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English: Mao's Last Dancer + The Arrival

About the author

Li Cunxin was born in 1961 in China. The sixth of seven sons in a poor rural family, Li was chosen to become a student at the Beijing Dance Academy. After a summer school in America, he defected to the West and became one of the best male dancers in the world.

He is now Artistic Director for Queensland Ballet and lives in Brisbane with his wife Mary and their three children.

Shaun Tan grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. In school he became known as the 'good drawer' which partly compensated for always being the shortest kid in every class. He currently works as an artist and author in Melbourne.

Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer, a concept artist for animated films including Pixar's WALL-E, and directed the Academy Award-winning short film The Lost Thing.


Video: Mao's last dancer - 2009 (duration 1:52:54)

Video: The lost thing - 2011 (duration 14:49)

Mao's Last Dancer + The Arrival

Mao's Last Dancer

Author: Li Cunxin

Date: 2003

Film based on the book: 2009

undefinedThe Arrival

Author: Shaun Tan

Date: 2006

Born in 1961, just before the Cultural Revolution, Li was raised in extreme rural poverty and witnessed Communist brutality, yet he imbibed a reverence for Mao and his programs. In a twist of fate worthy of a fairy tale (or a ballet), Li, at age 11, was selected by delegates from Madame Mao's arts programs to join the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1979, through the generosity of choreographer and artistic director Ben Stevenson, he was selected to spend a summer with the Houston Ballet—the first official exchange of artists between China and America since 1949.

Li's visit, with its taste of freedom, made an enormous impression on his perceptions of both ballet and of politics, and once back in China, Li lobbied persistently and shrewdly to be allowed to return to America. Miraculously, he prevailed in getting permission for a one-year return. In an April 1981 spectacle that received national media attention, Li defected in a showdown at the Chinese consulate in Houston. He married fellow dancer Mary McKendry and gained international renown as a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet; eventually, he retired from dance to work in finance.

'Truly inspirational and beautiful' - Kirkus book review

The Arrival is a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time. A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages.

With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

'Like a family treasure newly discovered up in the attic'- NY Times review

Maximise the map to visit the places of Mao's last dancer.

I wanted to create a fictional place equally unfamiliar to readers of any age or background (including myself).

This of course is where my penchant for ‘strange lands’ took flight, as I had some early notions of a place where birds are merely ‘bird-like’ and trees ‘tree-like’; where people dress strangely, apartment fixtures are confounding and ordinary street activities are very peculiar. This is what I imagine it must be like for many immigrants.


When working I often like to think of words and images as opposite points on a battery, creating a potential voltage through a ‘gap’ between telling and showing - Shaun Tan

Read Shaun Tan's fascinating Words and Pictures, an Intimate Distance (2010).


Video: Shaun Tan discusses the challenges of creating a wordless book (duration 1:38)


Li Cunxin - The narrator of the memoir

Alfred Zhong - the "Bandit". Fellow student at Madame Mao's Dance Academy and eventually blood brother. 

Elizabeth Mackey - Li Cunxin's ex-wife.

Niang - Li Cunxin's mother.

Ben Stevenson - One of the leaders of Houston Ballet Association, as well as Li Cunxin's American dancing guide and host family.

Dia - Li Cunxin's father.

Teacher Xiao - One of Li Cunxin's teachers in Beijing. 

Source - Wikipedia 'Mao's Last Dancer - Book'

Video: Shaun Tan discusses his characters and the decision to use humans in an otherwise alien world (duration 2:39)

The life story of an individual, as written by themself, is called autobiography.

It differs from biography in that the person presents themself  to be understood by others" - Britannica

Key elements:

  • Written in the first person e.g. 'I was born...' not 'He was born...'
  • Centred on the author's life and story. When we read the author's thoughts on everything/everybody else it is called memoir.
  • Usually chronological e.g. parents, birth, school, adulthood
  • The setting and characters are described in detail
  • The author shows how they have grown as a person



It took 4 days to fly to Sydney...Carla threw up all the way

Visual techniques - the magic of picture books


The facial expressions, posture and gestures used to show a character’s attitudes, moods or personality.

