Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
One version of the front cover of the novel
|Original title||Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise|
|Genre||Historical, Semi-autobiographical novel|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PQ2664.A437 B3513 2001|
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Dai Sijie, and published in 2000 in French and in English in 2001. It is the author's first published novel. Its original French title is similar, "Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise". A film based on his novel was released in 2002, directed by Dai himself.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters
- 3 Major themes
- 4 Style
- 5 Background
- 6 Publication history
- 7 Reception
- 8 Awards and nominations
- 9 Adaptations
- 10 Interviews and reading guides
- 11 Articles and Book Reviews
- 12 References
The novel, written by Dai Sijie, is about two teenagers. The first being Luo, "a genius for storytelling", and the second being an unnamed narrator who is seen as "a fine musician" are sent to be re-educated during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. They are sent to a mountain called "Phoenix of the Sky" near Tibet, because their doctor parents have been declared enemies of the state by the Communist state itself. In their exile, while forced to work in the coal mines and with the rice crop, they are captivated by and fall in love with the daughter of the local tailor, the Little Seamstress. As the story progresses, we (the readers) can see that the small farming village of Phoenix of the Sky delights in the stories the two teenagers retell. They even are excused from work for a few days to see films at a nearby town and later tell the story to the townspeople, through a process known as "oral cinema." At the same time, they meet Four-Eyes, the son of a poet, who is also being re-educated. Although he is succeeding in re-education, he is also hiding a secret set of foreign novels that are forbidden by Chinese law. The boys convince Four-Eyes to let them borrow the book, Ursule Mirouët by Honoré de Balzac. Luo gives the book to the narrator and leaves the village after staying up all night reading the book, going away in order to tell it to the Little Seamstress, "the region's reigning beauty" that both characters are attracted to, and the narrator becomes mesmerized by the French story. When Luo returns, he is carrying leaves from the tree below where he and former virgin, the Little Seamstress, had a relation.
The village headman, known as a Communist who has just had an unsuccessful dental surgery, threatens to arrest Luo and the narrator for harboring forbidden ideas from The Count of Monte Cristo if they don’t agree to find a solution to the headman’s dental problems. Faced with being turned in, the pair find a solution to the village headman's problems, but they turn the drill “slowly... to punish him.” Later, the headman lets Luo depart for home to look after Luo’s ailing mother. While Luo is gone, the Little Seamstress finds out that she has a baby. Her character confides this in the narrator, for "when [Luo] had left the previous month she was not yet worried" about missing her period. However, since the revolutionary society does not permit having children out of wedlock, and she and Luo are too young, the narrator must set up an abortion that can't be known to anyone else. Luo comes back to the village three months after this unexpected event. The two friend's mission of educating the Little Seamstress fails and backfires. At first, however, it seems as if their plan is working perfectly – she adopts the city accent and begins making modern clothing. Yet, one day, she "comes to understand her own sexual power", and leaves without saying goodbye. Luo becomes inebriated and incinerates all of the foreign books "in [a] frenzy," ending the novel.
- Luo, the narrators best friend
- The Little Seamstress, the daughter of a famous local tailor, the Little Seamstress is a rare beauty. She has no formal education and cannot read well, so Luo and the narrator read to her. She is pregnant by Luo, and subsequently gets an abortion. As the novel progresses, the Little Seamstress learns about the outside world by reading the foreign books with Luo's help. She eventually leaves the mountain and everything that she has known, to start a new life in the city.
- The Village Headman, the leader of the village to which the narrator and Luo are sent for re-education, is a 50-year-old "ex-opium farmer turned Communist cadre." One day, he blackmails Luo to fix his teeth in return for not sending the narrator to jail.
- Four-Eyes, the son of a writer and a poet, must wear thick glasses to compensate for his nearsightedness. He possesses a suitcase full of forbidden "reactionary" Western novels that the Narrator and Luo covet, and eventually steal. He is referred to as a character who is accustomed to humiliation. He ends up leaving the mountain when his mother convinces the government to end his re-education early and gets Four-Eyes a job at a newspaper.
- The Miller is an old man who lives alone and is a repository of local folk songs. The Miller narrates one part of the novel and provides songs to the boys, who then relate them to Four-Eyes. He is one of the characters who chooses not to be involved with the revolution.
- The Tailor, the father of the Little Seamstress and the only tailor on the mountain, is a rich and popular man. He is old but energetic and widely travelled. At one point in the story, the narrator recounts The Count of Monte Cristo to him while he spends the night with the narrator and Luo. Through this experience, he gains a slight air of sophistication, and the story begins to influence the clothes that he makes.
- The Gynaecologist, a man around forty, with "grizzled lanky hair [and] sharp features," performs the Little Seamstress' illegal abortion in return for a book by Balzac.
Power of education and literature
Critics have noted that the novel deals with the strength of education and literature. Jeff Zaleski of Publishers Weekly said that the novel "emphasize[s] the power of literature to free the mind." Additionally, a New York Times book review by Brooke Allen addresses the themes, such as the "potency of imaginative literature and why it is hated and feared by those who wish to control others." This reviewer addresses the evil and ultimate failure of "any system that fears knowledge and education... and closes the mind to moral and intellectual truth" as well.
Friendship and lost innocence
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress addresses issues such as how everything appears to have a double-edge.
It has been noted that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress deals with cultural superiority and balance between varying cultural influences.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is notable for its size. Publishers Weekly stated that Balzac was a "slim first novel", and Brooke Allen at the New York Times Book Review called the narrative "streamlined".
