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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Sijie)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress 
Dai Sijie, Ina Rilke (trans.), 2001
Random House
192 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385722209


Summary 
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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—March 2, 1954
Where—Chengu, Sichuan, China
Education—re-education camp
Awards—Prix Femina, 2003
Currently—lives in Paris, France


Born in China in 1954, Dai Sijie is a filmmaker who was himself “re-educated” between 1971 and 1974.

He left China in 1984 for France, where he has lived and worked ever since. Blazac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, his first novel, is semi-autobiographical; it was an overnight sensation when it appeared in France in 2000, becoming an immediate best-seller and winning five prizes. Rights to the novel have been sold in nineteen countries.

His second novel, Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch won the French Prix Femina award in 2003. Once on a Moonless Night was published in 2007 (English trans., 2009) (From the publisher.)

More
Because Dai Sijie came from an educated middle-class family, the Maoist government sent him to a reeducation camp in rural Sichuan from 1971 to 1974, during the Cultural Revolution. After his return, he was able to complete high school and university, where he studied art history.

In 1984, he left China for France on a scholarship. There, he acquired a passion for movies and became a director. Before turning to writing, he made three critically-acclaimed feature-length films: China, My Sorrow (1989) (original title: Chine, ma douleur), Le mangeur de lune and Tang, le onzième. He also wrote and directed an adaptation of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, released in 2002. He lives in Paris and writes in French.

A new novel, Par une nuit où la lune ne s'est pas levée (Once on a Moonless Night), appeared in 2007 (and in English in 2009).

L'acrobatie aérienne de Confucius was released in 2008.

Novels
His first book, the semi-autobiographical Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) (2000), was made into a 2002 movie, which he himself adapted and directed. It recounts the story of a pair of friends who become good friends with a local seamstress while spending time in a countryside village, where they have been sent for 're-education' during the Cultural Revolution. They steal a suitcase filled with classic Western novels from another man being reeducated, and decide to enrich the seamstress' life by exposing her to great literature. These novels also serve to sustain the two companions during this difficult time. The story principally deals with the cultural universality of great literature and its redeeming power. The novel has been translated into twenty-five languages, and finally into his mother tongue after the movie adaptation.

His second book, Le Complexe de Di won the Prix Femina for 2003. It recounts the travels of a Chinese man whose philosophy has been influenced by French psychoanalyst thought. The title is a play on "le complexe d'Oedipe", or "the Oedipus complex". The English translation (released in 2005) is titled Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch.



Book Reviews 
A funny, touching, sly and altogether delightful novel.
Washington Post Book World


Set in a rural Chinese province in the early 1970s, during the horrifying period of Communist "reeducation" known as the Cultural Revolution, Sijie's book tells the story of two privileged friends forced into a life of backbreaking labor for the state. Because their parents are doctors, the boys become objects of relentless suspicion, making their chances of parole unlikely. They have only their wits, and their mutual love of storytelling, to help them survive. After the boys find a box of contraband Western literature in Chinese translation, they begin discussing the stories with an unschooled seamstress. It's a bold move that becomes the turning point of their lives. Sijie's novel has all the makings of a great story: strong-willed, sympathetic heroes faced with tremendous obstacles, who are unwilling to compromise their ideals; a clear-cut antagonist; and even a little romance. High-minded yet accessible and engaging, the book touts the redemptive powers of self-expression. Despite the dark setting, it has elements of enchantment and exoticism.
Kevin Greenberg - Book Magazine


The Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong altered Chinese history in the 1960s and '70s, forcibly sending hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals to peasant villages for "re-education." 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. Sijie's unnamed 17-year-old protagonist and his best friend, Luo, are bourgeois doctors' sons, and so condemned to serve four years in a remote mountain village, carrying pails of excrement daily up a hill. Only their ingenuity helps them to survive. The two friends are good at storytelling, and the village headman commands them to put on "oral cinema shows" for the villagers, reciting the plots and dialogue of movies. When another city boy leaves the mountains, the friends steal a suitcase full of forbidden books he has been hiding, knowing he will be afraid to call the authorities. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo, who adores the Little Seamstress, dreams of transforming her from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales. He succeeds beyond his expectations, but the result is not what he might have hoped for, and leads to an unexpected, droll and poignant conclusion. The warmth and humor of Sijie's prose and the clarity of Rilke's translation distinguish this slim first novel, a wonderfully human tale.
Publishers Weekly


This deceptively small novel has the power to bring down governments. In Mao's China, the Cultural Revolution rages, and two friends caught in the flames find themselves shuttled off to the remote countryside for reeducation. The stolid narrator occasionally comforts himself by playing the violin, and both he and more outgoing friend Luo find that they have a talent for entertaining others with their re-creations of films they have seen. A little light comes their way when they meet the stunning daughter of the tailor in the town nearby, with whom Luo launches an affair. But the real coup is discovering a cache of forbidden Western literature including, of course, Balzac that forces open their world like a thousand flowers blooming. The literature proves their undoing, however, finally losing them the one thing that has sustained them. 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. —Barbara Hoffert.
Library Journal


