Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress

by Sijie Dai

Other authorsIna Rilke (Translator)
Hardcover, 2001




New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2001.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Whisper1
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
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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!
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LibraryThing member Crazymamie
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
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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, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me."
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LibraryThing member richardderus
I don't, like so many others, think this book is brilliant or even particularly original. I do think it's fascinating as a cultural document of a time and a place that I know zero about and find very intriguing.

The Cultural Revolution was inconceivably vast, like everything else about China. The
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notion, from whence we shall never know, that Mao had of causing all the haves to be reduced to the status of have-nots, and the resulting collapse of anything describable as culture, took so many good and worthy people from China's body politic and ground them into nothingness that it's a wonder there is a shred of history left to them.

The agonies of our narrator, the son of enemies of the people sent to a remote location for re-education, are told not shown. This is ordinary in a first-person story. But I found myself irked at the elisions this produced. The people around the narrator are one-dimensional, even his childhood friend Luo and the eponymous seamstress. The narrator's inability to see much past the grimy surface of the people in his world wore on me.

But, and this is the saving grace of the book for me, it's such a bizarre and topsy-turvy world that even their surfaces are intriguing, and the rather unexceptional story the narrator (never named) is telling shines with that exotic glistening strangeness.

This is really a book about books. The narrator, Luo, and the seamstress go to great and dangerous lengths to get, read, and absorb lovingly the precious contraband books they're sure are hidden. Finding them, reading them, telling the stories contained in them to others...well, who could possibly NOT love a character who risks hideous tortures to do that?

The seamstress's final act in the book is exactly the right touch to set off the reaction that the narrator very oddly presents to us BEFORE reporting that action. Wha...?

Recommended. Oh, reservations attached to that, but really recommended!
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
During China's Cultural Revolution, millions of young people were sent from China's cities to the country for “re-education”. Dai Sijie writes of two teen-aged friends sent to a village in a mountainous rural area. The pair come up with various schemes to make life in the country bearable. When
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they discover a cache of contraband Western literature, they set out on a re-education program of their own, with a beautiful young seamstress from a neighboring village as their student.

The author was himself a re-educated youth, so he writes from personal experience. The story is told in first person by one of the young men. The pair reminded me a little bit of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in their ability to out-wit their elders while maintaining an aura of innocence. The harshness of the conditions these youths faced is conveyed with irony and cynicism. I think it drew more sympathy from me than an angry or self-pitying voice would have done. The book will appeal to readers who like books about books, historical fiction, books by international writers, and books in translation. It would be a great reading choice for a book group.
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LibraryThing member Spoerk
I'm afraid of saying too much about this novel.

It's not one of those "oh look how china suppresses western culture" books. Nor is it a "oh look banning books is bad" book. It's a story about how books effect one's life. How they seep into one's soul and messes around with your inner workings. It's
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a story about how protective people are about their stories. How stories surround you. You are a story. And that even the smallest phrase has some sort of meaning to someone.

Ideas are dangerous. Books are dangerous. And this small one puts into words why.

I don't know anything about Mao's "re-education" of the city children/young adults in the late 1960s - early 1970s. This little peek into history (current and past) was something unexpected. I wasn't prepared to want to know the details about Mao's rule and his stipulations on what can and cannot be seen/read/listened. It also reminds us as readers how bourgeois reading still is. It's still a privilege to people to have the luxury time to read. To have the means to go and get a book to peruse. To choose one book over another.

Sijie shows us how one book by Balzac changed two boys' lives. This book cemented into them this desire to read more. So I ask you, what was that one book that you read that made you want to continue reading. What was your first book you remember? What was that book you read in high school that made you want to go looking in the library for something new? What was the book that the other people made fun of you about because you spent your free time reading when they were outside playing? What stories will you pass on to your children? To your neighbors? To strangers? Why do we chose these stories and not others?

