Learning Guide for Mao’s Last Dancer Note to Teachers

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Learning Guide for Mao’s Last Dancer

Note to Teachers: This guide is a part of an innovative learning system developed by TeachWithMovies.com contributor Mary Redclay in which students are introduced to a non-fiction book that has been converted to film. Mao’s Last Dancer is an autobiographical account of Li Cunxin, who grew up in a desperately poor family in communist China during the Cultural Revolution, became a world class ballet dancer and eventually defected to the United States. His book is illuminating in that it reveals the difficulties of life under Mao Tse Tung and the potential that exists within each individual to achieve his or her dreams.

The guide summarizes elements of Cunxin’s life, told in three parts, and retells the essential myths through which the young dancer developed as an artist, as an individual and as an international citizen.

Subjects: Non-Fiction Literature; biography; World/China; Dance; International Relations;

Social-Emotional Learning: Breaking Out; Family;

Moral-Ethical Emphasis: Caring; Respect;

Age: 14+MPAA Rating PG; Released 2009; 117 Minutes; Color; Available from Amazon. Com.

Description: After years of laborious training at Madam Mao’s Dance Academy in Beijing, Li Cunxin becomes a great ballet dancer. Despite his initial disinterest in dance and his resentment of having to leave home at age 10 to study both dance and Mao’s Little Red Book, Cunxin develops into a true artist. He travels to America, marries an aspiring dancer, defects, divorces, remarries and eventually is allowed to revisit his family left behind in China.

Possible Problems: None. There is a small bit of violence, earning the film the PG rating, but it is not graphic.

Parenting Points: You may want to talk to your children about the changes in China since the death of Mao and make it clear that the kind of poverty and conformity that they see in the film has diminished considerably. If your children have seen Billy Eliot, they will be familiar with a young boy training to be a ballet dancer. If not, point out to them that some of the most famous dancers in the world, such as Baryshnikov, are male.

The Book: Part One, My Childhood

What follows is a summary of Cunxin’s life, most of which is included, however briefly, in the film. The information can be delivered to students in a brief lecture as an introduction to the film or used as reference after the film has been shown.

Readers learn in an informal prologue that Cunxin’s mother suffered through a traditional Chinese wedding, meaning she had never met the man chosen to be her husband prior to the marriage itself. Cunxin comments on the loneliness his mother felt when, at age 14, she left her family to join a household made of in-laws, including her husband’s six brothers and their wives. She fears that her unbound feet will be a reason for them not to like her and is relieved to learn that this is not so. Bound feet make it more difficult to labor and the family is gratified to have a strong woman as part of the group.

Relieved of her fears that the new husband may be ugly or deformed and need constant care, Cunxin’s mother settles easily into the marriage and the young couple share deep affection. They have seven sons; the sixth is Cunxin, born in 1961, a year marked by deprivation. Bad weather and governmental policies, called “The Great Leap Forward,” contributed to a famine in which over 30 million Chinese people starved to death. Still, the family was happy. Cunxin tells of fun and laughter, pranks and problems that are mitigated by love of an open-minded grandmother.

It is easy to see where Cunxin developed his rebellious nature. He tells of a day when the Red Guard Girls came to his home to test his mother on Mao’s Little Red Book, a document of communist propaganda that every Chinese was expected to thoroughly understand, whether or not they could read. Cunxin’s mother angrily replied to the young women seeking to enforce the precepts of the Cultural Revolution, that she had no time for propaganda; she had cleaning, washing and cooking to do. She was too busy for Mao’s sayings. Years later Cunxin will take a stand of his own that, like his mother, required bravery in the face of authority.

Cunxin details the complicated process of being tested to determine whether or not he would be selected to attend ballet school in Beijing, a city he longed to visit. He had little interest in ballet, but was supple and strong and people considered him smart. He knew he was lucky to be chosen to study in Madam Mao’s ballet school, yet he would have preferred to stay at home with the people he loved.

Part one ends when Cunxin is eleven years old and now must leave his family to study ballet in Beijing. He knew that having gained the opportunity to advance himself would be good for his family but he begins to wonder if his life would ever be his own. He sees life as cruel and unfair, in that he is his family’s only hope to escape poverty; however, he finds in himself a “seed of hope.” He rises above his sorrow and begins a new phase of his life.

