Mao’s Last Dancer


First the book then the movie- After an interesting discussion about the book and the characters in Li’s story, we watched the movie. We all agreed that the movie was very close to the book except for the initial story of Li and his family.

We discussed the following questions found at

1. Discuss Li’s decision to defect to the US: his motivations (falling in love, exposure to freedom). What personal price was paid, and what was gained? Also, whoever leads the book discussion might dig up information on another famous ballet defection: Rudolph Nureyev, who defected from the former Soviet Union in 1961—ironically, the same year that Li was born.

2. Did Li marry Elizabeth Mackey out of love…or out of a desire to stay in the US? Why did the marriage end?

3. An interesting discussion might consider the roles of talent vs. discipline and perseverence. What about the role of an inspiring teacher?

4. You might also talk about the vast cultural differences Li had to surmount—language, the fact that ballet is not a Chinese art form, and the values of individuality and self-fulfillment vs. collectivity.

5. In a New York Times interview (9/26/04), Li says that in returning to teach at the Beijing Academy he has found “people have a lot more opportunities. So if it gets too hard they just back off.” He also says that had he grown up elsewhere and been presented with the West’s “enormous opportunities,” he “certainly would not volunteer to do a ballet class.” I’m not sure what the question is…but it’s an interesting observation.

6. If you’ve seen the 2009 film version, how does it compare with the book? Is the movie well casted?


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