What books would you burn so they can stop affecting you so much?
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LibraryThing member CBJames
During China's Cultural Revolution, two young men, the best of friends, are sent to a remote village for re-education. Two things help them make it through the years they spend away from their families, their school, their city: a beautiful girl and forbidden copies of Balzac. The boys fall in love
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with both.

This is the basic premise of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, translated from the French by Ina Rilke. The book is slight, a quick read at just under 200 pages. The story is light-hearted, the boys face neither serious danger nor serious consequences though they constantly push against the authority they live under. The characters are well-drawn, fully believable people. The setting is well described The plot keeps the reader moving along at an entertaining clip.

I just didn't like it.

Maybe it reminded me too much of what I didn't like about City of Thieves which is also about two young men basically having a rollicking adventure in the midst of terrible tragedy. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was picked by my book club which has been picking very safe reading lately. I keep thinking of Franz Kafka as quoted on Gautami Tripaty's blog, "We ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us." Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress neither wounds nor stabs. A book set during China's Cultural Revolution ought to do both.

I grew so tired of the rich kid protagonists and their cultural superiority, their clear sense that they were better than everyone in the village, that by the end of the book, I was beginning to root for the Cultural Revolution a bit. I'm not rooting for the Cultural Revolution, not at all, but when do we get the story of those villagers? What was it like for the peasants who spent tens, maybe hundreds of generations in isolated poverty while the world grew rich around them. What was it like to suddenly see a violin in middle-age when you'd never seen anything like it before? I'm looking for the Chinese writer who'll give voice to those villagers, write their version of The White Tiger. I bet that book would wound and stab.
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LibraryThing member beserene
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member npl
In 1971 Maoist China, several teenaged boys are sent from the city to a chain of small villages on an isolated mountain for re-education to be proper communists. The boys mourn the lost of their families as well as the culture of the city. Further, they know they will likely spend the rest of their
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lives confined on the mountain. When the friends discover a suitcase full of Western classics translated into Chinese, they become obsessed with reading the forbidden books. Their lives are transformed again when they meet the beautiful daughter of the community’s tailor, Little Seamstress. After Luo, whose favorite author is Balzac, and Little Seamstress become lovers, he sets out to refine her. Using the books, he believes he can teach her and make her worthy of his love. In the surprising ending, the Little Seamstress becomes the educator and shows there are trade offs and consequences for every action. In a surprisingly short, tight, and swift novel, Sijie provides a fascinating glimpse into China under Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
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LibraryThing member Carmenere
During China’s Cultural Revolution two young friends, Luo and the narrator, who I believe, remains nameless throughout the story, are taken from their parents to be re-educated by peasants in a mountainous region of China. Although there is only a 3 out of 1,000 chance they will ever be reunited
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with their families, they make the best of a dire situation by amusing themselves and others with teenage antics and diversions. The subject of one such diversion is another lifer referred to as four-eyes. Once the boys discover that he is hiding a suitcase full of books they take advantage of several situations in order to get him to come clean and get their hands on those treasured books. Once the two friends earn the priviledge of reading Balzac, the story takes a more serious turn. Luo becomes the educator rather than the re-educated and begins reading Balzac to the little Chinese seamstress. He wishes to transform her so “she’ll never be a simple mountain girl again.” Through Balzac and Luo, she discovers how much world there is beyond her sewing machine and how much more there is to experience. It exemplifies the transforming magic of books.
Sijie’s story is charming and at its best when Luo and the narrator carry out their antics. I was sorry to see them come to an end when Luo discovered something more than brotherly love.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member mgaulding
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!
LibraryThing member xorscape
I enjoyed the beginning of this book (the first three fourths), but the ending left me cold. It started sounding like some short stories thrown together using the same characters for cohesiveness. It did make me want to read some Balzac.
LibraryThing member kimusabrit
Nice little story - fast read - not sure how much we will discuss as a group
LibraryThing member ElDoradoHills
Two teenage boys are caught up in the turmoil of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and are sent to a remote village for "re-education." Their adventures are both humorous and tragic as they experience the power of literature to unleash the spirit of freedom.
LibraryThing member defrog
Two teenage boys in a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution who have also been chasing after a tailor’s daughter discover a secret cache of 19th-century Western literature – and what happened next. Pretty good, though I don’t really share Dai’s enthusiasm for Balzac. Still, I
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appreciate the sentiment – I felt the same way the first time I read Bukowski. And it’s a good story with a subtle sense of humor. There’s another book of his that’s been translated to English, so you may be hearing his name here again one day.
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LibraryThing member banjo123
This is a sweet book, and humorous, though about quite a serious topic. During the cultural revolution two young men are sent to a village for "re-education." The work can be brutal, but they are resourceful and youthful. One of the youth is really good at telling stories, and so the village chief
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sends them to town to watch movies, so they can come back and do dramatic re-tellings. They meet a lively young woman, the daughter. of a nearby tailor, and friendship and romance bloom.

