The novel is set in the 1970s in a remote region of China. This is Chairman Mao’s Chinese Cultural Revolution — a period that involves the “re-education of millions of citizens who are deemed “intellectuals” and therefore dangerous to Mao’s promised utopia. In order that they may see the error of their ways, the condemned citizens are sent to mountain villages where they are sentenced to labor under privation and extreme hardship. If they are successfully rehabilitated they will eventually return to their homes, but prospects are bleak — the percentage of rehabilitated citizens is “three out of three thousand.”
The novel focuses on two teenagers: one is the narrator of this tale, but he is never given a name; the second is a boy named Luo who strives to protect the narrator who is constantly getting into trouble. On their arrival in the village, their belongings are confiscated and they learn that they are under the total control of an ignorant and brutal village headsman. When the headsman seizes the narrator’s violin, calling it a useless toy of the wealthy, Luo intervenes, asking the narrator to play something. The frightened boy plays a Mozart sonata and Luo tells the headsman that the name of the musical piece is “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” The villagers are charmed.
Although the daily drudgery is exhausting (they work in a coal mine), the two boys quickly create a diversion that is readily endorsed by the headsman as a means of improving the village morale. They are allowed to travel to the neighboring town of Yong Jing to witness movies and on their return, they “retell” the movie to the villagers. Luo has a knack for dramatizing and the narrator sometimes plays background music. This new diversion (a kind of oral cinema show) becomes popular.
Eventually, the two boys encounter “the little seamstress” in the home of a tailor in the neighboring village, and when Luo contracts malaria, he is nursed back to health by the little seamstress. Since all medical treatment involving drugs has been abolished, Luo is treated by the local witches with an alarming number of “cures,” and something works. The two boys tell the little seamstress their oral cinema show and she becomes fascinated by the mysterious and decadent world of “western culture.”
She listens with great emotion to the sentimental stories. Eventually, she begins to dress and act in a manner that resembles the heroines in these stories.
The crux of this little novel is the chance encounter of our two protagonists with another youth called “Four Eyes” (because he wears glasses). Eventually, Luo discovers that Four Eyes has a trunkful of forbidden novels which, if discovered, would result in the boy being branded an enemy of the state and imprisoned. When the trunk is finally opened, it is found to contain a collection of Balzac novels along with Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and a dozen other authors whose works have been declared illegal and corrupting.
Since Four Eyes is inept and incapable of completing work designed to get him returned to his home and a secure teaching position, Luo and the Narrator develop a scheme. They will do the work, including an oral history project that involves collecting traditional work songs of the region.
This is one of the most comical sections of the novel. Luo and the narrator visit an old mill keeper who knows hundreds of old ballads, but the mill keeper lives in a infested dwelling and each visit to see him requires a complicated de-lousing and a bizarre meal of “pebble soup.” In exchange for compiling the collection of ballads and presenting it to Four Eyes, the two teenagers will receive “limited” access to the forbidden books. Now, in addition to the movies, they have a rich source for endless stories. In addition to entertaining the villagers with stories about the imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo or an old knight named Don Quixote, they continue to visit the tailor and charm the little seamstress with romantic stories like Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina.
The inevitable outcome is that the two teenagers fall in love with the little seamstress. Eventually, there are clandestine meetings between Luo and the little seamstress (the narrator is too shy to be an aggressive lover) and the novel is replete with erotic episodes, including a scene at a moonlit waterfall. All too soon, the little seamstress is pregnant, Luo is called home to attend to his sick mother and our narrator is left with the hapless job of finding a doctor willing to perform an abortion. In the end, he succeeds because he has learned to bargain with his “forbidden books.” He is fortunate to find a gynecologist who agrees to perform the surgery in exchange for a Balzac novel.
From the day our two protagonists encounter the little seamstress for the first time, Luo had announced his intentions of “civilizing” the innocent tailor’s daughter. In the final chapter of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, it is evident that he has succeeded. She now speaks with a city accent and wears clothes that match the urban styles she has encountered in the films and stories of the two youths. On the night that she announces her departure, she says that Balzac has taught her that a woman’s beauty is “a treasure beyond price.” She seems confident and eager to “seek her fortune.” After she had departed, the grief-stricken Luo burns his collection of forbidden books.
For me, this is a disquieting end, for it seems to demonstrate that Chairman Mao was right in his condemnation of decadent literature and that the little seamstress, like Madam Bovary, had been corrupted by her exposure to “worldly values” of the West. It is also true that those same values are the forces that motivate all of Dai Sajie’s characters, for better or for worse.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. Translated by Ina Rilke. Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. 197 pages.