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Li Cunxin - Dancer, Stockbroker and Author of Mao's Last Dancer

Li Cunxin
'My childhood aspiration was to become a truck driver. It was more dream than reality at the time, because a truck driver's job is lucrative – it's paid monthly compared to the poor peasants who were paid yearly.'

Li was born into the bitter poverty of peasant life in Mao's communist China. At age 11 his whole world changed when he was plucked from billions of other peasants to train at Madame Mao's dance academy in Beijing. After years of relentless hard work, Li was awarded a cultural scholarship to study in America and was subsequently offered a soloist contract with the Houston ballet. He defected from China and became one of the world's best dancers. In 1995 he moved to Australia with his family and after a few years as principal dancer with the Australian Ballet, he changed career paths into the world of finance. He is now a senior manager at one of the largest stockbroking firms in Australia.

In his best-selling autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer, Li tells of his motivational and inspiring journey from a rural province in China to the world stage. Mao's Last Dancer has now been made into a film by Australian director Bruce Beresford, now playing in Australian cinemas. Career FAQs spoke to Li during the making of the film.

Before you were chosen to be part of Madame Mao's dance academy, did you have any career aspirations?

My childhood aspiration was to become a truck driver. It was more dream than reality at the time, because a truck driver's job is lucrative – it's paid monthly compared to the poor peasants who were paid yearly.

What do you think would have happened in your life if you had not been chosen?

I'd have most probably been a peasant for the rest of my life just like my forefathers before me.

What part did your upbringing play in your attitude towards your career?

My upbringing was a very important part of my career. My parents' integrity, determination and sacred values in life had such influences on my attitude towards my career and journey.

What pushed you to become such a talented dancer?

Passion for dance and the burning desire to achieve excellence.

How much natural talent and how much hard work does it take to become a successful dancer?

In my case, it's less than 30 per cent natural talent, more than 70 per cent hard work and stubborn determination.

What is it you enjoy most about dancing?

The music, the physicality and the pure beauty and graceful dance movements.

What are the drawbacks?

Sacrifice of time and other hobbies in life, and the physical injuries that come with the profession.

How do you define success?

Achieving the best in what you do, daring yourself to go for the impossible dream and making a positive difference to the world.

How did you come to write your autobiography Mao's Last Dancer?

I was encouraged to write my story by a good friend after he heard bits of my experiences – he thought that my story would give people hope and courage.

Was it a difficult process?

Yes, it was such a challenging experience. I had to constantly confront and overcome my self-doubt and insecurities. However, I had the privilege of working with some very positive and talented people at Penguin Books (my publisher), namely my publisher Julie Watts, editor Suzanne Wilson and a whole team of wonderful people there. They were my inspiration and support. Their nurturing and encouragements made the difficult process enjoyable and memorable.

What did it mean to you to relive all those moments?

It was an emotional, soul-searching and self-discovery experience.

Have you been surprised by the phenomenal success of the book?

The responses to the book from all over the world have been truly heart-warming and positive. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself about the unbelievable success of my book. Mao's Last Dancer has been sold in many countries and has been translated into several languages. There is a Young Readers' Edition for teenagers, which has been selected by many schools around the country as a textbook. Recently The Peasant Prince, a picture book based on my story, has also been published. The beautiful and vivid illustrations were done by Anne Spudvilas, a very talented painter and an award-winning illustrator.

What is happening with the movie being made from Mao's Last Dancer?

The producer of the film Shine, Jane Scott, is the producer of my film, the screenplay writer is Jan Sardi (also from Shine) and Bruce Beresford is the director (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy and many other wonderful films). I think it is going to be quite special from what I've seen so far.

What was it that prompted your career change into stockbroking?

It wasn't much of a choice, rather a responsibility. The financial responsibility and care for my family in Australia, and my parents and brothers in China, was the main reason why I made the career transition.

Are there any similarities in how you originally approached your dancing career to your stockbroking career?

Yes, I discovered a lot of similarities between the two professions: discipline, determination, perseverance, dedication and the willingness to work extra hard to achieve your goal.

How have you found the transition?

Challenging but rewarding.

What goals do you have for your future?

To spend more time with my wife and children, to see my parents and brothers more often in China, and to do an MBA course.

How would you compare your work ethic to that of young Australians today? 

I would hate to generalise, but I was a hard worker. And I tried hard not to take things for granted in life.

What advice do you have for younger people in whatever career they pursue? 

Dare to dream big, follow with concrete plans and actions, when dealt with setbacks or faced with defeats, don't give up; persist, persevere, then work even smarter and harder. You will get there.

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