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is written in a characteristic style. The novel focuses and "accents on a soft center rather than... hard edges", according to Josh Greenfield of Time Europe. A vast majority of the characters in the narrative have "epithets rather than names", adding to the relaxed writing style of the novel.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set during the time known as the Cultural Revolution in China. This historical event helped to supply the framework for many of the conflicts faced in the novel. The Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong "began in 1966 and continued until the dictator's death ten years later". The Cultural Revolution in China was "intended to stamp out the educated class and . . . old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits". In order to do this, "hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals [were sent] to peasant villages for re-education", and within the years of "1968-1975, some twelve million youths were ‘rusticated’."
Dai Sijie's past
Dai Sijie's own experiences during this time period helped to produce the novel. Sijie himself was re-educated, and "spent the years between 1971 and 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province". He emigrated to France in 1984.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress has been translated from the original French. The novel was first published in France in the French language" in 2000, and since then, rights of the book have been sold in nineteen countries. However, the novel has not been translated to Chinese because of statements that Sijie has "blackened the characters of the peasants and treated them like idiots", and that the changes that the characters go through should be "the result of reading a Chinese book". The English translation of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Ina Rilke is published by the company Knopf and has been praised for its clarity.”
The novel has likewise been seen as an emotional tale. Jeff Zaleski has reviewed Balzac as a "moving, [and] often wrenching short novel". Dai Sijie has been praised as a "captivating, amazing, storyteller" whose writing here is "seductive and unaffected". In a San Jose Mercury News article, the novel is described as one that will resonate with the reader.
Topics covered in the book–to do with the Cultural Revolution–have been elaborated on and reviewed. Dai Sijie, as "an entertaining recorder of China's ‘ten lost years’," addresses the Cultural Revolution. It is seen by some as "a wonderfully human tale" and relatable. The ending of the novel has received some positive attention. The ending has a "smart surprising bite" says a Library Journal article. In Publishers Weekly, the conclusion is described as "unexpected, droll, and poignant". The story itself is seen as unprecedented, "not another grim... tale of forced labor." Also popular, it has been described as a "cult novel." and was a bestseller in France in the year 2000.” However, there have been negative reviews. Brooke Allen of The New York Times Book Review states that the novel is "worthwhile, but unsatisfactory" and that the epithets for most of the characters "work against the material's power." In addition, the novel has received complaints from Chinese government officials in its portrayal of the Cultural Revolution.
Awards and nominations
Interviews and reading guides
- Book Drum profile. Summary, glossary, setting and page-by-page illustrated notes in English.
- Interview with Dai Sijie on NPR's All Things Considered. In French with English translation. Originally aired March 17, 2002.
- INA interview with Dai Sijie. Originally aired January 21, 2000.
- Interview with Dai Sijie from bacfilms.com. French.
Articles and Book Reviews
- Allen, Brooke. "A Suitcase Education." New York Times Book Review, 9/16/2001, p 24.
- Bloom, Michelle E. "Contemporary Franco-Chinese Cinema: Translation, Citation and Imitation in Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is it There?" Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 22:311–325, 2005. doi:10.1080/10509200590475797
- Chevaillier, Flore. "Commercialism and Cultural Misreading in Dai Sijie's Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise." Forum for Modern Language Studies, 2011 Jan; 47 (1): 60-74. doi:10.1093/fmls/cqq074
- Coltvet, Ben McDonald. Review in Christian Century, 1/2/2002, Vol. 119 Issue 1, p 37. Abstract available at http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2011-05/balzac-and-little-chinese-seamstress-dai-sijie
- McCall, Ian. "French Literature And Film In The USSR And Mao's China: Intertexts In Makine's Au Temps Du Fleuve Amour And Dai Sijie's Balzac Et La Petite Tailleuse Chinoise." Romance Studies, Vol. 24 (2), July 2006. doi:10.1179/174581506x120118
- Riding, Alan. "Artistic Odyssey: Film to Fiction to Film." New York Times, 7/27/2005, p 1.
- Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. "In the Beginning Was the Book." New Leader, Sep/October 2001, Vol. 84 Issue 5, p. 23.
- Silvester, Rosalind. "Genre and Image in Francophone Chinese Works". Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 367–375. doi:10.1080/17409290601040346
- Watts, Andrew. "Mao's China in the Mirror: Reversing the Exotic in Dai Sijie's Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise." Romance Studies, 2011 Jan; 29 (1): 27-39. doi:10.1179/174581511X12899934053284
- Wiegand, David. "Painful Truths: Revolution-era Fable Explores the Consequences of Knowledge", San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, October 28, 2001.
- Sijie, p. 19
- Sijie, p. 5
- Pearl, Nancy. "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (book)". Library Journal (Media Source, Inc.) 127 (2): 164. Retrieved 15 March 2012.(subscription required)
- Sijie, p. 57
- Sijie, p.134
- Sijie p. 159
- Allen, Brooke (16 September 2001). "A Suitcase Education". New York Times Book Review (New York Times): 24. Retrieved 23 November 2013.
- Sijie, p. 178
- Greenfeld, Josh (11 March 2002). "A Twist on Balzac". Time Europe 159 (10): 55. Retrieved 15 March 2012.
- Sijie, p. 164
- Zaleski, Jeff (27 August 2001). "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (book review)". Publishers Weekly (PWxyz LLC) 248 (35): 51. Retrieved 23 November 2013.
- Allardice, Lisa (15 April 2002). "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Book)". New Statesman (New Statesman Ltd.) 131 (4583): 56. Retrieved 23 November 2013.
- "'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' by Dai Sijie". San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). 24 October 2001. Retrieved 15 March 2012.(subscription required)
- Sorensen, Rosemary (29 May 2003). "Delightfully Delicate". The Daily Telegraph (Sydney). Retrieved 15 March 2012.(subscription required)
- "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)". IMDB. Amazon.