Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

By Dai Sijie
Translated by Ina Rilke

The author Dai Sijie was born in China in 1954, he was a filmmaker who was himself ‘re-educated’ between 1971 and 1974. He left China in 1984 for France, where he still lives and works. This book was published in 2000, first in French. It was published in Great Britain in 2001.

 I am surprised that this first book by Dai Sijie was a best seller and prize winner in France 2000 and rights have been sold in many countries. It has been made into a Film, starring Zhou Xun.

It is quite a different story, but to me, it is no way those of classical great books. 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 story tells of 2 young men Luo and the narrator were sent to serve four yars in a remote mountain village carrying pails of excrement daily up a hill. The two friends are good at storytelling, and the village headman commands them to put “oral cinema shows” for the villagers, reciting the plots and dialogue of movies.

When another city boy “Four Eye” left the mountains, the friends steal a suitcase full of forbidden books he has been hiding, knowing that he will be afraid to call the authorities. Luo has an affair with the little seamstress,  he 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.

The little seamstress left him and the village to live in the city. She said to Luo that she had learnt one thing from Balzac : that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.

The story is unique in the sense that I don’t often come across books which tells a little aspect of life during Mao’s cultural revolution times. Furthermore, the author himself has the experience of being “re-educated” during those hard times. The ending of the story is quite unexpected. However, does it portray the modern Chinese women from China nowadays? There are a lot of materialistic Chinese women who are known to leave their villages for a better life in the city or seeking rich husbands overseas.

Anyway, I think this book succeeded in making me curious about this French author Balzac. What is so good about Balzac that his literacy works can make the little seamstress transform so much? This book has introduced Balzac to me, and I think i will look out for Balzac’s books to read in future.

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