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  • Written by Dai Sijie
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  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
  • Written by Dai Sijie
    Read by B.D. Wong
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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

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A Novel

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Read by B.D. Wong
On Sale: October 29, 2002
ISBN: 978-0-7393-0102-9
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Synopsis

An enchanting literary debut—already an international best-seller.

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 Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

PART I

The village headman, a man of about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a hearth that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin. Among the possessions brought to this mountain village by the two "city youths"-which was how they saw Luo and me-it was the sole item that exuded an air of foreignness, of civilisation, and therefore aroused suspicion.

One of the peasants came forward with an oil lamp to facilitate identification of the strange object. The headman held the violin upright and peered into the black interior of the body, like an officious customs officer searching for drugs. I noticed three blood spots in his left eye, one large and two small, all the same shade of bright red.

Raising the violin to eye level, he shook it, as though convinced something would drop out of the sound holes. His investigation was so enthusiastic I was afraid the strings would break.

Just about everyone in the village had come to the house on stilts way up on the mountain to witness the arrival of the city youths. Men, women and children swarmed inside the cramped room, clung to the windows, jostled each other by the door. When nothing fell out of my violin, the headman held his nose over the sound holes and sniffed long and hard. Several bristly hairs protruding from his left nostril vibrated gently.

Still no clues.

He ran his calloused fingertips over one string, then another . . . The strange resonance froze the crowd, as if the sound had won some sort of respect.

"It's a toy," said the headman solemnly.

This verdict left us speechless. Luo and I exchanged furtive, anxious glances. Things were not looking good.

One peasant took the "toy" from the headman's hands, drummed with his fists on its back, then passed it to the next man. For a while my violin circulated through the crowd and we-two frail, skinny, exhausted and risible city youths-were ignored. We had been tramping across the mountains all day, and our clothes, faces and hair were streaked with mud. We looked like pathetic little reactionary soldiers from a propaganda film after their capture by a horde of Communist farm workers.

"A stupid toy," a woman commented hoarsely.

"No," the village headman corrected her, "a bourgeois toy."

I felt chilled to the bone despite the fire blazing in the centre of the room.

"A toy from the city," the headman continued, "go on, burn it!"

His command galvanised the crowd. Everyone started talking at once, shouting and reaching out to grab the toy for the privilege of throwing it on the coals.

"Comrade, it's a musical instrument," Luo said as casually as he could, "and my friend here's a fine musician. Truly."

The headman called for the violin and looked it over once more. Then he held it out to me.

"Fogive me, comrade," I said, embarrassed, "but I'm not that good."

I saw Luo giving me a surreptitious wink. Puzzled, I took my violin and set about tuning it.

"What you are about to hear, comrade, is a Mozart sonata," Luo announced, as coolly as before.

I was dumbfounded. Had he gone mad? All music by Mozart or indeed by any other Western composer had been banned years ago. In my sodden shoes my feet turned to ice. I shivered as the cold tightened its grip on me.

"What's a sonata?" the headman asked warily.

"I don't know," I faltered. "It's Western."

"Is it a song?"

"More or less," I replied evasively.

At that instant the glint of the vigilant Communist reappeared in the headman's eyes, and his voice turned hostile.

"What's the name of this song of yours?"

"Well, it's like a song, but actually it's a sonata."

"I'm asking you what it's called!" he snapped, fixing me with his gaze.

Again I was alarmed by the three spots of blood in his left eye.

";Mozart . . . ," I muttered.

"Mozart what?"

"Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao," Luo broke in.

The audacity! But it worked: as if he had heard something miraculous, the headman's menacing look softened. He crinkled up his eyes in a wide, beatific smile.

"Mozart thinks of Mao all the time," he said.

"Indeed, all the time," agreed Luo.

As soon as I had tightened my bow there was a burst of applause, but I was still nervous. However, as I ran my swollen fingers over the strings, Mozart's phrases came flooding back to me like so many faithful friends. The peasants' faces, so grim a moment before, softened under the influence of Mozart's limpid music like parched earth under a shower, and then, in the dancing light of the oil lamp, they blurred into one.

I played for some time. Luo lit a cigarette and smoked quietly, like a man.

