Summary and book reviews of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2002, 208 pages

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Book Summary

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.

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.

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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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 ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The Washington Post Book World - Michael Dirda

I opened Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress expecting a book that would be at best earnest and well meaning; the tale of two city boys, sent to the provinces in 1971 during the Cultural Revolution, sounds like your standard-issue Chinese tract in fictive form. Yet make no mistake This is a funny, touching, sly and altogether delightful novel...ironic and wistful....Though salted with wit and slapstick humor, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is basically a romance, a novel about the power of art to enlarge our imaginations, no matter what the circumstances . . . If one novel about Mao's China can be as terrific as this one, there must be others as well.

Chicago Tribune - Stephanie Hull

A wonderful novel . . . Dai Sijie demonstrates that, in a time when freedom is in short supply, lessons about liberty from another time or tradition . . . can be an inspiration to those who wish to escape . . . . If we look to the tradition of Balzac and his contemporaries, we are left with some hope that these young men and the Little Seamstress will reappear in some future novel . . . Even if they come back by some other name, as Balzac's characters sometimes do, we will recognize them by their simplicity and strength, and by their harmonious complexity, formed by detailed layering and exquisite craftsmanship, like a beautifully tailored garment.

Booklist - Elsa Gaztambide

Dai Sijie is himself a survivor of that fateful time in China's history, yet he incorporates delightful humor into sketching his innovative cast of characters.

Library Journal

This deceptively small novel has the power to bring down governments..... 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.

Publishers Weekly

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..... The warmth and humor of Sijie's prose and the clarity of Rilke's translation distinguish this slim first novel, a wonderfully human tale.

Times Literary Supplement - Justin Hill

A simple story, seductively told . . . What marks it out is the way it touches and lifts up the beauty of human experience far beyond the mountains of Western China in which the story is set.

Author Blurb 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.

Author Blurb Anchee Min author of Red Azalea and Becoming Madame Mao
Few if any books that are mailed to me strike me as worth recommending. I recommend this book highly. I myself was also secretly introduced to Western culture through literature during the Cultural Revolution when I first read a hand copied Chinese translation of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Dai Sijie does an excellent job showing this experience. Anyone who wants to understand how Western art and literature influences the Chinese mindset should read this book.

Reader Reviews

wierdo cheerleader01

awesome!!!!!!!!
Wow... best book ever written lol:) This is a really good book...all I have to say is give it a try...don't judge a book by its cover!!! -peace

Akumu

Amazing
That was probably the best book I've read in a while. I love it and highly recommend it. I found out about this book from my summer book report, along with having to read another book, Peace Like a River. "Balzac and the Little Chinese ...   Read More

Antoinette-Marie

Words and Books
A small jewel, this book, I read it in French and enjoyed the language. The story made me realize how a revolution against intellectuals affected their every day life, how owning or reading "books" could endangered their daily life, how also a book ...   Read More

Sywe

unbelievebull!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
wonderfull!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!i am out of words....................just beautiful.i read it many many times.

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