Part 2: Beijing

In Madam Mao’s Art Academy the idea most stressed upon the students involved the relationship between art and politics. The young people were indoctrinated with the notion that they were like soldiers in that they were part of a revolutionary guard, the only difference being that their weapon, instead of a gun, would be their art. Often the students would listen to critical reviews of literature or various art forms and become involved in deep analysis seeking out the hidden political agendas. They would have to write self-evaluations often in which they were to look at themselves and eek out any resistance to the patriotic zeal forcefully demanded by the Cultural Revolution.

The students worked hard, both physically and mentally, but they ate well, made friendships among their numbers and used hope for a better future as a shield against the loneliness of being away from home. After a time, Cunxin feels a sense of belonging at the school and camaraderie in association with Mao’s policies. He becomes a member of the young Guards and participates in the didactic political ballets stressed by the principles of Madam Mao. Through a few teachers, however, he learns about dance as an art form requiring honesty and great individual effort. Whereas the Cultural Revolution promulgated the idea that art is a community effort and everything created is a joint effort, he begins to look

After Mao’s death, the political atmosphere shifted under new leadership and members of the dance academy felt the changes most dramatically as they were able to watch formerly banned videos of Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker and The Turning Point. Cunxin discovers that he loves ballet, not for its political potential but for its passion. He wants to dance like the famous Russian ballet star and he beings to improve, rapidly becoming one of the best students in the school. He is given a starring role in Swan Lake and works hard to drop the politics that made it difficult for him to portray a prince on stage after years of having learned the evils of European royalty, values that had once been in start contrast to those taught under Chairman Mao’s China. He had to struggle against the thought that he was a peasant playing a prince. Eventually, as he succeeds in pulling the image of the prince from deep within himself, he realizes the value of individuality. Neither a prince, nor a peasant, Cunxin is free to be himself.

As China opens to the outside world, Cunxin struggles through bureaucratic blockades, meets important Americans, experiences good luck in timing and opportunity and eventually is able to visit, as he entitles his book’s 18th chapter, “The Filthy Capitalist America.” He leaves his family and all of the teachers that had been so important to him behind in a rapidly changing China and heads to Houston, Texas, where under the guidance of Ben Stevenson and the Houston Ballet Academy, he grows into a world class ballet dancer. His mind is jarred open as he begins to experience the differences between what he had been taught about the Western world, America specifically, and the reality of daily life outside of China. When he returns to China after six weeks in Houston, he thinks of the freedom, both of mind and body, he had experienced in America. He felt betrayed by the propaganda he had so easily accepted as he grew up and felt used, like a political puppet, by the communist system in China. He wondered how 18 years of communist indoctrination could be overwhelmed by six weeks in a capitalist country.

Part Three: The West

Cunxin returns to China and is able to manipulate the situation with the Chinese government so that he can go back to the U.S. for a year to continue working with the Houston Ballet. He meets and falls in love with Elizabeth Mackey, an aspiring American dancer, and realizes that he is now being torn between his new found love of freedom, as well as all of the comforts of American society, and his loyalty to both his family and to China. Despite his conflict, three days prior to his scheduled return to his own country, he marries Elizabeth and announces his plans to defect. His decision poses difficulties for all of his friends and associates in America and forces the Chinese diplomats into turmoil. There are tense moments involved in the defection process and after receiving assistance from George and Barbara Bush, as well as an active press in full support of his efforts for both artistic and political reasons, Cunxin is granted the right to remain in the U.S. He knows, however, that his action may endanger his family and that many of his friends and teachers may feel he has betrayed them; still, he determines that his freedom is worth the price he and others may have to pay.

