Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

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Overview

New York Times Bestseller

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an enchanting tale that captures the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening. An immediate international bestseller, it tells the story of two hapless city boys exiled to a remote mountain village for re-education during China’s infamous Cultural Revolution. There the two friends meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, the two friends find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385722209
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/29/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 58,434
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.49(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About 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.

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 I exchanged 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.

Reading Group Guide

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“An unexpected miracle—a delicate, and often hilarious tale.” —LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie’s poignant tale of love, literature, and reeducation in the harsh world of Chairman Mao’s China.

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? What does 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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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 118 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Crazymamie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
During the Cultural Revolution in China, two teenage boys whose parents have been labelled "enemies of the people" are sent to a village on the mountain called the Phoenix of the Sky as part of Mao Zedong's re-education campaign. These boys are not brothers, but they are friends."We were not the first to bemused 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 on before us, and millions would follow. But there was a certain irony about our situation, as neither Luo or 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" However, although these boys are not highly educated, they are in fact clever, and even better than that, they are talented at thinking on their feet. The isolation of the village works in their favor as they discover that a talent that seems useless for a work camp can, in fact, get them out of work."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. The only man who truly appreciated his gift, to the point of rewarding him generously, was the headman of our village, the last of the lordly devotees of narrative eloquence. Phoenix mountain was so remote from civilization that most of the inhabitants had never had the opportunity of seeing a film, let alone visit a cinema."The closest city is the small town of Yong Jing, which is two days travel away on foot. It is here that the headman decides to send the two boys so that they can watch the latest movie and then come back and perform it for the village. The catch is that the reenactment has to be the exact same length as the actual movie. It is in Yong Jing that the two boys meet "the Little Seamstress for the first time. She is the beautiful but uncultured daughter of the only tailor on the mountain. When the two boys discover a hidden suitcase in the room of a friend who has also been sent for re-education to a nearby village, they eventually learn that the suitcase contains treasure beyond price - banned books. Now the stage is set for a story that is utterly delightful, much like Animal Farm or City of Thieves, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Deceptively short at just 184 pages, this book is full of symbolism and hidden meanings. It's a book about the love of books and of stories, but pay careful attention because the books that they are reading also play a role in the plot - if you are not familiar with the stories that are mentioned, it is worth your time and effort to dig a little deeper and look them up."Did Four-Eyes stop to think about which book he would lend us? Or was it a random choice? Perhaps he picked it simply because, of all the treasures in his precious suitcase, it was the thinnest book, and the most decrepit. Did he have ulterior motives which we could not fathom? Whatever his reasons, his choice was to have a profound effect on ours lives. The slim little volume was entitled Ursule Miriuët. Luo started reading the book the very same night that Four-Eyes lent it to us, and reached the end at dawn, when he put out the oil lamp and passed the book to me. I stayed in bed until nightfall, without food, completely wrapped up in the French story of love and miracles. Picture, if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism. Communism, ideolo
michigantrumpet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Laid up in bed, I reached for this slim volume, became completely immersed and forgot my physical woes for a delightful couple of hours. What this book lacked in pages,it delivered in impact and resonance. The descriptive passages were so lyrical, transporting me to a rural Chinese Mountaintop during the 1970's Communist Regime. Our narrator is a young man ripped from his urban home and family and placed amongst peasants for 're-education'. Western culture is forbidden and suspect. Through a variety of twists, our narrator comes upon a copy of Balzac and thirsts for more. Knowledge, literature, culture and a strong narrative line are the true heroes here.
msf59 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Two privileged boys, in their late teens, are sent to a remote mountain village, as part of Mao's "re-education" plan for China. They are to spend four years toiling like slaves. A pair of events arise, that change their young lives forever. First is the introduction to the local tailor¿s daughter. She¿s lovely and smart and they fall for her instantly. The second event, is finding a trunk full of banned books, containing some of the world¿s finest literature.This is a beautiful novella, full of hardship and wonder, powered by simple but lilting prose. Many LTers have adored this book and now I can join the happy ranks.