Example: the man leans forward in both curiosity and caution, with tool ready to defend

Unlike a novel, picture books use design elements throughout the book, not just the front and back cover.

Front cover

The cover of a picture book is created (primarily) to attract potential readers. It often introduces a theme or character.


When you open a picture book, there is usually a page before the title page or acknowledgements. This occurs at the end of picture books also. Unlike the blank page of a novel though, these pages use the design features to enhance the mood (see image right). Note the change (or lack) between the endpapers at the beginning and end of a book.

End (and front) matter

At the beginning of a picture book, before the story begins and after the end paper, there is front matter. This includes a title page, copyright details and dedications. The end matter will often include acknowledgements. Design elements are usually subtle.

Back cover

As with novels, the back cover will often contain a blurb (a short promotional description). Along with minor characters and elements of the story that are not directly relevant to the main plot.


Placing things that are considered opposite close to each other. Contrasts can be between colours (black and white), sizes (large and small), textures (rough and smooth), etc. to create interest and complexity. 

Example: the large and light cloud contrast with the small boat and dark background

undefinedWhere a character looks, which then directs the viewer’s eyes.

  • A ‘demand’ gaze involves direct eye contact between a character and the viewer
  • An ‘offer’ has the character look at something within the image, drawing the viewer’s eyes there too. Can also be used to express emotion/intent.

Example: the viewer looks over the man's shoulder, seeing his point of view on the city


The camera shots and angles used in images/films to create different audience reactions and emotions. For example:

  • close-up
  • extreme close-up
  • mid shots
  • aerial shots

Example: the extreme wide shot shows the busy city and monolithic structures

undefinedBy dividing an image into equal thirds along the horizontal, the vertical axis you can break it into 9 equal sections which each have different connotations, Movement is expected to from the left thirds to the right thirds, otherwise it’s read as moving backwards (literally or figuratively).

Characters in the top right third are seen as powerful or in control, while those in the bottom left thirds are weaker or being controlled.

Example: the child is perfectly placed in the bottom right third, as the buildings loom above


How much any section of an image draws the viewer’s eyes – the most salient feature of an image is whatever/wherever the viewer’s eyes are first drawn when they look at it.

Salience is always deliberate and usually created through contrast, colour, framing and layout.

Example: the eye is drawn to the people in the bottom right corner (through contrast, colour and vectors) and then to the large creatures above


The use of one image/object to represent an idea or concept that is more complex than it is. 

Example: the use of serpents to represent fear and authoritarian rule


The lines or paths a viewer’s eyes follow when looking at an image, often leading to a focal point or important feature. As we read left to right we tend to follow vectors in the same direction across an image.

Example: the eye follows the edge of the harbour across the people and to the large statues

Quick Links

Historical context

Video: China's communist party explained - ABC news (duration 3:36)

At the time I had not the slightest desire to defect, but China was not open enough to allow a Chinese person to marry a Western person.

Other famous ballet defections



In China, a man must be at least 22 before he may marry.

Read the original front page newspaper article

'Most say they're ok with it' - but what do brain-scans say? 

How has it changed in Australia?

Video: A United Kingdom (duration 1:49:26)

The story of King Seretse Khama of Botswana and how his loving but controversial marriage to a British white woman, Ruth Williams, put his kingdom into political and diplomatic turmoil.

Video: Australian Immigration - Four Corners (ABC). Duration 41:26

Australia's population is growing fast. We've added almost 400,000 people in the last year (the size of Canberra), and we're feeling the strain.


Asylum seeker - someone seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined

Citizenship - the right to vote; to enter, work, own property and reside in a country

Culture shock - a feeling of confusion felt by someone visiting a country they do not know

Deport - removal from a country at some point after entry

Emigration - leaving a country

Immigration - moving into a country, usually for permanent residency

Migration - movement, although not necessarily permanent or crossing a national border

Refugee - someone seeking international protection whose claim for refugee status has been determined