Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

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An enchanting literary debut—already an international best-seller.

At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths....

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Overview

An enchanting literary debut—already an international best-seller.

At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin—as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.

But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.

From within the hopelessness and terror of one of the darkest passages in human history, Dai Sijie has fashioned a beguiling and unexpected story about the resilience of the human spirit, the wonder of romantic awakening and the magical power of storytelling.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
The power of books -- to excite, to enlighten, to inspire -- serves as the theme of this engaging gem by Chinese-born filmmaker Dai Sijie. The tale takes place in China during the harsh days of the Cultural Revolution, when millions of young people were sent to the countryside for "reeducation." That is, they were charged with manual labor and steeped in Communist propaganda. The two teenage boys in Sijie's novel fail to escape this fate, but lonely and frightened as they are in the rural mountain village to which they've been exiled, they find themselves transformed when they uncover a forbidden treasure trove: a suitcase filled with Western literary classics. Hugo, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert, Dickens, and especially Balzac become the boys' secret companions, firing their imaginations and giving their lives new meaning. The books become the motivation and the sweet reward for everything they do: They lead them into danger but also help them out of scrapes. And the books also become the vehicle by which one of the boys, Luo, woos a beautiful seamstress who lives on the other side of the mountain. Ultimately, the secret books become the catalyst for Sijie's provocative and unexpected ending.

The author, who was himself "reeducated" in the early 1970s and emigrated to France in 1984, has penned a startling and lucid story that evokes the nightmarish world of Mao's China as seen through the eyes of two utterly charming young boys. An immediate bestseller in France, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is sure to find its way into the hearts of Americans as well. (Fall 2001 Selection)

Amy Tan
A mesmerizing story, classic and new, fabulist and gritty in its realism, full of riches as in the best of tales. My imagination and heart were seized.
Washington Post Book World
A funny, touching, sly and altogether delightful novel.
From The Critics
Set in a rural Chinese province in the early 1970s, during the horrifying period of Communist "reeducation" known as the Cultural Revolution, Sijie's book tells the story of two privileged friends forced into a life of backbreaking labor for the state. Because their parents are doctors, the boys become objects of relentless suspicion, making their chances of parole unlikely. They have only their wits, and their mutual love of storytelling, to help them survive. After the boys find a box of contraband Western literature in Chinese translation, they begin discussing the stories with an unschooled seamstress. It's a bold move that becomes the turning point of their lives. Sijie's novel has all the makings of a great story: strong-willed, sympathetic heroes faced with tremendous obstacles, who are unwilling to compromise their ideals; a clear-cut antagonist; and even a little romance. High-minded yet accessible and engaging, the book touts the redemptive powers of self-expression. Despite the dark setting, it has elements of enchantment and exoticism.
—Kevin Greenberg