A curious debut novel by a Chinese expatriate filmmaker, first published to widespread acclaim in 1998 France, dramatizes the restrictions placed on the minds and imaginations of Chairman Mao's followers. In the early 1970s, two teenaged boys-the unnamed narrator and his older friend Luo (both of whose parents have been declared counterrevolutionaries)-are sent for "re-education" to a remote mountain village where, among other indignities, they're forced to carry brimming buckets of excrement. The former, a soulful boy who plays the violin, is permitted to keep his "toy" when the quick-witted Luo announces that the tune his friend is playing is entitled "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao." Nothing else is as explosively funny, in an oddly paced tale that details efforts to outwit the village's tyrannical "headman" (they become "tellers of films" they've seen in a nearby town) and escape from communal mindlessness-which they manage by stealing a cache of translated Western books (including several Balzac novels) from an acquaintance whom they befriend, then deceive. Their prize possessions also attract the eponymous "little seamstress" (daughter of an itinerant tailor), whom the lovestruck Luo impulsively courts. So successful is the course of her "re-education" that she rids herself of Luo's child by having an abortion, dons Western-style clothing, and leaves the mountain for life in the big city (presumably as a Balzac or Flaubert heroine). The desires of Dai Sijie's people to expand their intellectual horizons are nicely realized, but several of this brief story's episodes digress to no discernible purpose, failing to either advance its narrative or deepen our understanding of its(more or less generic) characters. Literate and moderately engaging, but unlikely to enjoy the same runaway success that greeted it in La Belle France.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
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 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” [p. 18]. Is he right about the marginal status of the storyteller in the modern world? In what ways is this novel an argument for the importance of storytelling?

4. When the narrator first reads Ursule Mirouet, even though he’s heard “nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, ” he is transformed by Balzac’s story of “awakening desire, passion, impulsive action.... In spite of my complete ignorance of that distant land called France...Ursule’s story rang as true as if it had been about my neighbours” [p. 57]. What is it that enables him to identify so strongly with characters and situations he has never experienced? Whatdoes his experience suggest about the power of literature? In what ways does Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress exert a similar power on its readers?

5. Luo is sent to the mountains to be reeducated, an experience he bitterly resents, and yet he himself wishes to reeducate the Seamstress. When he steals Four-Eyes’ suitcase full of novels, he says, “With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again” [p. 100]. What is the ironic result of his success in making the Little Seamstress more sophisticated? What does the novel suggest about attempting to change others according to one’s own beliefs or desires?

6. In what ways does China under Chairman Mao, as represented in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban, or other cultures that strive to keep the modern world from undermining traditional or religious values?

7. Why does Four Eyes object to the authentic mountain songs Luo and the narrator bring back from the old miller? How does he alter them to make them politically correct? What ironies are involved in the effort to make peasant culture conform to communist ideals?

8. When the narrator sees the books in Four Eyes’ suitcase, he remarks, “Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives” [p. 99]. And when Luo later burns the novels, it is the characters, rather than the books, that seem to go up in flames. Why does he regard these books as being so alive?

9. When the tailor and the Little Seamstress come to stay at the house on stilts, the narrator observes how agitated and impatient women become when considering clothes: “It would evidently take more than a political regime, more than dire poverty to stop a woman from wanting to be well dressed: it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children” [p. 122]. Do you agree with this statement? Are such desires inspired by cultural pressures or inherent in human nature? What does this passage suggest about a political system’s ability to shape and control a people’s basic wishes?

10. When Luo suffers a bout of malaria, the narrator is called upon to tell a story: “I embarked on the strangest performance of my life. In that remote village tucked into a cleft in the mountain where my friend had fallen into a sort of stupor, I sat in the flickering light of an oil lamp and related the North Korean film for the benefit of a pretty girl and four ancient sorceresses” [p. 39]. Why are the rural Chinese so fascinated by film, or the stories they tell? What does this scene suggest about the convergence—and compatibility or incompatibility—of ancient and modern ways of life?

11. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a harshly realistic novel, in which the two main characters are forced to work in a coal mine and to carry buckets of excrement up and down a mountain, but it also has a fairy-tale quality. What makes the book read like a fable? How has Dai Sijie managed to merge these two narrative traditions?

12. How can Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress be read as a coming-of-age novel? Do the events in the story change the narrator and Luo? Have they lost their innocence by the end of the book?

13. What is the irony of Luo and the narrator discovering western literature only when they are sent away to have decadent western ideas reeducated out of them?

14. Throughout the novel, the repression of Western literature, and by extension Western cultural values, is presented as a terrible deprivation. And yet, at the end, when the Little Seamstress sets off for the city, she tells Luo that “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” [p. 184]. How does this ending complicate the novel’s apparent endorsement of cosmopolitan Western culture and literature over rural Chinese culture? How is the Little Seamstress planning to use her beauty?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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