SUBJECTS — Literature: Nonfiction; Literary Devices: allegory/parable; Biography; World/China; U.S.: 1945 – Present; Dance;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Breaking Out; Human Rights;


AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating: PG;

Biopic; 2009; 117 Minutes; Color.

When showing or discussing the movie, teachers should inform students that the book gives additional details about the events portrayed in the movie and recounts interesting facts about the life of Li Cunxin that are not in the movie.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


Li Cunxin (1961 – ) is the sixth of seven sons born to a poor, hard-working peasant family in China. The Li’s are loving and close, enduring decades of hunger and deprivation, barely avoiding starvation. The book describes a peasant’s life in China before, during and after the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). At age 11, Cunxin is chosen to attend Madam Mao’s Dance Academy in Beijing to study both dance and Maoist “philosophy.” Despite his initial disinterest in dance and his resentment about having to leave home, Cunxin becomes an excellent dancer and a true artist. Introduced to the U.S. through one of the first exchange programs after Mao’s death and astounded at the personal and artistic freedom, as well as the standard of living in the U.S., Cunxin defects in 1981. After six years, the Chinese Communist Party allows Cunxin’s parents to visit him in the U.S. Years later he is allowed to return to China and visit friends and the rest of this family.

The movie is a reasonably accurate description of Mr. Cunxin’s life through about his 30th year, as described in his autobiography.


Selected Awards: 2009 Australian Film Institute: Best Music; 2009 Australian Film Institute Nominations Best Film, Best Direction, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Screenplay – Adapted, and Best Sound.

Featured Actors: Chi Cao as Li Cunxin – as an adult; Bruce Greenwood as Ben Stevenson; Penne Hackforth-Jones as Cynthia Dodds; Christopher Kirby as Mason;Suzie Steen as Betty Lou; Madeleine Eastoe as Lori; Aden Young as Dilworth; Wen Bin Huang as Li Cunxin – as a child.

Director: Bruce Beresford


The story told by the book and the movie shows life among Chinese peasants in the mid-20th century. Li Cunxin’s life is a story of courage, persistence, hard work, personal accomplishment, and artistic success. The movie is an excellent introduction to the art of ballet. Click Here for the specific College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards, set out in the 2010 Common Core State Standards, which are served by this Learning Guide.

For English Language Arts classes:

The book is an excellent nonfiction work for students in grades 9 – 12. The movie can be seen by students either before or after they read the book. While in most respects the movie follows the real story told in the book, there are a number of differences. However, the essence of the film is true to the real events. The book contains a wealth of detail and several themes not present in the movie.


For Social Studies classes:

The book, and to a lesser extent the movie, provides an informative view of what life was like in China before economic reforms made the country into a manufacturing powerhouse and lifted the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people. The book shows the disillusion experienced when the lies of a communist dictatorship are revealed. In addition, both the book and the movie show the process by which artists defected from communist dictatorships to the West, an occurrence that repeated itself many times during the Cold War.




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 Elliot, 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 Mikhail Baryshnikov, are male.


Students should at least know the following information about the movie, China, and ballet before watching the film. The following short introduction will supply these facts.

Introducing the Movie — General Comments

This movie closely follows the autobiography written by Mr. Li Cunxin. A few factual changes have been made to make the movie more dramatic, but these changes are true to the spirit of the story and to the times in which Cunxin lived. Many fascinating details about Cunxin’s life that are included in the book have, in the interest of time, been left out of the film.

Introducing the Movie — China in the 20th Century

China has the second largest economy in the world and is set to surpass the United States in economic output at some point within four to eleven years, depending upon which economic forecast works out to be true. China is almost as large as the U.S. in terms of size but dwarfs the U.S. in terms of population. It is the most populous nation in the world, with approximately 1,340,000,000 people as of 2010. Only India, with a population of 1,210,000,000 people can challenge China in population. The U.S. is the third most populous nation in the world with about 313,000,000 people as of December 2011.

China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with about 3700 years of recorded history. It has gone through a series of imperial dynasties and kingdoms that alternated with periods of disunity and internal warfare. In the 19th century, China was invaded and forced to agree to onerous trading concessions by European imperialist powers and the U.S. The most notorious of these concessions was the requirement that China allow the English to import opium into China. The English were interested in finding a commodity to trade for the Chinese tea which the English loved so much.

In 1949, after a long Civil War, China became a communist state under Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao ruled China until his death in 1976. During Mao’s rule, most people in China were required to study Mao’s communist philosophy. Mao’s governance of China was characterized by various campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1961) was an attempt to quickly industrialize the country and to force farmers into large collective farms. This effort to create factory farms caused a famine which killed from 18 million to 32 million people. The Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) was an attempt to impose Maoist/communist ideology in the country and to root out anti-communist elements. Mao claimed that there were counter-revolutionaries in the government and society who wanted to restore capitalism. People who were suspected of adhering to capitalist or traditional philosophies were removed from positions of responsibility and power. Mao mobilized Chinese youth into “Red Guard” units to find and root out capitalist as well as traditional cultural influences. Over time, the Cultural Revolution grew in scope to include challenges to leaders of the Communist Party, the military, the medical profession, the universities and schools, and virtually every element of Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution lasted for 11 years and cause widespread dislocation and reduction of skill in the professions, schools, universities, the military, and the government.