Publishers Weekly
The Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong altered Chinese history in the 1960s and '70s, forcibly sending hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals to peasant villages for "re-education." This moving, often wrenching short novel by a writer who was himself re-educated in the '70s tells how two young men weather years of banishment, emphasizing the power of literature to free the mind. Sijie's unnamed 17-year-old protagonist and his best friend, Luo, are bourgeois doctors' sons, and so condemned to serve four years in a remote mountain village, carrying pails of excrement daily up a hill. Only their ingenuity helps them to survive. The two friends are good at storytelling, and the village headman commands them to put on "oral cinema shows" for the villagers, reciting the plots and dialogue of movies. When another city boy leaves the mountains, the friends steal a suitcase full of forbidden books he has been hiding, knowing he will be afraid to call the authorities. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo, who adores the Little Seamstress, dreams of transforming her from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales. He succeeds beyond his expectations, but the result is not what he might have hoped for, and leads to an unexpected, droll and poignant conclusion. The warmth and humor of Sijie's prose and the clarity of Rilke's translation distinguish this slim first novel, a wonderfully human tale. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Sijie's tale takes place during the Cultural Revolution in Communist China of the '60s and '70s. The teenaged protagonist (the reader never learns his name) is the son of doctors, and his friend, Luo, is the son of a famous dentist. Because of this, the protagonist and Luo are labeled as intellectuals, and sent to a mountain village to be "re-educated." Hopelessly out of place in the mountain's peasant culture, both young men find clever ways to bend the rules made against Western influences. In one particularly funny moment at the beginning of the book, the protagonist entertains the locals with a violin piece by the forbidden Mozart, because Luo convinces the audience the piece is entitled Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao. When not doing hard labor, the two also entertain the people of the village with storytelling. One of their most ardent listeners is the little seamstress in the town, a lovely young countrywoman. The two teenagers come to learn that another intellectual young man, Four-Eyes, has a suitcase filled with forbidden books. They manage to borrow Four-Eyes' copy of Balzac's Ursule Mirouët, and find a enchanting new tale to use to attempt to woo the little seamstress. When Four-Eyes won't lend them any more books, they resolve to steal the suitcase. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was originally written in French, and then translated into English for this edition. I have not read the original, but am quite impressed with the poetic language that appears to have been retained through translation. This is a little jewel of a book, with images both dainty and coarse, and a thoroughly entertaining read. There are some mature themes, but they are handled in a subtlemanner. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Random House, Anchor, 184p.,
— Janice Bees
Library Journal
This deceptively small novel has the power to bring down governments. In Mao's China, the Cultural Revolution rages, and two friends caught in the flames find themselves shuttled off to the remote countryside for reeducation. The stolid narrator occasionally comforts himself by playing the violin, and both he and more outgoing friend Luo find that they have a talent for entertaining others with their re-creations of films they have seen. A little light comes their way when they meet the stunning daughter of the tailor in the town nearby, with whom Luo launches an affair. But the real coup is discovering a cache of forbidden Western literature including, of course, Balzac that forces open their world like a thousand flowers blooming. The literature proves their undoing, however, finally losing them the one thing that has sustained them. Dai Sijie, who was himself reeducated in early 1970s China before fleeing to France, wonderfully communicates the awesome power of literature of which his novel is proof. Highly recommended. Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
This beautifully presented novella tracks the lives of two teens, childhood friends who have been sent to a small Chinese village for "re-education" during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Sons of doctors and dentists, their days are now spent muscling buckets of excrement up the mountainside and mining coal. But the boys-Luo and the unnamed narrator-receive a bit of a reprieve when the villagers discover their talents as storytellers; they are sent on monthly treks to town, tasked with watching a movie and relating it in detail on their return. It is here that they encounter the little seamstress of the title, whom Luo falls for instantly. When, through a series of comic and clever tricks and favors, the boys acquire a suitcase full of forbidden Western literature, Luo decides to "re-educate" the ignorant girl whom he hopes will become his intellectual match. That a bit of Balzac can have an aphrodisiac effect is a happy bonus. Ultimately, the book is a simple, lovely telling of a classic boy-meets-girl scenario with a folktale's smart, surprising bite at the finish. The story movingly captures Maoism's attempts to imprison one's mind and heart (with the threat of the same for one's body), the shock of the sudden cultural shift for "bourgeois" Chinese, and the sheer delight that books can offer a downtrodden spirit. Though these moments are fewer after the love story is introduced, teens will enjoy them at least as much as the comic and romantic strands.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A curious debut novel by a Chinese expatriate filmmaker, first published to widespread acclaim in 1998 France, dramatizes the restrictions placed on the minds and imaginations of Chairman Mao's followers. In the early 1970s, two teenaged boys-the unnamed narrator and his older friend Luo (both of whose parents have been declared counterrevolutionaries)-are sent for "re-education" to a remote mountain village where, among other indignities, they're forced to carry brimming buckets of excrement. The former, a soulful boy who plays the violin, is permitted to keep his "toy" when the quick-witted Luo announces that the tune his friend is playing is entitled "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao." Nothing else is as explosively funny, in an oddly paced tale that details efforts to outwit the village's tyrannical "headman" (they become "tellers of films" they've seen in a nearby town) and escape from communal mindlessness-which they manage by stealing a cache of translated Western books (including several Balzac novels) from an acquaintance whom they befriend, then deceive. Their prize possessions also attract the eponymous "little seamstress" (daughter of an itinerant tailor), whom the lovestruck Luo impulsively courts. So successful is the course of her "re-education" that she rids herself of Luo's child by having an abortion, dons Western-style clothing, and leaves the mountain for life in the big city (presumably as a Balzac or Flaubert heroine). The desires of Dai Sijie's people to expand their intellectual horizons are nicely realized, but several of this brief story's episodes digress to no discernible purpose, failing to either advance its narrative or deepen our understanding of its(more or less generic) characters. Literate and moderately engaging, but unlikely to enjoy the same runaway success that greeted it in La Belle France.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780099286431
  • Publisher: Vintage/Ebury (a Division of Random
  • Publication date: 8/28/2010

