A Book Review on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Since the history of China seemed to be more and more appealing to be studied as times go by, contemporary writers of modern generation deemed to account significant chronicles in which it covers the rich and colorful details of China’s history and development. One of which was the best-selling novel of Dai Sijie entitled Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
Though the novel was not certain whether it was a biographical narration or a true story for that matter, various stories found in it was believably factual and truthful. With a glimpse of the Cultural Revolution in China and its aftermath, the book was easy to read yet remains informative and educational as it used the lighter approach of prose writing style for its young adult audience.
From Stalinism to Japanese Occupation Era in the 1940’s which shaped the Second World War situation in broader Asian including China, things have been rigid and offensive. Communism spread rapidly even after Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist government’s union with his co-founders of United Nation in 1945. Thus, the beginning of Peoples Republic of China emerged in 1949.
The Great Leap Forward has declared in 1958 by the communist military leader Mao Tse-tung under Emperor Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government. It was merely a result of being a die-hard fanatic of Karl Marx and Leninism ideology although in 1960, communism has slightly shaken as the Union Soviet and China began to split-up.
It was in 1964 when the great Mao Tse-tung became the selfish emperor and dictator ruler of PRC or the Peoples Republic of China, and two years after, he announced the beginning of the Cultural Revolution that reshaped the whole nation of China.
Mao Tse-tung’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution created immeasurable chaos in the society, economics, and politics in China which affected every part of the country, altered lives of its people, and damaged their livelihood, lifestyle, traditions, culture, education, views and even their dreams. The most remarkable and widely spread action in this period was the re-education of the intellects, bourgeoisies, professionals, diplomats, academic leaders, including their children.
Re-education means forced exile of the aforementioned classification from the cities down to the countryside to learn farming, peasantry, mining, and any kinds of work that does not require mental and intellectual ability. Such act of Mao was to simply suppress and destroy possible rivals and oppositions of his beliefs, principles and ideology. As a result, the production and circulation of manuscript, texts and any readable materials except about Mao Tse-tung’s propaganda was strictly banned and outlawed during this period
Mao Tse-tung passed away on September 9, 1976 followed by the declination of Cultural Revolution but the infamous ideology remained notable and marked the history until today’s era. Cultural Revolution, though eventually died after its founder’s death was later disguised as Maoism by his followers and believers.
The Author and the Novel
Dai Sijie was a natural born Chinese but he made a film-directing and scriptwriting niche in France after his devotion in studies being a scholar specializing in art history. A victim of re-education himself as Dai Sijie was sent in Sichuan in 1971, he decided to write his first novel as a nearly autobiographical book that pictured some memorable points of his life.
The title mentioned the name of one of his favourite French authors, the well-known Honore de Balzac as he also believed in his thoughts and ideas. Believably, it was also Balzac who formed Dai Sijie’s love in literature, arts, and poetry. Dai Sijie was very fond of writing more about Chinese cultures and its history.
This novel became internationally acclaimed and famous that it became one of the favorites to be translated in different languages because originally, the Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was written in French language as Balzac et La Petite Tailleuse Chinoise. It was Ina Rilke who brightly translated the text from French to English language in 2000.
Somewhere in one of the mountainous province of China far from the city of Beijing and Shanghai, the story of Luo, Ma the narrator, and the little Chinese seamstress along with other characters could have evolved during the era where Mao Tse Tung’s regime is at its peak. Just like any other members of middle-class families, Luo and the narrator were sent to a remote village located at the mountain called by the Jesuits Phoenix of the Sky. They have surrendered their will as to what the socio-political environment urged them to do so and worked in the mines with the peasants of countryside rather than formally studying in the city.
The presence of some villages including the tailor and his daughter created a spank to make the book more enjoyable to read as Luo had a titillating experience with this little Chinese seamstress. Furthermore, his sexual fantasies turned to be more serious in a way that he recognized the feelings of love that slowly developed in him. The said feelings of Luo motivated him to run after the little Chinese seamstress attention and to win her affection too. Hence, Luo as soon as he discovered the girl’s ignorance being a no-read and no-write seamstress, made way to help her at least know the basics of learning such as reading and writing.
Luo’s cleverness was used to push through his eagerness of teaching his girl to read. Moreover, he used his friendship with the boy named in the novel as Four-Eyes as Luo discovered a pile of prohibited books, mostly classics of nineteenth century Western literature, hid in the safest luggage.
Along with the narrator, Luo asked Four-Eyes a copy of book by Balzac in exchange of a good deed. However, because of their eagerness to read more, they successfully tricked Four-Eyes and shawl his forbidden collection knowing that it would be impossible for the books to be reported missing.
The story was concluded with a sudden ending where the little Chinese seamstress chose to leave their village to pursue his learning outside of their town as he told Luo that she had learnt from Balzac that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price (p.184).
The representation of the little Chinese seamstress in a remote place in China that was once suppressed to be educated, and then motivated to use her charm and beauty afterwards in pursuit of his freedom and ambition came to be literal and figurative. It was viewed literally because repression, liberation and equality that transcended in the story are the same with the long-run issue of every woman in real life. And figuratively speaking, the little Chinese seamstress depicted the wholeness of China amidst Cultural Revolution where the people in this darkest period were being maltreated, misguided and suppressed especially those who were in the middle and upper classes of the society.
Western literature classics prohibitions which connotes liberation of mind and beliefs denoted oppression of one’s identity as obstruction of one’s own free will and the right to growth and learn has been emerged in the story.
The mystified and dramatic exit of the little Chinese seamstress pointed out that the change of one’s lives still relies to one’s hand irregardless of the existing situation of the government or the society. Another side could be viewed as a radical act of women in finding her balanced position on earth equal with her co-existents, specifically opposite gender as China remained patriarchal.
Though drastic events and disastrous sociopolitical evolution were caused by only few grievous personalities who ruled and shaped Contemporary China, there were also some stunning inside stories that formed, evolved, and surely shared the same impact in the history.
This is what the beautiful novel of Dai Sijie has offered to his audience as the sweet romance and comic love story of the protagonists has been detailed as well as the political situation which significantly important to understand the flow of the story. Lastly, for whatever purpose that Dai Sijie wrote this superb story, whether to educate the young generation about the past of the Contemporary China under the Cultural Revolution of Mao Tse-tung’s administration, or just merely to entertain them, everyone should agree that both purposes have been served successfully.
R E F E R E N C E S
“Cultural Revolution”. 2007. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia Web site.16 Nov. 2008.
Joseph, William A. “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. China Political Links:
Wellesley College Web site. 16 Nov. 2008. <http://www.wellesley.edu/Polisci/
Sijie, Dai, and Rilke, Ina. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Paris: Random
House Publishing Company, 2000.
 Sijie, Dai, and Rilke, Ina. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Paris: Random House, 2000.