velmalikevelvet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This almost ethereal little novel about the ways that ideas (as found in books) can change us touched me deeply enough to put it aside mid-way through in order to pick up and read a copy of Balzac's Ursule Mirouet, the work that touched off the journey embarked upon by the characters. Deft and delightful without being saccharine, this fable manages to capture both large (Chinese Cultural Revolution, first love, great literature's universality) and small (toothaches, storytelling, ) themes with equal aplomb.My favorite image in the book was of the woman, perched on a wooden chair, strapped to a porter's back as he climbed a mountain path, while she calmly sat knitting. Lovely!One question for Sijie: can you please explain the break in the narrative toward the end when you shifted narrators? Thank you.Minor beef with the publisher of the edition I read: the shoes? worn by the Seamstress? They were pink, not red. And canvas, not leather. Geez.
beserene on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Oh, how I wanted to love this book! And, oh, how I simply did not by the end! This short novel starts out with two young men who have been sent to the Chinese countryside -- to a small village halfway up a mountain, in fact -- for "reeducation" after the rise of the Communist party. Their parents and families are considered too Western, or too liberal, or just not Communist enough, and therefore these two lads must learn to be good workers and good citizens, in the eyes of the regime, before they are allowed to return to their homes. This sounds like an inauspicious beginning, but from the moment we meet these two characters -- as they charm the village headman with the power of an alarm clock -- the novel's light touch and almost fairy-tale-like atmosphere enchant us. The first three-quarters of the novel offers up, essentially, a love letter to youth, to forbidden love -- of both literature and women -- and to the individual. It is, in many ways, a coming-of-age novel -- though the figure who truly comes of age here isn't necessarily the one you expect -- and the story is touched with nostalgia even when it describes hardship. It isn't until almost the very end that the wonderful balance of the book starts to disintegrate. Were I still in grad school, I might argue that the break down is intentional -- and indeed it might be. Dai Sijie inserts three seemingly random interludes toward the end that describe a scene of emotional significance; while the grad student in me wants to see these passages as homages to the poetic interjections of ancient Chinese novelists, for the leisure reader the effect is jarring. Each interlude breaks away a piece of the spell that the reader has been happily wandering in the midst of for most of the book. When the narrative resumes, the gloss is lost and nothing quite feels the same. Again, it could be a crafted point -- the end of the novel, which I will not reveal here, is not a fairy-tale ending (though it is symbolically satisfying), so perhaps it is for the best that the golden light in which the first portion of the story basked is gone, in order for the reader to appreciate what is happening more clearly. Still, I think I would have liked the ending more had I not lost the connection that had sustained my interest and appreciation for the bulk of the book. I say "bulk of the book", but in truth there is no bulk to speak of. This is a slim, swift story, barely a novel at all, and its size and pace invite a quick reading, but perhaps I would have been better off to slow down and savor each piece of the story carefully. That might have insulated me from the effect of the interludes, but one only perceives such things in hindsight. With things as they stand, I can only offer this warning for future readers: enjoy this book more slowly than you want to, and prepare to be frustrated near the end.
CasualFriday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was an unexpected pleasure. Given the setting of rural China during the Cultural Revolution, I expected something grim and harrowing, and instead found lyricism, a great deal of humor, and an uplifting testimony to the power of literature. When two teen-aged sons of "class enemies" are sent to the mountains for re-education, they find a stash of forbidden Western books, including the Balzac of the title. Both are entranced with literature filled with real human emotion instead of socialist realist propaganda. When they meet the charming daughter of the local tailor, they share their books with her, with an unexpected result. There's romance here, and beautiful imagery, and the light touch makes the critique of those heavy-handed times that much more affecting.
lrobe190 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, two boys are sent to the country for reeducation, where their lives take an unexpected turn when they meet the beautiful daughter of a local tailor and stumble upon a forbidden stash of Western literature.I liked this book. Very readable.
sharlene_w on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I think the premise of this book was a great one -- Two young Chinese students banished to the provences during the Cultural Revolution for "reeducation". They went to great lengths to get their hands on "banned" reading material. I wish the author had developed the story a bit more -- it was a quick read, but not as satisfying as it could have been.