Meet the Author

Born in China in 1954, Dai Sijie is a filmmaker who was himself “re-educated” between 1971 and 1974.
He left China in 1984 for France, where he has lived and worked ever since. This, his first novel, was an overnight sensation when it appeared in France in 2000, becoming an immediate best-seller and winning five prizes. Rights to the novel have been sold in nineteen countries, and it is soon to be made into a film.

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Read an Excerpt

PART I

The village headman, a man of about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a hearth that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin. Among the possessions brought to this mountain village by the two "city youths"-which was how they saw Luo and me-it was the sole item that exuded an air of foreignness, of civilisation, and therefore aroused suspicion.

One of the peasants came forward with an oil lamp to facilitate identification of the strange object. The headman held the violin upright and peered into the black interior of the body, like an officious customs officer searching for drugs. I noticed three blood spots in his left eye, one large and two small, all the same shade of bright red.

Raising the violin to eye level, he shook it, as though convinced something would drop out of the sound holes. His investigation was so enthusiastic I was afraid the strings would break.

Just about everyone in the village had come to the house on stilts way up on the mountain to witness the arrival of the city youths. Men, women and children swarmed inside the cramped room, clung to the windows, jostled each other by the door. When nothing fell out of my violin, the headman held his nose over the sound holes and sniffed long and hard. Several bristly hairs protruding from his left nostril vibrated gently.

Still no clues.

He ran his calloused fingertips over one string, then another . . . The strange resonance froze the crowd, as if the sound had won some sort of respect.

"It's a toy," said the headman solemnly.

This verdict left us speechless. Luo and Iexchanged furtive, anxious glances. Things were not looking good.

One peasant took the "toy" from the headman's hands, drummed with his fists on its back, then passed it to the next man. For a while my violin circulated through the crowd and we-two frail, skinny, exhausted and risible city youths-were ignored. We had been tramping across the mountains all day, and our clothes, faces and hair were streaked with mud. We looked like pathetic little reactionary soldiers from a propaganda film after their capture by a horde of Communist farm workers.

"A stupid toy," a woman commented hoarsely.

"No," the village headman corrected her, "a bourgeois toy."

I felt chilled to the bone despite the fire blazing in the centre of the room.

"A toy from the city," the headman continued, "go on, burn it!"

His command galvanised the crowd. Everyone started talking at once, shouting and reaching out to grab the toy for the privilege of throwing it on the coals.

"Comrade, it's a musical instrument," Luo said as casually as he could, "and my friend here's a fine musician. Truly."

The headman called for the violin and looked it over once more. Then he held it out to me.

"Fogive me, comrade," I said, embarrassed, "but I'm not that good."

I saw Luo giving me a surreptitious wink. Puzzled, I took my violin and set about tuning it.

"What you are about to hear, comrade, is a Mozart sonata," Luo announced, as coolly as before.

I was dumbfounded. Had he gone mad? All music by Mozart or indeed by any other Western composer had been banned years ago. In my sodden shoes my feet turned to ice. I shivered as the cold tightened its grip on me.

"What's a sonata?" the headman asked warily.

"I don't know," I faltered. "It's Western."

"Is it a song?"

"More or less," I replied evasively.

At that instant the glint of the vigilant Communist reappeared in the headman's eyes, and his voice turned hostile.

"What's the name of this song of yours?"

"Well, it's like a song, but actually it's a sonata."

"I'm asking you what it's called!" he snapped, fixing me with his gaze.

