Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress Summary

Dai Sijie

Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress

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Balzac And The Little Chinese Seamstress Summary

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Set against the backdrop of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a semi-autobiographical novel by Dai Sijie that illustrates the allure of literature and the power of friendship, even in the face of oppression. The novel is significant for offering insight into everyday life during the Cultural Revolution, a Communist socio-political movement with the goal of purging any evidence of both Western capitalism and traditional Chinese cultural elements from society in order to restore the “true” Maoist ideology, which abhors culture, art, music, and literature professed to be associated with bourgeois ideologies and longstanding traditions due to their supposed opposition to the working class ideals of Maoist Marxism.

Narrated by an unnamed character, Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress is the story of two boys, both innately talented (one is a “genius at storytelling”, and the other a “fine musician”) who are sent from their hometown of Chengdu to work in the coal mines and tend to the rice crop in the mountains near Tibet as part of Mao Zedong’s “re-education through labor” program. The sons of doctors and dentists, their parents are labeled as class enemies and subject to torture and imprisonment. When the boys first arrive at the camp, the head of the village deems it necessary to burn the narrator’s violin, but is convinced to spare the instrument after Luo, the narrator’s best friend, convinces the narrator to play a Mozart sonata that they cleverly tell the headman and the villagers is actually an homage to Mao Zedong.

While there, they both fall in love with a young beauty from a nearby town. The daughter of a tailor, she is known only to the reader as “The Little Seamstress”. Another bourgeois urban youth, their friend “Four-Eyes” was sent to work in a nearby village, and he, despite succeeding in the re-education program, risks everything to smuggle in censored Western literature, including Honore de Balzac’s Ursule Mirouët (from which the title of the novel derives) and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. While at first Four-Eyes refuses to even acknowledge that the books exist, after losing his glasses, the boys come up with a plan to help him with his duties in exchange for access to the treasures. Utterly engrossed by the books, the boys stay up all night reading Ursule Mirouët. Luo is so enamored with the work that he sneaks off to the village to tell the story to the Little Seamstress. The encounter with Balzac’s work is a pivotal event for Luo in many ways, as he also has intercourse with the Little Seamstress for the first time while he is away, returning home with keepsake memorabilia in the form of leaves from a tree nearby where they laid together.

With the village headman away for a month-long party conference in Yong Jing and the contents of contraband suitcase firmly in their grasp after having stolen it from Four-Eyes, the boys are able to spend a leisurely expanse of time shirking their duties and reading. The narrator falls in love with Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. Luo, meanwhile, spends most of his time reading Balzac to the Seamstress. Upon the headman’s return from the conference, excruciating pain from a toothache causes him to seek Luo’s dentistry services, reasoning that he must have learned the profession from his father. After a visit from the Little Seamstress’s father reveals that the two boys have been voraciously reading censored materials, the headman turns to extorting them in order to get relief from his persistent dental pain. The boys put together a makeshift drill, but take care to cause as much pain as possible to the headman in the process of filling the tooth.

The ramifications of Luo’s tryst with the Little Seamstress continue to emerge when they discover that she is pregnant, which is illegal for a young, unmarried woman in Maoist China. It is a double bind, as they are not allowed to marry until they are 25, but abortions are not legal, either. The narrator arranges a secret meeting with a gynecologist in Yong Jing, who initially refuses to help, but bends when the narrator offers him a Balzac novel. Once the operation is performed and it is clear that it has gone successfully, the narrator gives him Jean-Christophe, his favorite, in addition to the Balzac novel promised in the original arrangement.

Balzac and the Little Seamstress has a surprising and ironic ending for a novel that celebrates the importance of literature, and mirrors the spirit of some of the French novels being read by the boys. As a result of both the influence of Luo and the powerful effects of the education she received from Balzac and her other reading, The Little Seamstress changes her clothing and hairstyle to match the fashionable urban trends, and decides to flee the village to seek out her own destiny. Despite appeals for her to change her mind, she is unmoved and firm in her decision. The novel ends with Luo, out of grief, burning all the books responsible for her transformation. With this final act, the author illustrates that the power of literature is stronger than even he imagined at the time.