Cunxin’s new life in the west takes him all over the world. His personal life expands along with his professional life. He divorces Elizabeth after a year and meets the woman who would become his wife and the mother of his three children, Mary McKendry, an elite dancer in her own right. Arrangements, complicated and lengthy, are made for his parents to come to the U.S. and Cunxin is reunited with his beloved mother and father. Finally, he and Mary are allowed to travel to China where Cunxin reconnects with his friends and teachers at his old Dance Academy in Beijing and travels to the village in which he was born to see his parents and the many members of his largely extended family. He and Mary dance together in the village square to the delight of the entire community and Cunxin feels freed from the guilt and pain of having left these loving people behind so many years ago.

Eventually, Cunxin and Mary return to her country, Australia, where they continue to participate in dance and raise their family.

The Film: The film should be shown uninterrupted.

After the students have seen the film, either read or distribute the following tales to the students to read themselves and ask them to write brief paragraphs in response to the questions at the end of each tale.

Tale One:

On page 52 of Part One, Cunxin includes a story that his father often told him as a child: “The Frog in the Well.”

The Frog in the Well

Once upon a time a tiny frog lived in a deep dark well from which he could only see a small bit of blue sky when he looked up. This well and the bit of sky were all he knew of the world until one day when he met a frog who sat on the rim of the well above him. The tiny frog looked skyward at the frog above him and said, ”Come on down and play with me; it’s fun here in the well.”

The frog above asked the tiny frog what was down in his well that might be so fun.

The tiny frog told him about the underground streams, the bits of sky and stars and things that seemed to fly by above. He said that the moon could be seen sometimes from the bottom of the well and once in a while things splashed into the waters.

Sitting on the rim of the well, the frog sighed and told the tiny frog that he lived in a tiny world, bound by walls that blinded him to a bigger world outside the well. The tiny frog grew angry and argued that his world within the well had everything life could offer.

Feeling sorry for the frog below, the frog above again sighed and told the tiny frog he was mistaken; the world above was enormous beyond imagining. The tiny frog grew angrier. Determined to find the truth, he asked his father about what the frog above had said. It is true, his father told him in a voice that held the sorrow of having to disappoint his son. The tiny frog wanted to know why he had not been told about the world above and all the stars and vast expanses of space and the many things it offered. His father sighed and told him that destiny cannot be altered. His son’s destiny was to live in the bottom of the wall and experience life from that perspective.

The tiny frog argued. He wanted to know why he could not get out and see the world from above the well. He tried to leap to the outside world higher and higher but could not escape the steep walls of the well. Finally his father told his to stop his efforts to escape or else he would live forever with discontent. In order to feel satisfied with your lot in life, the tiny frog’s father told him, you must accept your place in the world and avoid fighting what the fates have given you.

The little frog, determined to escape the well, would never accept the fact that he had to learn to live with his own destiny. He spent the rest of his life pursuing an impossible dream of escape. He never knew contentment.


1. The story is an allegory. It teaches an important lesson that Cunxin returns to several times in his book. Write a brief essay in which you reveal the connection between the story of the frog in the well and show how Cunxin changes, in his own life, the theme of the frog’s story. Include in your final paragraph thoughts about how the story could be rewritten in order to account for the fact that there are some characteristics that enable some frogs to escape the confines of their wells. Be specific about those characteristics in terms of Cunxin.

2. In an informal essay, write about the well in which you live and the glimpses you have had of a world outside of your current perspective. You may have had glimpses of life’s potentials through people you have met, lessons you have learned in reading or in films or from the experiences of friends. Stay focused on yourself; what is in your well and what is there for you should you escape its confines?

Tale Two:

Ob page 64, Cunxnin repeats a story told to the children in his village by an old man named Wuho about a cricket.

Wuho Man’s Cricket Tale

Once upon a time there was an emperor who especially enjoyed cricket fighting, a sport common among the Chinese. Once each year, he required the leaders in each of the villages under his command to supply him with the best fighting crickets to be found and the leaders would scour the countryside to find the cricket that would earn them the favor of the emperor and gain rewards for themselves.

One boy who lived in a poor village under a mountain was named Brave Hero and was well loved by his parents who worked hard to see that he had enough food to eat and was happy. One day his courageous father brought the boy a cricket that he would be able to present to the authorities for the emperor. Against his better judgment, He allowed his son to play with the cricket and was enraged when the boy allowed the cricket to escape and be eaten by a hungry rooster. The father told the boy to go find another cricket and that he could not return to his home until he had replaced the lost cricket with one of comparable quality. The boy searched the mountains for another cricket but was soon found almost dead, lying on a rock. The heartbroken father picked up his son and brushed off of his face a small cricket that had jumped up just as the boy was being lifted from the rock.