Again I was alarmed by the three spots of blood in his left eye.

";Mozart . . . ," I muttered.

"Mozart what?"

"Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao," Luo broke in.

The audacity! But it worked: as if he had heard something miraculous, the headman's menacing look softened. He crinkled up his eyes in a wide, beatific smile.

"Mozart thinks of Mao all the time," he said.

"Indeed, all the time," agreed Luo.

As soon as I had tightened my bow there was a burst of applause, but I was still nervous. However, as I ran my swollen fingers over the strings, Mozart's phrases came flooding back to me like so many faithful friends. The peasants' faces, so grim a moment before, softened under the influence of Mozart's limpid music like parched earth under a shower, and then, in the dancing light of the oil lamp, they blurred into one.

I played for some time. Luo lit a cigarette and smoked quietly, like a man.

This was our first taste of re-education. Luo was eighteen years old, I was seventeen.

B

a few words about re-education: towards the end of 1968, the Great Helmsman of China's Revolution, Chairman Mao, launched a campaign that would leave the country profoundly altered. The universities were closed and all the "young intellectuals," meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the poor peasants." (Some years later this unprecedented idea inspired another revolutionary leader in Asia, Cambodian this time, to undertake an even more ambitious and radical plan: he banished the entire population of the capital, old and young alike, "to the countryside.")

The real reason behind Mao Zedong's decision was unclear. Was it a ploy to get rid of the Red Guards, who were slipping out of his grasp? Or was it the fantasy of a great revolutionary dreamer, wishing to create a new generation? No one ever discovered his true motive. At the time, Luo and I often discussed it in secret, like a pair of conspirators. We decided that it all came down to Mao's hatred of intellectuals.

We were not the first to be used as guinea pigs in this grand human experiment, nor would we be the last. It was in early 1971 that we arrived at that village in a lost corner of the mountains, and that I played the violin for the headman. Compared with others we were not too badly off. Millions of young people had gone before us, and millions would follow. But there was a certain irony about our situation, as neither Luo nor I were high school graduates. We had not enjoyed the privilege of studying at an institution for advanced education. When we were sent off to the mountains as young intellectuals we had only had the statutory three years of lower middle school.

It was hard to see how the two of us could possibly qualify as intellectuals, given that the knowledge we had acquired at middle school was precisely nil. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen we had been obliged to wait for the Cultural Revolution to calm down before the school reopened. And when we were finally able to enroll we were in for a bitter disappointment: mathematics had been scrapped from the curriculum, as had physics and chemistry. From then on our lessons were restricted to the basics of industry and agriculture. Decorating the cover of our textbooks would be a picture of a worker with arms as thick as Sylvester Stallone's, wearing a cap and brandishing a huge hammer. Flanking him would be a peasant woman, or rather a Communist in the guise of a peasant woman, wearing a red headscarf (according to the vulgar joke that circulated among us schoolkids she had tied a sanitary towel round her head). For several years it was these textbooks and Mao's "Little Red Book" that constituted our only source of intellectual knowledge. All other books were forbidden.

First we were refused admission to high school, then the role of young intellectuals was foisted on us on account of our parents being labelled "enemies in the people."

My parents were doctors. My father was a lung specialist, and my mother a consultant in parasitic diseases. Both of them worked at the hospital in Chengdu, a city of four million inhabitants. Their crime was that they were "stinking scientific authorities" who enjoyed a modest reputation on a provincial scale, Chengdu being the capital of Szechuan, a province with a population of one hundred million. Far away from Beijing but very close to Tibet.

Compared with my parents, Luo's father, a famous dentist whose name was known all over China, was a real celebrity. One day-this was before the Cultural Revolution-he mentioned to his students that he had fixed Mao Zedong's teeth as well as those of Madame Mao and Jiang Jieshi, who had been president of the Republic prior to the Communist takeover. There were those who, having contemplated Mao's portrait every day for years, had indeed noted that his teeth looked remarkably stained, not to say yellow, but no one said so out loud. And yet here was an eminent dentist stating publicly that the Great Helmsman of the Revolution had been fitted with new teeth, just like that. It was beyond belief, an unpardonable, insane crime, worse than revealing a secret of national security. His crime was all the more grave because he dared to mention the names of Mao and his consort in the same breath as that of the worst scum of the earth: Jiang Jieshi.

