Category: Dai Sijie

book review – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


For quite a short book this manages to pack in quite a few genres. On the one hand Dai Sijie’s look back at the cultural revolution in China have the feel of an autobiography but it is also a rites of passage tale for more than one of the main trio of characters.

In addition to those styles the content is also varied with a mixture of history as well as a story that charts the power of literature, reminding everyone of the costs of banning books.

Two students, who both have parents in disgrace with the Moa regime, are sent into the countryside for a spell of re-education. The years spread out before them with all hopes pinned on a change to their circumstances that will get them recalled to the City.

Because the author tells you fairly early on you know that their future lay abroad but for the other characters liberation came inside the mind rather than in a physical sense. The key to that growing imagination and freedom in terms of thought comes in the form of a dog eared translation of Balzac.

The world that the Frenchman describes, not just in terms of colour and variety but also emotionally about love and lust, has a tremendous impact on the two students. It also touches the world of those they describe the passages to, including the tailor in the next village and his daughter the seamstress.

Of all the characters she is the most transformed starting to understand that she is beautiful and that a Balzac character in the same position uses that beauty as a weapon. She leaves the two students behind not just in a physical sense but in terms of her reaction to the written word.

Unlike the students, who both have a high opinion of their own worth, it is the seamstress who allows herself to come alive with the magical words of the great banned Western writers. She drinks it in and then changes her life. The students however are stuck worrying about much more mundane concerns about sex, getting away from the mountain and acquiring and then destroying the books.

Ultimately the message is not just about the power of literature to change lives and minds but also the different reactions to it that means that the most surprising reactions can come fro m the most unexpected quarters.

It also shows that no matter how tightly the restrictions the mind can still wander and imagination can still liberate those held in intellectual and well as physical captivity.

Version read – Vintage paperback

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book review – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


For quite a short book this manages to pack in quite a few genres. On the one hand Dai Sijie’s look back at the cultural revolution in China have the feel of an autobiography but it is also a rites of passage tale for more than one of the main trio of characters.

In addition to those styles the content is also varied with a mixture of history as well as a story that charts the power of literature, reminding everyone of the costs of banning books.

Two students, who both have parents in disgrace with the Moa regime, are sent into the countryside for a spell of re-education. The years spread out before them with all hopes pinned on a change to their circumstances that will get them recalled to the City.

Because the author tells you fairly early on you know that their future lay abroad but for the other characters liberation came inside the mind rather than in a physical sense. The key to that growing imagination and freedom in terms of thought comes in the form of a dog eared translation of Balzac.

The world that the Frenchman describes, not just in terms of colour and variety but also emotionally about love and lust, has a tremendous impact on the two students. It also touches the world of those they describe the passages to, including the tailor in the next village and his daughter the seamstress.

Of all the characters she is the most transformed starting to understand that she is beautiful and that a Balzac character in the same position uses that beauty as a weapon. She leaves the two students behind not just in a physical sense but in terms of her reaction to the written word.

Unlike the students, who both have a high opinion of their own worth, it is the seamstress who allows herself to come alive with the magical words of the great banned Western writers. She drinks it in and then changes her life. The students however are stuck worrying about much more mundane concerns about sex, getting away from the mountain and acquiring and then destroying the books.

Ultimately the message is not just about the power of literature to change lives and minds but also the different reactions to it that means that the most surprising reactions can come fro m the most unexpected quarters.

It also shows that no matter how tightly the restrictions the mind can still wander and imagination can still liberate those held in intellectual and well as physical captivity.

Version read – Vintage paperback

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

The problem with opening someone’s mind with literature sharing the emotions of love, fear and courage is that the mind is never quite the same again.

After being pumped full of books by Luo the Little Seamstress finally decides that the countryside is not enough for her and so she heads off to the city leaving her father and the two students behind her.

Things are made slightly easier by the fact that Luo has been absent for a month not long before her decision and he left her needing an abortion. It would be a shame to reveal the final line but it brings a real smile to the face.

Those who have the arrogance to believe that they can educate, improve and then control someone are very much mistaken – and rightly so.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

With their stack of foreign literature the two students become intoxicated reading of romance, chivalry and intrigue. The problem is that they start to take risks as a result of their new found intellectual freedom.

In the case of Luo it is physical risks crawling over a mountain precipice every day to take a book to read to the Little Seamstress but in the case of the narrator he gets carried away reading out loud the Dumas tale of the Count of Monte Cristo and is almost denounced by the village headman.

You sense that doom is coming because they are unable to contain their enjoymenty of the books but also crucially cannot stop sharing the contents with people.

Although this is primarily a book about the hardships endured by people as part of the cultural revolution it is also a story about the power of literature – the power to change lives and the way that words can transform the limits of someone’s horizons.

Last chunk tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

There is a vivid passage in the book when the two leading characters get their hands on a copy of Balzac. The book is banned and the emotions it talks about – love, passion and the freedom it paints – mesmerize the two students being re-educated in the countryside.

The impact of the French authors words spread beyond the two friends and reach the little seamstress who is stunned by the ideas of love and heads off into the woods and makes love to Luo.

The Balzac comes from four-eyes a bespectacled student living in another village serving his time. The book is given out as a thanks for helping him get local folklore songs that can land him a job on a magazine charting the success of the cultural revolution. But after handing out Balzac he clams up and refuses to share anymore forcing the friends to take the decision to steal the suitcase full of books the night of four-eyes departure from the village.

Literature might help them escape but they still have to have coal, plough the fields and suffer the prospect of doing so for three years.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

There has been a fantastic series running on BBC 2, Wild China, about China’s landscape and wildlife. That seemed like a very thin excuse to pop to the library and pick up something with a Chinese flavour.

This book is clearly written by someone who spent many years in exile and is remembering his life as a student being transplanted from his home in the city to the countryside as part of Mao’s cultural revolution.

He is sent off with his best friend and together they discover a world of initial mistrust and backwardness with ancient beliefs mixing in with back breaking manual labour. The escape the two friends manage to find comes from their relationship with each other and their ability to act as cinema interpreters for the village.

Their travels take them into the orbit of another village and there they come across the tailors daughter. The little seamstress is charming and they are both slightly smitten by her but it is the friend Luo who seems to gain her attention. She certainly springs into life to nurse him when he falls ill with malaria.

More tomorrow…