readingrat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A strong coming-of-age story set during Mao's re-education campaign.
kambrogi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is based on a terrific idea: two young Chinese students, sons of educated men, are banished to the provinces for ¿reeducation¿ during the Cultural Revolution. The two friends¿ yearning for reading material ultimately drives them to obtain banned western literature, and this has a powerful effect upon the young men as well as the country people with whom they interact. The book is flawed by its length; at 184 pages, it is almost too short to provide sufficient insight into several complex characters and the worlds our protagonists juggle: the city and the country, Communist China and the West. In addition, I found that it lacked a cohesive structure: the narrative style changes suddenly and unnecessarily well past the middle, and the outcomes ¿ although logical ¿ are not properly foreshadowed. Instead, we are led to expect entirely wrong conclusions, for reasons that are unclear. Still, the story makes for a pleasant read, integrates a variety of fascinating details, and I don¿t regret having picked it up.
mgaulding on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I must admit. I didn't want to read this book. It just sounded to painful to endure. But a friend sent it as a gift. It's a small book. But it is a powerful amazing story. For me, this was the best book of 2006!
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A little story about tow boys sent to the country during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and how they introduce a girl to Balzac, fall in love with her, and then she leaves. Okay but not as good as I thought it would be.
egarabis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was very interested in this book since I am always intrigued by the history of China, especially during the Mao years. I thought the book was interesting, though it didn't talk as much about re-education as I thought it would. The book was more focused on the relationships with the boys, until the very end when the author points out another effect of "re-education". I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in this time period.
ykolstad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Though this book was originally written by the author in French, it was translated exquisitely into English. "A dusting of ashes clung to the bow as it slid across the gleaming metal strings in which the firelight was reflected. The instrument was mine, and I was the player." There were times when I literally got so caught up in the story that I couldn't put it down (usually a sign of good writing). Not only that, but I actually learned a lot about a time, place, and historical events that I didn't know much about before. This is a special story about true hardship and friendship, young and wild love, and the high price of freedom.
LukeS on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How like a novel by Balzac is this little study in love, rivalry, and ego. Two unfortunate young Chinese men are sent into the mountains for "re-education" during Mao's Cultural Revolution. There they discover the tailor's daughter, a lovely young seamstress, with whom both young men become enamored. She is beautiful but untutored, but our two intrepid young men take care of that. They steal a collection of books, a wonderful group of Western masterpieces. In due course they travel to the seamstress's village and read her the great novels, starting with Balzac. The depredations of the Cultural Revolution are dealt with lightly here; we have the threat of denunciation, but no one turned in or incarcerated. The lonely mountainous landscape presents challenges for this series of meetings (and yes, assignations), and symbolizes (and embodies) the risks our heroes take. The biggest risk of all, it turns out, is the heart of the young woman. If she learns one thing from Balzac, it was that a woman's beauty is a prize beyond value. The book ends with our two stalwarts tearfully burning their precious collection of books - there's no reason to keep them because the young woman has modernized her haircut and her wardrobe, and left to go and take her chances in the city.The echo of Balzac in the unique setting of Mao's repressive China - this spare little book is definitely worth your time.
ethel55 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very quick read. Two young Chinese boys, friends in their former lives (both with parents who are "enemies of the state") are sent to a remote mountain village for their re-education by the peasants. Their story-telling abilities shine through almost immediately and the village headman lets the leave their duties once a month to watch movies in the nearby town. Upon return, they must relate more stories. During their travels, the boys discover another old friend and a hidden suitc...more A very quick read. Two young Chinese boys, friends in their former lives (both with parents who are "enemies of the state") are sent to a remote mountain village for their re-education by the peasants. Their story-telling abilities shine through almost immediately and the village headman lets the leave their duties once a month to watch movies in the nearby town. Upon return, they must relate more stories. During their travels, the boys discover another old friend and a hidden suitcase full of books. Sensing the possibilities, a raid of sorts is planned and the books procured. All the while the tailor's lovely daughter falls for Luo and a delightful romance eventually brings heartache to the friends.
