achieve, China accomplished in the thirty years since 1980. In fact, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a scene near the end showing one of China’s modern cities that compares to the Houston Li saw when he first arrived in America.

Hall’s conclusion was wrong. Mao’s Last Dancer is not “strenuously brainless”.  If Hall knew more about China, he would understand why my two Chinese friends believe the movie is worth seeing for its story and its educational value.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. 

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7 Responses to Mao’s Last Dancer

  1. Tzuf says:

    Dear LIoyd Lofthouse , I higly recommend you to read the book which I am reading called the unknown cutural revolution by Dongping Han who went through the great leap forward and the cutural as a teenager in Jimo county rural area , outside Qingdao city , ShanDong province . His book was published in 2008 and he challenges the official narritive about the period by claming :”Dongping Han offers a powerful account of the dramatic improvements in the conditions , infrastructure , and agricultural practices of the rural population of China. The cutural revolution helped overthrow local hierarchies,establish participatory democracy and economic planning in the communes, and expand education and public services , especially for the elderly. ” I hope you will give me your conclusions and research about the book and I would also like to recommend two other interesting things , like the documentary called ” They chose China” which depicts the American soilders captured during the Korean war and were given a choice of either staying in the POW camps to return home to the US or stay in China and expand their lives from there, it’s a very powerful documentary , I recommend it highly. Furthermore, I heard about a book by Lee Feigon published in 2003 called “Mao : a reinterpretation ” which also gives like you a more complex and in depth picture regarding Mao Ze-Dong and I have also seen his documentary back in 2006 on the book which is kinda funny and sometimes depicts the event of Mao’s life very satrackle but also in a realistic way . In conlusion , I would also like to get your answer regarding the book called Fanshen which also talks about the times of revolution in China in a Chinese village and I would love to get your response on the book regarding the CIA subversion in Tibet from the 1950’s and up until offically 1974 after the Nixon visit , eventhough it has been proven that even today the CIA is deeply involved along with the orginaization called the natinal endowment fro democracy and other orginaizations which are working on a daily basis to create subversion in China on the one hand but also showing in this process how much the goverment is bad . Anyway, I would like very much to get your answer on these sources and I hope this expanded both our knowledge about China and its historical and current political situation today . Zaijian , Xiaosheng.

    • There can be no doubt that conditions in China improved for most of the Chinese people between 1949 and Mao’s death in 1976. All anyone has to do is look at the increase in average life expectancy from age 35 in 1949 to age 55 by 1976.People don’t live longer if they are starving and not getting medical care. In addition, the improvements in the quality of life continued and the average lifespan in China today is now almost 75 years.

      Before 1949, China was a feudal society ruled mostly by ruthless landowners, warlords and then a ruthless dictator, Chiang Kai S-hek. Most people outside of China who took the time to discover what life was like before the CCP won the Civil War in 1949, and then life under Mao leading to life under Deng Xiaping would probably refuse to believe how much the quality of life has improved in China. In addition, China supports literacy and education.

      If the CCP was a totalitarian government that wanted to totally control what people think, I don’t think we’d be seeing more than 50 million Chinese traveling the world annually tourists and more Chinese coming to the United States for university educations than any other foreign ethnic group. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students come to the U.S. and then return home after they graduate. A totalitarian government would limit education and travel outside the country. North Korea is a perfect example of this and China is open to the world where North Korea is not.

  2. GG says:

    No. They understand. Perhaps, they understand it better than anyone else including the Chinese. But they understand that they need visas to go to China.

    • GG,

      Understand what? I went back and read the review I wrote for Mao’s Last Dancer and didn’t see what you were talking about. What is it “They” understand?

  3. Hi Lloyd,

    At which theater did you see the movie? How much were the tickets?

    I have been looking forward to seeing this film.

    Thanks for the post,


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