The boy was dying. The parents build a coffin and placed the boy inside as they grieved over their loss. As they prayed over the boy, they heard the same cricket that had been swished away from the boy earlier. The father again swished away the cricket but when the authorities came to collect the cricket due the emperor they heard the chirp of the cricket and watched as the rooster tried to gobble up the creature. But instead of the cricket being eaten by the rooster, it jumped on the crown of the bird which then dropped dead. The boy’s father was relieved at how impressed the authorities were with the cricket that had killed a rooster and told them that the crickets name was “Brave Hero,” like his son.

Brave Hero, the cricket, became the emperor’ number one fighting cricket while back in the village the boy by the same name continue to live, still lying in the coffin in his parent’s living room. At the end of all the cricket fighting competitions, the emperor rewarded the father for the cricket he had given the authorities but the parents felt little joy as their son was still lying in the coffin, unrecovered.

Then one day Brave Hero, the cricket, escaped from his confinement in the emperor’s palace. At that same moment, Brave Hero, the boy, returned to life. On that terrible day when the authorities had come to fetch the cricket the boy had negligently allowed to escape, the spirit of the boy had flown into the cricket to save his family from the wrath of the authorities. After the dangers had passed and the family was rewarded, the cricket left his cage in the palace and the spirit returned to the boy in the coffin, restoring his life.


1. The cricket story is an allegory. In it Cunxin sees himself in his efforts to release his family from a lifetime of certain struggle. Write an essay in which you compare the life that Cunxin leads to the life of the boy in the story. Think about what the authorities represent in Cunxin’s life, how he feels as if he were in a coffin, and what in his own spirit can save his family.

2. In an informal essay, show how there are elements in your own life that are similar to the lives in the story. You will have to think of symbolic meaning in the emperor, the authorities, the cricket and even the coffin in order to make sense of the tale as it may apply to yourself.

Tale Three:

On page 89, Cunxin recounts the story of a hunter and a bird told to him by his father.

The Hunter and the Bird

Once upon a time, a hunter injured a bird he had hit with his arrow and instead of killing it he made a deal. The hunter was able to speak the bird’s language and the two of them agreed that if the hunter would allow the bird to live it would help guide him to food, which the two of them could share. It seemed like a good bargain to the hunter and so he agreed.

Time and again the bird kept its word and passed information to the hunter about where he could find game for food. The pair shared the food and the relationship was working out well.

Eventually, though, the hunter grew greedy. He refused to share his food with the bird. In a fit of revenge, the bird told the hunter about a dead goat that could be found off in the distance. Excited over the prospect of such a large find, the hunter rushed to the location and claimed the goat as his to the group of people who had gathered around what the hunter thought was the dead goat. The hunter called out to the others that the dead animal was his along, that he had killed it. When he drew closer, he saw that the dead animal was not a goat; it was a man. The hunter was arrested for murder, tried and sentenced to death despite his tale of the bird who led him to what was supposed to be a dead goat. On the day he was to be executed, the judge tested the hunter’s use of bird language by asking him about what the birds in the trees above were talking about. The birds, according to the hunter, wanted to know why the judge had taken their babies. They were angry. The judge, who had hidden the babies in preparation for the test, reversed his ruling and allowed the hunter to live.


1. Cunxin loves this story for its moral and the bird’s ability to outwit the hunter. Write an essay in which you show how the importance of keeping promises and living by one’s wits may have been important in shaping Cunxin’s life. You may want to consider how he may not have lived up to the promise to remain loyal to his country of to his family by defecting to America. How does this fit into the story which brought the hunter close to death but saved him in the long run?

2. What lesson in this story about the bird and hunter can serve you in your efforts to become the individual you are seeking to become? In what sense can you take a lesson from the actions of the hunter or of the bird in order to shape your life? Metaphorically, you may see yourself as the hunter. In this case, what does the bird and the lesson with it teaches the hunter represent?