For many years Luo's family lived in the apartment next to ours, on the third and top floor of a brick building. He was the fifth son of his father, and the only child of his mother.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Luo was the best friend I ever had. We grew up together, we shared all sorts of experiences, often tough ones. We very rarely quarrelled.

I will never forget the one time we came to blows, or rather the time he hit me. It was in the summer of 1968. He was about fifteen, I had just turned fourteen. That afternoon a big political meeting was being held on the sports ground of the hospital where our parents worked. Both of us were aware that the butt of the rally would be Luo's father, that yet another public humiliation awaited him. When it was nearly five o'clock and no one had yet returned, Luo asked me to accompany him to the hospital.

"We'll note down everyone who denounces my father, or beats him," he said. "That way we can take our revenge when we're older."

The sports ground was a bobbing sea of dark heads. It was a very hot day. Loudspeakers blared. Luo's father was on his hands and knees in front of a grandstand. A great slab of cement hung round his neck from a wire so deeply embedded in the skin as to be invisible. Written on the slab were his name and his crime: reactionary.

Even from where I was standing, thirty metres away, I could make out a dark stain on the ground made by the sweat dripping from his brow.

A man's voice roared through the loudspeaker.

"Admit that you slept with the nurse!"

Luo's father hung his head, so low that his face seemed buried in the cement slab. A microphone was shoved under his mouth and a faint, tremulous "yes" was heard.

"Tell us what happened!" the inquisitor's voice barked from the loudspeaker. "Who started it?"

"I did."

"And then?"

A few seconds of silence ensued. Then the whole crowd screamed in unison: "And then?"

This cry, raised by two thousand voices, was like the rumble of thunder breaking over our heads.

"I started it . . . ," Luo's father confessed.

"Go on! The details!"

"But as soon as I touched her, I fell . . . into mist and clouds."

We left as the crowd of fanatics resumed their mass inquisition. On the way home I suddenly felt tears running down my cheeks, and I realised how fond I was of the dentist.

At that moment, without saying a word, Luo punched me. I was so taken aback that I nearly lost my balance.

In 1971 there was little to distinguish us two-one the son of a pulmonary specialist, the other the son of a notorious class enemy who had enjoyed the privilege of touching Mao's teeth-from the other hundred-odd "young intellectuals" who were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky. The name was a poetic way of suggesting its terrifying altitude; the poor sparrows and common birds of the plain could never soar to its peak, for that was the reserve of winged creatures allied to the sky: mighty, mythical and profoundly solitary.

There was no road to the mountain, only a narrow pathway threading steeply through great walls of craggy rock. For a glimpse of a car, the sound of a horn, a whiff of restaurant food, indeed for any sign of civilisation, you had to tramp across rugged mountain terrain for two days. A hundred kilometres later you would reach the banks of the River Ya and the small town of Yong Jing. The only Westerner ever to have set foot here was a French missionary, Father Michel, who tried to find a new route to Tibet in the 1940s.

"The district of Yong Jing is not lacking in interest," the Jesuit commented in his notebook. "One of the mountains, locally known as 'the Phoenix of the Sky,' is especially noteworthy. Famed for its copper, employed by the ancients for minting coins, the mountain is said to have been offered by an emperor of the Han dynasty as a gift to his favourite, who was one of the chief eunuchs in his palace. Looking up at the vertiginous slopes all around me, I could just make out a footpath rising from the shadowy fissures in the cliff towards the sky, where it seemed to melt into the misty air. I noted a small band of coolies making their way down this path, laden like beasts of burden with great panniers of copper tied to their backs. I am told that the production of copper has been in decline for many years, primarily due to the difficulty of transport. At present, the peculiar geographic conditions of the mountain have led the local population to grow opium. I have been advised against climbing it, as all the opium growers are armed. After harvesting their crop, they spend their time attacking anyone who happens to pass by. So I content myself with observing from afar this wild and lonely place, so thickly screened by giant trees, tangled creepers and lush vegetation as to make one expect to see a bandit leaping from the shadows at any moment."

