Li Cunxin 1961–

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Li Cunxin 1961–

PERSONAL: Name pronounced "Lee Schwinsin"; born 1961, in Li Commune, China; married Mary McKendry (a ballet dancer), 1987; children: three. Education: Studied at Beijing Dance Academy and with Houston Ballet.

ADDRESSES: Home—Australia. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Putnam Publicity, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.

CAREER: Houston Ballet, Houston, TX, dancer, 1979–1982, principal dancer, beginning 1982; Australian Ballet, principal dancer, 1995–2000; stockbroker in Melbourne, Australia. Guest dancer with numerous dance companies, including Pittsburgh Ballet, Ballet de Santiago, and Northern Ballet Theatre.

AWARDS, HONORS: Christopher Award for Literature, for Mao's Last Dancer.


Mao's Last Dancer (autobiography), Viking (New York, NY), 2003.

WORK IN PROGRESS: A young reader's edition of Mao's Last Dancer.

SIDELIGHTS: Born into a peasant family in Communist China, Li Cunxin eventually became an internationally celebrated ballet dancer. As a young boy, Li was accustomed to hunger and cold. He recalled in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Company interviewer George Negus that people in his village would eat tree bark in an attempt to stay alive. He added: "Nearly every meal … the seven [children in his family] would look at the food that was served, then look at our mother, in her eyes, desperate. We knew then just by looking at the food, there is not enough food for all of us. We knew we'd go to sleep starving that night."

When Li was ten years old, government officials came to his school to select children to be trained in dance. Li certainly knew nothing of ballet, but was chosen for dance training on the basis of his physique. Taken from his home and family, he was sent to live at the Beijing Dance Academy and given long, grueling training sessions. For his first two years there, he hated dance and frequently cried himself to sleep, feeling terribly lonely and missing his family. Eventually, however, he realized that if he excelled, he would probably be able to improve the quality of his family's life as well as his own. Li eventually came under the influence of a special teacher who helped him to realize his great potential. Full of determination, Li began to work hard to build his strength and learn the art of the dance.

At the age of eighteen, he was offered a contract with the Houston Ballet, which he accepted while remaining under Chinese authority. After two years, he defected to the West, and shortly thereafter, he married ballet dancer Mary McKendry, with whom he had danced at the Houston Ballet. The pair moved to Melbourne, Australia, where Li became a principal with the Australian Ballet. His affinity for the country and its ways was such that he eventually became an Australian citizen.

At the age of thirty-four, with his dancing career entering its final years, Li began studying at the Australian Securities Institute. Rising at five o'clock in the morning to do ballet work, he would then hurry to the stock exchange, where he studied until noon. Afternoon rehearsals with the ballet company followed. By the time he retired from the stage, Li was well on his way to establishing himself as a successful stockbroker in Melbourne.

Li tells the remarkable story of his life in his autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called it a "heartening rags-to-riches story" with appeal that goes "beyond Sinophiles and ballet aficionados," for it offers "a fascinating glimpse of … the dissolution of the Communist ideal in the life of one fortunate individual."



Li Cunxin, Mao's Last Dancer, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.


Kliatt, November, 2004, Edna Boardman, review of Mao's Last Dancer, p. 56.

Library Journal, February 15, 2004, Carol J. Binkowski, review of Mao's Last Dancer, p. 128; October 1, 2004, Susan J. Baird, review of Mao's Last Dancer, p. 119.

Publishers Weekly, January 26, 2004, review of Mao's Last Dancer, p. 240.


Australia Dancing Web site, (May 6, 2005), "Li Cunxin."

Australian Broadcasting Company Web site, (May 10, 2005), George Negus interview with Li (transcript).