And then there is Balzac. The two find a secret stash of forbidden novels, and the power of literature has unexpected consequences.

Definitely a recommended little book.
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LibraryThing member buckeyeaholic
This was ok. I'm not really sure whether I liked it or not. Sounds kind of wierd, I know. It was humorous in spots but in others it kind of bogged down. If you think this will be like Snow Flower & the Secret Fan you're wrong. Well, I didn't think so anyway.
LibraryThing member rayski
two very young men are sent to villages to become ‘re-learned’ via hard work. They stumble on to books forbidden by the government and share them with a young seamstress who they learn as much from as the classic authors.
LibraryThing member readingrat
A strong coming-of-age story set during Mao's re-education campaign.
LibraryThing member knittingfreak
Two lifelong friends find themselves sent to a tiny village on a mountainside far away from their family and the life they knew in the city. This was part of the "reeducation" process of the Cultural Revolution. The children of famous doctors, scientists, and other academic types were taken from
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their homes and sent to live with peasants in the hopes that they would forget their bourgeois lifestyle and embrace the communist ideal.

The boys make an acquaintance in a neighboring village who is also a victim of the "reeducation" process. The boys suspect that he is harboring a dangerous secret and soon discover that he has contraband hidden in a suitcase. Yep, you guessed it -- he has books. All literature, especially western literature was banned during this period. The only approved reading material was books by Chairman Mao and his followers. The boys finally persuade their friend to let them borrow some books, which they devour. In addition to Balzac, they have books by Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and Romain Rolland. These books open the boys' eyes to a new world. Even though they had lived in the city, they were very naive and knew little of the ways of the world, especially when it came to women and sex.

Luo is smitten with the daughter of a tailor in one of the villages on the mountain and begins daily visits to read to her from Balzac. He is trying to impress her, and he also feels that he is doing her a favor by educating her, as well. They have a brief, albeit intense romance. I won't go into more detail here for fear of ruining the story. Overall, I liked the book, but I didn't love it the way I thought I would. I enjoyed learning a little more about the Chinese culture during this period in addition to the literary references.
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LibraryThing member pchevis
Book is slightly different from the film. Loved the film and that brought me to the book. I enjoy rreading about China and how the ordinary people coped with all the change during that time.
LibraryThing member Zmrzlina
A story that transports the reader through time and awakens the magic that is reading. Two young men sent off for "re-education" during the Chinese Cultural Revolution find their education in strange places. Elegant and finely stitched narrative.

A little off-topic link that is appropriate to the
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story, has a great widget for your desktop that shows a different Chinese propaganda poster every day.
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LibraryThing member sharlene_w
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
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quick read, but not as satisfying as it could have been.
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LibraryThing member annenvdpl
I loved this little novel. Really gave you a feel for what it was like for young men from the city to work in the country during the Cultural Revolution.
LibraryThing member blondestranger
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the tale of two young boys forced out of their privileged lives and thrust into a life of poverty during their "re-education" in Mao China. The book shows how everyone thirsts for knowledge and the risks that people will take to obtain it. I loved the
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book but it left me wanting more - what happens next?! Maybe that was the authors intent - to make the readers thirst for the end of the story, just like the characters in the book.
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