The Phoenix of the Sky comprised some twenty villages scattered along the single serpentine footpath or hidden in the depths of gloomy valleys. Usually each village took in five or six young people from the city. But our village, perched on the summit and the poorest of them all, could only afford two: Luo and me. We were assigned quarters in the very house on stilts where the village headman had inspected my violin. This building was village property, and had not been constructed with habitation in mind. Underneath, in the space between the wooden props supporting the floor, was a pigsty occupied by a large, plump sow-likewise common property. The structure itself was made of rough wooden planks, the walls were unpainted and the beams exposed; it was more like a barn for the storage of maize, rice and tools in need of repair. It was also a perfect trysting place for adulterous lovers.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What does Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reveal about the nature and purpose of China’s Cultural Revolution and the suffering it caused? In what ways does the novel offer a more intimate portrait of what life was like under Chairman Mao than a strictly historical account could?

2. Why have the narrator’s and Luo’s parents been named “enemies of the people”? What were their crimes? How does this classification affect the fate of the two boys? Why did China want to reeducate people like the narrator and Luo?

3. Early in the novel, the narrator says, “The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers—more’s the pity” [p. 18]. Is he right about the marginal status of the storyteller in the modern world? In what ways is this novel an argument for the importance of storytelling?

4. When the narrator first reads Ursule Mirouet, even though he’s heard “nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, ” he is transformed by Balzac’s story of “awakening desire, passion, impulsive action. . . . In spite of my complete ignorance of that distant land called France . . . Ursule’s story rang as true as if it had been about my neighbours” [p. 57]. What is it that enables him to identify so strongly with characters and situations he has never experienced? Whatdoes his experience suggest about the power of literature? In what ways does Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress exert a similar power on its readers?

5. Luo is sent to the mountains to be reeducated, an experience he bitterly resents, and yet he himself wishes to reeducate the Seamstress. When he steals Four-Eyes’ suitcase full of novels, he says, “With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again” [p. 100]. What is the ironic result of his success in making the Little Seamstress more sophisticated? What does the novel suggest about attempting
to change others according to one’s own beliefs or desires?

6. In what ways does China under Chairman Mao, as represented in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban, or other cultures that strive to keep the modern world from undermining traditional or religious values?

7. Why does Four Eyes object to the authentic mountain songs Luo and the narrator bring back from the old miller? How does he alter them to make them politically correct? What ironies are involved in the effort to make peasant culture conform to communist ideals?

8. When the narrator sees the books in Four Eyes’ suitcase, he remarks, “Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives” [p. 99]. And when Luo later burns the novels, it is the characters, rather than the books, that seem to go up in flames. Why does he regard these books as being so alive?

9. When the tailor and the Little Seamstress come to stay at the house on stilts, the narrator observes how agitated and impatient women become when considering clothes: “It would evidently take more than a political regime, more than dire poverty to stop a woman from wanting to be well dressed: it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children” [p. 122]. Do you agree with this statement? Are such desires inspired by cultural pressures or inherent in human nature? What does this passage suggest about a political system’s ability to shape and control a people’s basic wishes?

10. When Luo suffers a bout of malaria, the narrator is called upon to tell a story: “I embarked on the strangest performance of my life. In that remote village tucked into a cleft in the mountain where my friend had fallen into a sort of stupor, I sat in the flickering light of an oil lamp and related the North Korean film for the benefit of a pretty girl and four ancient sorceresses” [p. 39]. Why are the rural Chinese so fascinated by film, or the stories they tell? What does this scene suggest about the convergence—and compatibility or incompatibility—of ancient and modern ways of life?

11. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a harshly realistic novel, in which the two main characters are forced to work in a coal mine and to carry buckets of excrement up and down a mountain, but it also has a fairy-tale quality. What makes the book read like a fable? How has Dai Sijie managed to merge these two narrative traditions?

12. How can Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress be read as a coming-of-age novel? Do the events in the story change the narrator and Luo? Have they lost their innocence by the end of the book?

