Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was an instant sensation upon its publication in French. The novel by Chinese author Dai Sijie (1954– ) fictionalizes the lives of two urban youths sent to the Chinese countryside for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Dai describes the first flush of adolescent love felt by his two protagonists—love for a local young woman and love for a hidden cache of Western literary classics—against the backdrop of political and social upheaval. The result is a slender, poetic novel about both the universal trials of adolescence and the more specific turmoil experienced by the so-called Lost Generation, the young men and women forcibly taken by the Mao government from their schools and families and sent to work as laborers in small rural villages across China.
The parabolic novel begins in 1971, as 18-year-old Luo, the son of a famous dentist who once treated Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, and the 17- year-old nameless narrator, the son of two doctors, are sent to the remote mountain region known as Phoenix of the Sky to be reeducated among former opium growers. Forced to work in coal mines, the two best friends entertain themselves by showing off Western novelties to their peasant hosts, including an alarm clock and a violin, and by dramatically retelling the plots of movies to crowds of villagers. The pair also befriend the young woman whom the author refers to as the Little Seamstress, daughter of the local tailor, gradually falling in love with her charming beauty. One day Luo and the narrator visit an old friend nicknamed Four Eyes, the son of a famous poet, and become convinced that Four Eyes has several volumes of forbidden literature hidden in a fancy suitcase. Stealing their friend’s luggage, Luo and the narrator undergo a “Balzacian reeducation” by devouring novel after novel by Honoré Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, Herman Melville, and other canonical European and American authors.
Much as the friendship with the young woman awakens new feelings of passion within the young admirers, so too does their avid reading awaken a new sense of political oppression. The novels teach Luo and the narrator about emotion, love, idealism, individualism, and spontaneous action—values discouraged by the repressive communist system that has given rise to the Cultural Revolution. The clandestine readings inspire in the boys and in the beautiful seamstress a longing for a fuller, richer life.
In 1966 Chairman Mao Zedong and his wife, Jiang Qin, convinced that bourgeois capitalism and Western culture were eroding China, decided to revamp the Communist Party and Chinese culture by destroying traditional lifestyles, the so-called Four Olds—old habits, old customs, old behaviors, and old ideas. A significant aspect of this destruction involved sending “young intellectuals,” or men and women between the ages of 15 and 25 who had attended secondary school, to the countryside, where hard labor would rid them of any progressive memories and attitudes of Western influence. Denied access to education, books, music, and art, the so-called Lost Generation, the approximately 12 million young people thus reeducated were plied with communist propaganda, encouraged to spy on fellow citizens, asked to report subversive activities to the authorities, and sometimes forced to join the Red Guard, the revolutionary youth army created to maintain order as well as to compulsorily institute the large-scale collective changes deemed necessary by the dictatorial Mao. The horrifying atmosphere ended with Mao’s death in 1976.
Dai, an expatriate Chinese novelist and filmmaker and who has lived and worked in France since 1984, based some of the novel’s key plot points on his own three-year reeducation in rural Sichuan Province in China. In interviews he has acknowledged the real-life existence of both the Little Seamstress and a hidden hoard of Western classics. As a work of fiction, however, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress blends magical realism (a literary device that juxtaposes elements of fantasy with straightforward narrative) with bitter lamentation for the lives destroyed by Mao’s sweeping cultural reforms.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress suggests the possibilities of literature to spur mental growth while harshly criticizing any political system that seeks to limit the capacity for independent thinking. It longs for a more open cultural exchange, one that would enable the East and the West to mingle their myriad artistic outputs—from The Count of Monte Cristo to folk songs sung by Chinese peasants—as well as to mourn those who suffered under a tyrannical regime that favored ignorance over intelligent, individualist inquiry. After reading Balzac’s Ursule Mirouët to the Little Seamstress, Luo says to the narrator: “This fellow Balzac is a wizard. . . . He touched the head of this mountain girl with an invisible finger, and she was transformed.” Dai’s melancholic novel has a similarly powerful effect: It ensures that a painful past remains present in the memories of his readers, and it engenders a compelling sense of the privilege of possessing a free imagination.
Among other awards, the novel won the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2002 Dai directed a movie version of his novel in Mandarin; it went on to receive a 2003 Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Dai Sijie. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Translated by Ina Rilke. London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.
———. Le complex de Di: roman. Paris: Gallimard, 2003.
———. Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch. Translated by Ina Rilke. London: Chatto & Windus, 2005.