This was our first taste of re-education. Luo was eighteen years old, I was seventeen.

B

a few words about re-education: towards the end of 1968, the Great Helmsman of China's Revolution, Chairman Mao, launched a campaign that would leave the country profoundly altered. The universities were closed and all the "young intellectuals," meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the poor peasants." (Some years later this unprecedented idea inspired another revolutionary leader in Asia, Cambodian this time, to undertake an even more ambitious and radical plan: he banished the entire population of the capital, old and young alike, "to the countryside.")

The real reason behind Mao Zedong's decision was unclear. Was it a ploy to get rid of the Red Guards, who were slipping out of his grasp? Or was it the fantasy of a great revolutionary dreamer, wishing to create a new generation? No one ever discovered his true motive. At the time, Luo and I often discussed it in secret, like a pair of conspirators. We decided that it all came down to Mao's hatred of intellectuals.

We were not the first to be used as guinea pigs in this grand human experiment, nor would we be the last. It was in early 1971 that we arrived at that village in a lost corner of the mountains, and that I played the violin for the headman. Compared with others we were not too badly off. Millions of young people had gone before us, and millions would follow. But there was a certain irony about our situation, as neither Luo nor I were high school graduates. We had not enjoyed the privilege of studying at an institution for advanced education. When we were sent off to the mountains as young intellectuals we had only had the statutory three years of lower middle school.

It was hard to see how the two of us could possibly qualify as intellectuals, given that the knowledge we had acquired at middle school was precisely nil. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen we had been obliged to wait for the Cultural Revolution to calm down before the school reopened. And when we were finally able to enroll we were in for a bitter disappointment: mathematics had been scrapped from the curriculum, as had physics and chemistry. From then on our lessons were restricted to the basics of industry and agriculture. Decorating the cover of our textbooks would be a picture of a worker with arms as thick as Sylvester Stallone's, wearing a cap and brandishing a huge hammer. Flanking him would be a peasant woman, or rather a Communist in the guise of a peasant woman, wearing a red headscarf (according to the vulgar joke that circulated among us schoolkids she had tied a sanitary towel round her head). For several years it was these textbooks and Mao's "Little Red Book" that constituted our only source of intellectual knowledge. All other books were forbidden.

First we were refused admission to high school, then the role of young intellectuals was foisted on us on account of our parents being labelled "enemies in the people."

My parents were doctors. My father was a lung specialist, and my mother a consultant in parasitic diseases. Both of them worked at the hospital in Chengdu, a city of four million inhabitants. Their crime was that they were "stinking scientific authorities" who enjoyed a modest reputation on a provincial scale, Chengdu being the capital of Szechuan, a province with a population of one hundred million. Far away from Beijing but very close to Tibet.

Compared with my parents, Luo's father, a famous dentist whose name was known all over China, was a real celebrity. One day-this was before the Cultural Revolution-he mentioned to his students that he had fixed Mao Zedong's teeth as well as those of Madame Mao and Jiang Jieshi, who had been president of the Republic prior to the Communist takeover. There were those who, having contemplated Mao's portrait every day for years, had indeed noted that his teeth looked remarkably stained, not to say yellow, but no one said so out loud. And yet here was an eminent dentist stating publicly that the Great Helmsman of the Revolution had been fitted with new teeth, just like that. It was beyond belief, an unpardonable, insane crime, worse than revealing a secret of national security. His crime was all the more grave because he dared to mention the names of Mao and his consort in the same breath as that of the worst scum of the earth: Jiang Jieshi.

For many years Luo's family lived in the apartment next to ours, on the third and top floor of a brick building. He was the fifth son of his father, and the only child of his mother.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Luo was the best friend I ever had. We grew up together, we shared all sorts of experiences, often tough ones. We very rarely quarrelled.

I will never forget the one time we came to blows, or rather the time he hit me. It was in the summer of 1968. He was about fifteen, I had just turned fourteen. That afternoon a big political meeting was being held on the sports ground of the hospital where our parents worked. Both of us were aware that the butt of the rally would be Luo's father, that yet another public humiliation awaited him. When it was nearly five o'clock and no one had yet returned, Luo asked me to accompany him to the hospital.

