Li Cunxin was born into poverty in the Shandong province of People's Republic of China. At the age of eleven, he was selected by Madame Mao's cultural advisers to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, where students endured 16-hour days of training. He was one of the first students from the Beijing Dance Academy to go to the United States. In the 1970s, he joined Ben Stevenson's Houston Ballet company as an exchange student. He also began a relationship with an aspiring American dancer, Elizabeth Mackey. They quickly got married so that Li could remain in the United States and avoid deportation. In the end, his Chinese citizenship was revoked. In 1995 he moved to Melbourne to join the Australian Ballet. In 1987 he married again to Australian dancer Mary McKendry. They have three children together. In 2003 Li published his autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer. The book has become a feature film with the same title. It will be released in 2010.