13. What is the irony of Luo and the narrator discovering western literature only when they are sent away to have decadent western ideas reeducated out of them?

14. Throughout the novel, the repression of Western literature, and by extension Western cultural values, is presented as a terrible deprivation. And yet, at the end, when the Little Seamstress sets off for the city, she tells Luo that “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” [p. 184]. How does this ending complicate the novel’s apparent endorsement of cosmopolitan Western culture and literature over rural Chinese culture? How is the Little Seamstress planning to use her beauty?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 56 )
Rating Distribution

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(22)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 57 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2012

    AP World History Review The plot of this book is intriguing.

    AP World History Review

    The plot of this book is intriguing. The point of view, which is from a teenage boy, is very easy to comprehend and empathize with. This story depicts the conflicts of a teenager in the setting of China during the 1970s very well. The author, having himself been "re-educated" in this time frame, clearly portrays the plight that such a character faced. He incorporates distinct imagery and a young tone which help the reader follow along. Not only does Dai Sijie help the reader to relate to the main characters, but he also allows the reader to understand the lifestyle of that time. His viewpoint gives insight on the officious Communistic government with its Red Guards, Red Books, and re-education. The arduous lives of the main characters clearly display that Dai Sijie opposed the Communist government which he lived under. Most importantly, he hated the removal of books. Dai Sijie has a clear passion for literature and reveals to the reader how important books are. When Chinese citizens lacked books (other than those approved by the government which were fully supportive of communism), they hoped to read and hear old stories.

    Despite the insight this book provides, I do not recommend it. It is undoubtedly an easy read. I wish it were longer so that some points could be more clearly portrayed. My main issue with this book was that it was disconnected at times. The beginning of each new section was separated from the previous one and it took a while for the points to connect. I was disappointed in that this made it harder to understand and appeared that possible information or detail was missing. Because of the point of view and easiness of the read, I give this book a good rating. However, I do not recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2011

    Amazing

    I absolutely loved this book; it had the tinge of realism to it that comes with all novels rooted in truth. Although many complain of the pacing and the lack of character development, I find that these are what makes it so believable; the plot moves at the pace of real life, and people don't always follow these perfect character development arcs. The style was fantastic, although I don't know how much comes from Sijie himself and how much comes from his translator. I liked it enough that I'm purchasing it in the original French.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2010

    My favorite book of all time

    Beautifully written, quick and easy read for book lovers. Best last line ever "She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price."

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  • Posted August 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    An Interesting and Educational Read

    I liked Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress because it's a book that talks about books. The intimacy between Luo and the seamstress is written well. The descriptions are rich and vivid. I also leared about a bit of history that I knew little about throughout my life.

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  • Posted May 29, 2010

    I really liked this book-

    This was a fun book to read. I really liked the story and characters. I also liked the book cover with the little red shoes on it. This is the story of two city boys who are exiled to a mountain village for re-education. They meet the daughter of a local tailor and discover some of China's banned books during China's revolution. I liked this book, it took me two chapters to get into the book. It was slow at first but I really wanted to see what would happen in the story. I really liked the Chinese history involved.

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  • Posted November 16, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Delightful Book

    Rarely does a book that recieves much fan fare live up to the "hype" -- but this little novel does. The power of books, to make you fall in love, to put joy in a bleak life, and to ulitmately free your soul is at the root of this wonderful little novel. With a crisp style, but one that details the bleak life of communist China -- the author paints a picture of a reality that few of us know about or understand. The characters are engaging and the "fairy tale" quality of the book moves the reader along swiftly.

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  • Posted November 12, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Dull, not my choice of reading.