ladybug74 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was just a little slow to start for me, but once I got into it I really enjoyed most of the book. It was a quick read that I finished in one night. I didn't really "get" how things ended with the seamstress, but I still enjoyed this book.
awriterspen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was recently recommended to me and I'm so glad I read it. It's full of charming characters in very uncharming circumstances. Set during Mao's cultural revolution, the narrator and his friend are deemed intellectuals due to their middle school education and their parents occupations. They are sent to a remote mountain village in China to be "re-educated" by the peasants. While living in house on stilts, their life is never portrayed as dull despite the times they were living in.This book follows their quest for banned literature, storytelling, and their affections for the little Chinese seamstress. I started reading this book initially, and then managed to get the audio version, and reader B.D. Wong uses his voice in such a magical way that it only added to the storytelling.
Whisper1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The setting is 1968 amid the repressive cultural revolution of Mao. The narrator is a young 17 year old man who, with his friend, is sent to a remote mountain village for "re-education."Because their parents are educated professionals, they are punished and separated from a life of intellectual stimulation. Until they discover a young man called four eyes who has a forbidden stash of books hidden in a suitcase. And, paradoxically on a remote slippery, lice infested mountain, high up in the air, surrounded by peasants who have not experienced the outside world, they discover the power of the written word and they become educated.Befriending a beautiful young woman whose father is the revered village tailor, both men are drawn to her spirit and physical presence. As they read to her, she envisions a life entirely different from the one she knows.This is a beautiful, thought-provoking book with many themes, including the power of friendship, of love, of the human spirit and of the mighty power of written words.Three young people are transformed and, like the buttons, threads and shiny materials used to fashion new clothes, the patterns can change and the desired end might not be what is envisioned.Highly recommended!
laytonwoman3rd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautiful little book with a lot of story packed into its 184 pages. This is the tale of two young men sent to the Western mountains of China for "re-education" during Mao's Cultural Revolution. But it isn't about politics, it's about life. Despite being taken from their families (who were declared "enemies of the people") and put to work at some of the slimiest and most dangerous peasant labor in the small mountain village, the boys find even this world has treasures in store for them. They meet the seamstress of the title, and naturally they both fall in love with her, but there is really no competition for her favors. They find a stash of Western literature translated into Chinese, and occupy themselves with reading and re-telling the stories. They get re-educated, all right, but not in any way that the Party would approve. In the process, they also re-educate the little seamstress, in ways that surprise them in the end. The tone of this novel was quite light, despite the sometimes dreadfully serious subject matter. The Los Angeles Times Book Review called it a "delicate, and often hilarious, tale." I found parts of it almost farcical, in a M.A.S.H.-like sort of way, but never hilarious.
LJuneOsborne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another book I read for class, and one I liked a bit more. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress gives readers a glimpse into situations students found themselves in during China's Cultural Revolution. Educated students and children of parents deemed "class enemies" were sent to live in remote villages to be "re-educated." The two main characters of the book, the narrator and his best friend Luo, both fall under the "children of class enemies" category, and are sent to work in "the little mine" as well as an opium farm.Ironically, their situation gives them opportunities to learn about the life and culture re-education was designed to stamp out. At the same time, they bring a sense of culture and access to media the villagers would not have been able to experience without being designated to re-educate the boys. The message I found in the book was that the human imagination will always find a way to express itself. And that the hunger for culture, once a taste has been found, cannot be satiated. I also am a sucker for any story that stresses the joy of reading a book, as this one does.This is a quick read I would recommend to a variety of readers. If you like romance, books (and chances are, you do), or if you like to read about Chinese culture, there's something in here for you.
