Seeing “Mao’s Last Dancer” through a different lens

When I saw the film Mao’s Last Dancer—unlike most U.S. citizens—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.”

The evidence seems to support this thinking because Mao’s Last Dancer only earned $4.8 million from the box office in the U.S. while earning almost $17.5 million in theaters outside the U.S.  Maybe the distributor had something to do with the results, because the film at its widest release was only in 137 theaters. In fact, we had to drive more than thirty miles to see it, because in the film’s first week, it was only in 33 theaters.

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. When the dancer, Li Cunxin defected to the U.S. in 1981, Mao had been dead six years. How could he be Mao’s last dancer? In addition, there are ballet troupes all over China—even today—including 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 disagreed with him.

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

When Li was a child, China was in the middle of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a form of national (or collective) madness that lasted about a decade and was ended by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death in 1976

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, said, “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 1980’s China is a drab, colorless place just emerging from its shell? At the time, China’s metamorphosis was just beginning.

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

What took the U.S. more than a century to achieve, China accomplished in the thirty years since 1981. 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 the U.S.

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 believed the movie was worth seeing for its story and its educational value.

It seems that the Amazon reviewers of the film for Mao’s Last Dancer might agree with me because 133 of the 170 reviews have 5-stars.  The average for the film was also 4.6 of 5. The book had 215 reviews for another average of 4.6 stars, and there were 156, 5-star reviews.

In the previous video, Li Cunxin mentions the poverty and hunger he knew as a child under Mao’s leadership of China.

However, while true, it would be misleading to think that conditions were better before Mao. Under Mao—even with the purges, the Great Famine (1959 – 1961) and the Cultural Revolution—the quality of life for the average Chinese improved steadily, if slowly, and the strongest evidence of that is life expectancy. Life expectancy was only 36.5 years in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded, and the population was 400 million. In 1976, when Mao died, life expectancy had increased by 20 years to 56.5 with a population of 700 million. Today, life expectancy is 73.3 years with a population that is more than 1.3 billion.

In fact [China is known as the land of famines—Between 108 BC and 1911 AD, there were no fewer than 1,828 famines in China, or one nearly every year in one province or another. However, the famines varied greatly in severity.], throughout most of Chinese history the majority of Chinese have lived in poverty. As the hundreds of famines that have killed millions of Chinese attest, Chinese poverty has often been absolute, i.e., lacking the very material resources needed to sustain life and maintain health. … The PRC is the first Chinese government [in China’s long history] to attempt systematically to reduce both inequality and poverty. Griffith University, Australia. Poverty by David C. Schak

The Word Bank says, “Between 1981 and 2001, the proportion of population living in poverty in China fell from 53 percent to just eight percent.”

Be aware that China’s critics are always quick to cherry pick any facts that will make the PRC look bad without history or context.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.


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5 Responses to Seeing “Mao’s Last Dancer” through a different lens

  1. Terry says:

    Li Cunxin is a shameless opportunist who’s taken advantage of the anti-china paranoia in the west to earn millions.

    He was one of the privileged few in china who was given the opportunity to experience western life and chose to repay kindness by forgoing the previous agreement that he’d return to china after the stint. The manner he avoided deportation – tricking a girl that he loved her and then divorcing her soon afterwards – is utterly despicable.

    As if that’s not enough, he claims that he feared for his families lives every day while he was in the US(nothing actually happened to them). If that were the case, why endanger them in the first place by refusing to go back? Selfish beyond belief! To think that a man would do so much just for a better standard of living is chilling.

    I’m not sure if you’ve read the book mr.lofthouse, but it’s filled with exaggerations and contradictions. Li Cunxin is an utter bigot

    • What you say is what I understand about Li Cunxin. I think from everything I’ve seen and read, Li Cunxin is a selfish narcissist with no real loyalty to anyone back home in China. The fact is that if he had returned to China in triumph, he would have been rewarded just like American Olympic Gold Medal winners are rewarded in the United States, and his standard of living in China today would have probably been better than whatever it is in the United States.

      Everyone in the U.S. does not have the lifestyles we see in most TV shows and films. About 50 million Americans live in poverty; there are more than 30,000 violent street gangs in the urban cities—and they generate almost half of the violent crimes in the U.S. and they are getting worse and growing in power—and they have more than a million members. In addition, almost 1 in every 4 American children live in poverty while in China poverty has been steadily reduced for decades. That doesn’t mean everyone is wealthy and lives the life of the rich and famous but it does mean they don’t starve without proper shelter.

  2. James Wilson Jr says:

    Great article Mr. Lofthouse.I have been either working,visiting,or living in most of Asia since 1960.As one interested in written history I always try to study about the area’s religion,history and beliefs I have always bought and read local books that I find translated in English.When I go back to America once a year, I have almost quit trying to explain the ideas or reasons of an Asian country in the news to even learned people.Sometimes it seams that I have been talking to the wall……………….Jim Wilson Jr

    • I understand. Too many people in the states seem only interested in what they want to be interested in to the point that they will cherry pick what they watch or read to make sure they don’t read something that disagrees with their image of the world.

  3. Rajiv says:

    I must see this movie

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