    Yeah, a book I had to read for English. Would I read it on my own? Of course not. But don't get me wrong, it's not by any means a horrible book.<BR/><BR/>The book's an easy read, no doubt, and at only 184 pages, it's not a big deal. But it's just getting through it that can be a bit boring. There is pretty much no character development and only one character has an actual name, the rest are kind of nicknames.<BR/>There is no climatic point. It just...moves along at a slow pace, giving tiny bits of story here and there. But really, it's not enough to make you care too terribly much.<BR/>And not to mention, the ending was terrible. It honestly like the author didn't know how to end it so he just stuck something in or he just got bored of writing so he decided to throw something in to make it end. You'll more than likely to be tempted to look through it to look for any missing pages.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2008

    Great

    Balzac and the Little Seamstress is an incredible romantic comedy. It keeps you wanting to read more, and more. I really enjoyed the universal humor Sijie injected into this book. I thought this was a very appealing book that didn¿t let you put it down for one second. Just when you think that it will release you from its grip it comes back squeezing tighter and tighter, Making you gasp after every paragraph you read. I highly recommend anyone with eyes and who really enjoys reading a good book to go for it and get this book because I¿m sure you¿ll really enjoy it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2007

    Great Novel : A Great One for A Soft/Light Read

    An Excellent Novel, I must say. I rather enjoyed the theme/storyline and the message it had to offer. This takes place in Communist China during the 'Re-education Era aka Cultural Revolution'. When the reading the novel, its great to be a little familiar with that time period in China... some of the leaders involved, and major events that occurred. It helped me have a greater understanding of the novel! :-)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2006

    Good Book!

    Balzac and the Little Seamstress is a good book! It deserves at least five stars!!! I had to read this book as a class assignment in English and I really enjoyed it! The author Dai Sijie does a very good job at catching the reader's imagination. The ending of the book is a shock! Once you start reading this book you won't want to stop! :D

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2006

    a perfectionist book

    the book is delicious,tantalizing, tasty, spicy, and overall a perfection!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2006

    A Good Read, but somewhat of a letdown

    I was assigned this book as a summer reading for English. Intitially, I found it quite easy to get into the whimsical beginning, the plot intensified, and the story held me but never grew overly emotional. The ending was a horrid letdown and completely anti-climatic. There is a rising amount of suspense, which levels out after a while, and all of a sudden you have the denouement, entirely skipping the climax, and not even being much of a denouement as much as a mere philosophical statement that leaves the reader wanting much.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2006

    Beautiful book

    I loved this book! It is sweet and sad at the same time. It includes enough history to be interesting, but not too much to bore you. I was immersed in a different culture and found myself very attached to these characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2006

    Passionate and Profound

    I loved this novel. It was a quick read, but by no means forgettable. The characters are very realistic, and the themes that run throughout the novel are classic. The little book packed a big message and I defnitiely recommend this book to anyone with good taste.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2005

    Short and Sweet

    I read this book for my history class over the summer. That may be part of the reason I didn't love it. It is an alright book telling of the cultural revolution in China during the 1960s and 1970s. The plot also becomes a love story, with a rather sudden ending. Even though I didn't love it, it is short enough where I can recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2005

    A unique knockout!

    What a beautifully written book. Lovely prose, I am getting his next book for sure. Sad, charming, intelligent, capturing the reality. A simple/complex, intense read that should be read by people who consider themselves true book lovers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2005

    A Classic!

    What a great story. I'm sure by now you've read what this story is about, so I'll just give my two cents. This is a great quick book that easily sucks you into the the story line. I loved all the characters these boys would meet. I loved the references to the books these boys read. Especially, because the stories were familiar! I was thrilled to have found this and can't wait to read Dai Sijie's most recent novel. I can't find any reason someone wouldn't like this. I just hope you agree...should you take my advise!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2004

    This Book is terrible

    Two words: DON'T READ!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2004

    Some unexpecting events

    In the begining I had a little trouble grasping the details of where the two teens were and what they were about. But soon i realized my answers because i started to get into the novel. I'd say the begining wasnt much of an excitement but went better after reading more. With a little romance and what they went through to get their hands on 'forbidden' books made the novel more exciting. There were some events that was unexpecting which helped enthusiast the novel more. The novel was placed in China during the cultural revolution and re-education during the 1970's or so. Which helped me get more of an idea of the setting and background information. Overall, it was a pretty good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2004

    Dull & Disappointing

    Unfortunately I found this book to be uneventful and bland. I patiently waited for the plot to intensify and for the characters to evolve but to no avail. Extremely disappointing because the praising reviews of the book promise so much however the story delivers so little.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 57 Customer Reviews

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