patsemple on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Weird in that way that translated books often are. The language seems uneven at times -- going from formal to informal on the same page; there are references that are meaningful to Chinese readers but not to us (lines of verse, jokes. slights); the plot develops in an abrupt manner.It's 1971 and two Chinese teenagers are being re-educated in the rural countryside as part of Mao's Cultural Revolution. They have been yanked from their schools and join the peasants in their daily work of hauling slop, growing crops, animal husbandry, and maintaining the village. A third "young intellectual" lives in a nearby village has a cache of books, translated western literature. The two boys, Luo and narrator, are obsessed with reading and acquiring the books belonging to this boy, Four-Eyes. The Little Seamstress is a beautiful girl who lives about an hour away with her father, the local tailor. Luo and Narrator woo her by retelling the plots of the books they have secretly read; Balzac is the first. All three are profoundly moved by the stories, as are the characteres who hear their retelling. She becomes Luo's lover, but has affection for Narrator as well.Misadventures include trying to steal books from Four-Eyes and his visiting mother; the dirty nature of the work as they haul human waste in buckets on their backs and plow muddy fields; dressing up as Party officials to learn folk songs from local hermit; the alarm clock that fascinates villagers and rings every morning; being given permission to journey to larger town to watch movies and then return to village and re-enact movies for villagers; striking a deal with the village headman such that he will not turn them in for having books if they extract an absessed tooth from his mouth using the tailor's sewing machine as improvised drilling device.Little Seamstress finds out she is pregnant while Luo is gone for a month to tend to his sick mother. Luo had asked Narrator to guard her in his absence; Narrator interprets this to include the matter of her pregnancy. She is doomed because she is too young to get married (25 is legal age) and she cannot get an abortion. Narrator eventually bribes gynocologist with some of the books to give her an abortion.Little Seamstress recovers and Luo returns, but she has made up her mind to leave him -- new clothes, new haircut, new shoes. Narrator watches them argue from afar; she leaves, Luo does not try to stop her. Luo comes back to report what she had given as her reason for leaving and it is the last line of the book: "She wants to go to the city," he said. "She mentioned Balzac.""What about him?""She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price."
tapestry100 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It's been sitting on my shelf for quite some time now, and I kept hearing such good things about it, but there it sat all the same. It wasn't until it fit the criteria of a reading challenge on LibraryThing that this charming book finally made it's way into my hands to read.I honestly wasn't sure what to expect from the story, but imagine my surprise to find a gently told story with a window into the inner workings of another country, in this case China during the time of Mao's "re-education" of the population. Our characters in the book don't rage against the changes and upheavals in their lives; they accept them and move on and do the best they can with the lot in life that had been handed them. It is also a book about the love of reading and the discovery of romance. Our unnamed narrator and his friend Luo, two young boys from the city, are moved to a mountain for their "re-education," where they make friends with Four-Eyes, who has a secret that could destroy all their lives, a hidden suitcase filled with Western books. These books have been outlawed and are therefore looked upon by our narrator and Luo with some amount of reverence, and they beg and bribe Four-Eyes for the chance to read some of the novels. Luo also meets and soon falls in love with a young seamstress in the next village over, and he begins to share the novels with her as well, as she has never had the opportunity to read these stories before, as her whole life had been spent living on the mountain. As each of these four characters begin to grow through their various forms of re-education, in the case of the city boys learning the ways of living in the country and of the little seamstress learning that there is so much more to life than her small village on the mountain, we watch each of them truly become their own person and begin to see the parts of the small beginnings of their lives.The story held me entirely, until about 3/4 of the way through the book, where for three short sections, the narrator changes from our initial, nameless narrator to first an old miller who was encountered earlier in the story, then to Luo, then to the little seamstress, and then just as quickly we switch back to the nameless narrator from the beginning. This sudden and inexplicable switching of narrators for such a small portion of the story and for, what seemed to me, no good reason, really pulled me out of the story for a moment and it took me sometime before I could get back into the flow of the story. In a book this short, to be pulled out of the story so close to the end of the book was very discouraging.The distraction in narrator change aside, Dai Sijie has created a little coming of age story of sorts that may have you surprised by who grows the most with the continuation of the story, as I was, as well as a window into a country's cultural upheaval and how some of its citizens dealt with such change. It's a charming and delightful little book that won't take much time to read, but whose characters will remain with you for a great deal longer. Highly recommended.