Tale Three:

Teacher Xiao tells Cunxin the Chinese Fable about the Scholar’s Dream on page 184

Once upon a time, a scholar was traveling to a scholar’s competition in Beijing. He was poor and since he didn’t have the money to hire a horse, he had to walk the long distance to the capital city. Eventually he comes upon to a poor shanty from which he smells millet soup an old woman is preparing. She agrees to share some soup with his and he falls asleep as the woman cooks and dreams that he had won the competition and had been rewarded with riches by which he was able to live a wealthy life with fine food, a wife and family. He awakens to see only millet soup in a poor shanty and realizes that he will remain a poor and unfortunate man and such dreams are always too good to be true.


1. Teacher Xiao tells Cunxin that the story shows how great things will never come through dreaming alone. Cunxin refers to the story often when he begins to despair of achieving what he wants. Write a paragraph about how in the film you can see several times when Cunxin must push past mere dreaming and wishing and hoping and simply work hard to achieve his desires.

2. Write informally about what in your life is symbolized by the millet soup, something you settle for in place of what you actually want. Could your millet soup be an adequate grade in a class in school when, with more work rather than just dreaming, you can earn an A?

Tale Four: The Best Bow Shooter

Teacher Xiao tells Cunxin another story retold on page 211.

The Best Bow Hunter

Once upon a time a guard in the palace of the emperor approached an instructor and asked him to teach him to be the best bow shooter in the emperor’ employ. The teacher sent the young man away. Days, weeks and months passed in which the young man returned to the instructor and pleaded for lessons so he could be the best bow hunter. Each time the instructor turned the young man away. After a year of appeal, the instructor relented. The young man follows directions; he lifts a heavy bow until his arm grows tired and begins to shake. Every day the instructor tells the young man to carry heavy objects until his muscles grow strong and the next time the instructor asks him to pick up a bow, it feels light and easy to lift.

Soon the young man wanted to know how to shoot an arrow right into its target but the instructor instead asks him is he can see anything up in the sky. He could see nothing. He could not see the spider the instructor assured him was in a far away tree. The young man kept looking, focusing hard on the distant tree with one eye at a time. Eventually he could see the spider that now appeared large in his vision.

The instructor tells him that only now is he ready to learn how to use a bow and arrow with precision and soon the young man became the best bow hunter among the palace guards.


1. Teacher Xiao’s fable is important for Cunxin. Write an essay in which, from the film, you find and example of the hard work, the determination and the perseverance that Cunxin grows to value and practice in his life. These three characteristics from teacher Xiao’s story are tools that help Cunxin become a world class dancer and a Chinese ex-patriot who is able to return to his birth country and share his blessings with others.

2. Think of some time in your life when you used each of these attributes of character, hard work, determination and perseverance. In an informal essay write about what you wanted to achieve and what you managed to achieve because of these attributes. Use narrative writing skills so your reader knows where you are, what you want and what actions you take to get to your goals.

Discussion Questions:

After the film has been seen and the assignments finished, teachers may want to engage the class in discussion to bring up more ideas and to allow the students to express some thoughts that may be on their minds.

1. It seems as if Cunxin has learned to be an individual quite well; he takes action on his own behalf and in the process hurts others. What is your opinion about Cunxin’s behavior? Did he seem selfish in abandoning his family and exposing them to potential risk? Did he seem hasty in marrying Elizabeth and then divorcing her a year later? Did he risk Ben Stevenson’s credibility by defecting under the care of the Houston Ballet Academy?

Suggested Responses: Answers will vary. Any answer, well supported, is acceptable.

2. Teacher Xiao uses a mango metaphor to express to Cunxin how to go about approaching a problem. He says you do not simply eat the mango that is offered to you. You look at it, touch it, smell it, and get to know it thoroughly until you take a bite. How did Cunxin follow the lessons in the metaphor in his experiences in learning to dance and in transferring to the west?

Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Students should refer to events in the film to back up their ideas


Read the assignments given after each story and evaluate them according to the rubric established in each class.

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