China is still ruled by the Communist Party; however, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, pragmatists led by Deng Xiaoping took control of the Communist Party stressing economic development rather than ideological purity.

Throughout most of the 20th century, Chinese society consisted of a vast impoverished peasant class, dominated by the military and by bureaucrats from China’s government service. In addition to the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, other famines in China killed tens of millions of people. After 1980, vast numbers of Chinese peasants began to move to the cities, as China’s economic development began to expand.

Introducing the Movie — Ballet in China, Russia, and the U.S.

Ballet is a dance form in which lyrical beauty is attained through athletic prowess and rigorous training. While ballet started in Italy and France in the 1700 and 1800s, it transcends cultures and has adherents and enthusiasts in almost every country in the world. Most developed countries and some underdeveloped countries have ballet companies.

In the movie, Cunxin admires the dancing of a Russian named Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest dancers the world has ever produced. In the 1800s, the Russian Imperial Court imported French and Italian ballet dancers and choreographers. The art form flourished in Russia and during the 20th century, Russia had the strongest ballet tradition of any country. During that period, Russia routinely produced the top-ranked ballet dancers in the world. By the turn of the 20th century, ballet had pretty much died out in Italy and France. However, after the Russian revolution some dancers and choreographers fled the communists to the West and helped to establish dance companies in Western Europe and the U.S. However, the primacy of Russian ballet continued. During the Cold War (1946 – 1991) several of the best Russian ballet dancers defected to the West, including Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, and Natalia Makarova.

The communist leaders of Russia touted that country’s ability to produce great dancers as a triumph of the Soviet system. The communist leaders of China sought to emulate Russia and show the benefits of Chinese communism by establishing a strong ballet program. Despite the differences in Chinese and Western culture, there were people such as teacher Xiao who saw the beauty in ballet and were devoted to it. The Chinese communists tapped them to train the country’s young dancers. This was the program in which Cunxin was placed when he was 11 years old.

While Russia still has a great tradition for ballet, it’s primacy it is now being challenged by the United States which has ballet companies in most major cities and which requires increasingly difficult athletic and artistic achievements by its dancers. The Houston Ballet, at which Cunxin danced, is one of those companies.

Encouraging Students to Read the Book — Discussion and Writing Exercises

Show the film straight through. If you decide to use a movie worksheet to ensure that students pay attention to the movie, use TWM’s Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction, deleting question #7. Teachers who use the movie worksheet may want to stop the film on several occasions to allow students to take notes.

Consider reading to the class the charming seven-page introductory chapter entitled “Wedding.” This may awaken students’ interest in the book. The chapter describes the marriage ceremony of Li Cunxin’s parents and the fortunate story of their life-long love for each other.

An excellent way to access the themes of Cunxin’s autobiography is to examine the parables told in the film and the book. Read the parables from the book or distribute copies of the pages on which the parables appear for students to read. Select from the following assignments, or use them all. The interest generated by the movie or the book will motivate students to do their best on the assignments.

  • “The Best Bow Shooter” — On page 211, Teacher Xiao tells Cunxin a story. This is shown in the movie.

1. Teacher Xiao’s fable is important for Cunxin. Write a paragraph describing how Cunxin adopts or rejects the lesson of this fable. Give specific examples.

2. Think of a time in your life when you used or could use the lessons of this fable. Use your narrative writing skills to describe this incident in a short piece of no more than 750 words. Be sure to give your reader a clear picture of the incident that you are describing.

  • “The Millet Dream” This parable is not in the movie, but is told by Teacher Xiao on pages 184 & 185. It refers to a theme in both the movie and the book, i.e., to be a success you must push past mere dreaming and do the hard work necessary for achievement. Several times in the film we see Cunxin practicing after hours and doing the extra work that he needs to do to overcome difficulties. There are even more examples in the book.

1. Teacher Xiao tells Cunxin that the story shows how great things will never come through dreaming alone. Cunxin has dreams of success. Is he the scholar in the Millet Dream? What does he do when he begins to despair of achieving his dreams? Write a paragraph about how in the story you can see several times when Cunxin must push past mere dreaming and wishing and hoping and 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. Or, you can write about an experience when you refused to settle for “the millet soup.”

  • “The Frog in the Well” — In the movie and at pages 52 and 53, Cunxin is told this parable by his father, a man who lived all of his life as an impoverished peasant. Before reading this parable, ask students to summarize the “Frog in the Well” parable described in the film and to explain its moral message. Ask students how that message relates to Cunxin’s life. (In the movie, the parable ends after the toad tells the frog that there is a brighter world outside of the well and the frog dreams of going there.) Then, before reading the parable, warn the class that the filmmakers changed this story. After reading the parable, ask the class for ideas about how it is different from the story told in the film. Note to Teachers: Cunxin rejected the Chinese parable told to him by his father. Cunxin’s father spent all his life as a poor peasant in China and he, like a billion other Chinese peasants, may very well have found this parable comforting.

1. Write a brief essay in which you reveal the connection between the story of the “Frog in the Well” and how Cunxin lived his own life. Include in your final paragraph thoughts about how the traditional 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.

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 and the dreams that you have as a result. 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 outside of the well if you escape its confines?

  • “The Wuhoo Man’s Cricket Tale” — On pages 64 – 66, Cunxin repeats a story told to the children in his village by an old man named Wuhoo about a cricket.

1. The cricket story is an allegory. Cunxin sees himself as the protagonist of the story 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.


  • “The Hunter and the Bird” — On pages 89 and 90, Cunxin recounts the story of a hunter and a bird told to him by his father.

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 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 or to his family by defecting to America. How does disloyalty 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 do the bird and the hunter represent?

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While taken as a whole, the movie tells a story that is true to the life of Li Cunxin, there is no movie that can preserve all of the themes and include all of the details contained in a several hundred page autobiography. Like authors of novels that are historical fiction, filmmakers use poetic license to modify some of the facts to improve the telling of the story. Good historical fiction will nonetheless stay true to the major elements of the story. The film, Mao’s Last Dancer, meets this standard.

The following are major factors in Cunxin’s life that are described in the book but omitted from the movie:

  • Cunxin’s sense of personal betrayal due to all of the lies that the communists told him, such as that the U.S. was a poor country and that China was a rich country;
  • the improvement of the Chinese economy and the Li family living conditions under Deng Xiaoping;
  • the strength of his parents’ marriage and their love for each other despite the fact that they never saw each other before they were married.

The following are minor incidents in Cunxin’s life that are described in the book but omitted from the movie:

  • Two of Cunxin’s brothers had serious problems: the one brother was given to a childless Aunt and Uncle at birth and another brother was not allowed to marry the girl that he loved and was required to stay at home to take care of the parents;
  • the first time that Cunxin and the other students saw Baryshnikov dance was not a surreptitious showing by the students of a tape secretly handed to him by teacher Xiao; instead it was shown to them by the teachers with warnings that they were not to be seduced by the capitalist messages of the film but to look at the technique of the dancers;
  • Teacher Xiao was not disgraced, although he was afraid that he would be; the disgrace during the Cultural Revolution happened to other teachers;
  • Li Cunxin did not defect until the second time he went to the U.S.; the movie omits the first time he came and all of the lobbying that he had to do to get to come the second time;
  • Cunxin’s parents arrival was known to him; it wasn’t a surprise as shown in the movie;
  • Cunxin’s parents were not disgraced in the Cultural Revolution;
  • the first time that Cunxin came to the U.S. he was not alone but accompanied by another dancer who relied upon Cunxin as a Red Guard in propaganda matters;
  • Cunxin converted to Catholicism in order to marry Mary; and
  • Cunxin and Mary’s first daughter was born profoundly deaf but eventually they were able to obtain for her a cochlear implant which allowed her to hear.



1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

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.

2. See the Quick Discussion Question and the parables about The Best Bow Shooter and The Millet Soup.

3. 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 before you take a bite of the food. How did Cunxin follow the lessons in the metaphor in his experiences in learning to dance and in defecting to the West?

Suggested Response:

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



See the Quick Discussion Question and the parable of “The Frog in the Well”.



1. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Which of the rights was Li Cunxin invoking when he defected to the United States?

Suggested Response:

Any reasonable response will be acceptable. The following should be included in any complete list: 13, 14, 15, 18, 19, 22, & 27.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

1. Which of the parables used in the book of the movies relates to the Responsibility Pillar of Character?

Suggested Response:

The parables of “The Best Bow Shooter”, “The Millet Dream”, and “The Wuhoo Man’s Cricket Tale”



Use of Multimedia: Anchor Standards #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and other classes), and #2 for Speaking and Listening. See also their related specific curriculum standards. (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) See CCSS pp. 35, 48 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9 & 10 for Writing and related standards. See CCSS pg. 41.


The autobiography from which the film is derived is excellent reading for students at a 9th-grade reading level and higher.


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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


It seems as if Cunxin has learned to be an individual quite well; he takes action on his own behalf. 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? After all that Ben Stevenson had done for Cunxin, did the young dancer act honorably by putting Stevenson’s relationship with the Chinese government at risk by defecting while under Stevenson’s care?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Any answer, well supported, is acceptable.



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