"We'll note down everyone who denounces my father, or beats him," he said. "That way we can take our revenge when we're older."

The sports ground was a bobbing sea of dark heads. It was a very hot day. Loudspeakers blared. Luo's father was on his hands and knees in front of a grandstand. A great slab of cement hung round his neck from a wire so deeply embedded in the skin as to be invisible. Written on the slab were his name and his crime: reactionary.

Even from where I was standing, thirty metres away, I could make out a dark stain on the ground made by the sweat dripping from his brow.

A man's voice roared through the loudspeaker.

"Admit that you slept with the nurse!"

Luo's father hung his head, so low that his face seemed buried in the cement slab. A microphone was shoved under his mouth and a faint, tremulous "yes" was heard.

"Tell us what happened!" the inquisitor's voice barked from the loudspeaker. "Who started it?"

"I did."

"And then?"

A few seconds of silence ensued. Then the whole crowd screamed in unison: "And then?"

This cry, raised by two thousand voices, was like the rumble of thunder breaking over our heads.

"I started it . . . ," Luo's father confessed.

"Go on! The details!"

"But as soon as I touched her, I fell . . . into mist and clouds."

We left as the crowd of fanatics resumed their mass inquisition. On the way home I suddenly felt tears running down my cheeks, and I realised how fond I was of the dentist.

At that moment, without saying a word, Luo punched me. I was so taken aback that I nearly lost my balance.

In 1971 there was little to distinguish us two-one the son of a pulmonary specialist, the other the son of a notorious class enemy who had enjoyed the privilege of touching Mao's teeth-from the other hundred-odd "young intellectuals" who were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky. The name was a poetic way of suggesting its terrifying altitude; the poor sparrows and common birds of the plain could never soar to its peak, for that was the reserve of winged creatures allied to the sky: mighty, mythical and profoundly solitary.

There was no road to the mountain, only a narrow pathway threading steeply through great walls of craggy rock. For a glimpse of a car, the sound of a horn, a whiff of restaurant food, indeed for any sign of civilisation, you had to tramp across rugged mountain terrain for two days. A hundred kilometres later you would reach the banks of the River Ya and the small town of Yong Jing. The only Westerner ever to have set foot here was a French missionary, Father Michel, who tried to find a new route to Tibet in the 1940s.

"The district of Yong Jing is not lacking in interest," the Jesuit commented in his notebook. "One of the mountains, locally known as 'the Phoenix of the Sky,' is especially noteworthy. Famed for its copper, employed by the ancients for minting coins, the mountain is said to have been offered by an emperor of the Han dynasty as a gift to his favourite, who was one of the chief eunuchs in his palace. Looking up at the vertiginous slopes all around me, I could just make out a footpath rising from the shadowy fissures in the cliff towards the sky, where it seemed to melt into the misty air. I noted a small band of coolies making their way down this path, laden like beasts of burden with great panniers of copper tied to their backs. I am told that the production of copper has been in decline for many years, primarily due to the difficulty of transport. At present, the peculiar geographic conditions of the mountain have led the local population to grow opium. I have been advised against climbing it, as all the opium growers are armed. After harvesting their crop, they spend their time attacking anyone who happens to pass by. So I content myself with observing from afar this wild and lonely place, so thickly screened by giant trees, tangled creepers and lush vegetation as to make one expect to see a bandit leaping from the shadows at any moment."

The Phoenix of the Sky comprised some twenty villages scattered along the single serpentine footpath or hidden in the depths of gloomy valleys. Usually each village took in five or six young people from the city. But our village, perched on the summit and the poorest of them all, could only afford two: Luo and me. We were assigned quarters in the very house on stilts where the village headman had inspected my violin. This building was village property, and had not been constructed with habitation in mind. Underneath, in the space between the wooden props supporting the floor, was a pigsty occupied by a large, plump sow-likewise common property. The structure itself was made of rough wooden planks, the walls were unpainted and the beams exposed; it was more like a barn for the storage of maize, rice and tools in need of repair. It was also a perfect trysting place for adulterous lovers.


From the Hardcover edition.
Dai Sijie

About Dai Sijie

Dai Sijie - Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Photo © Jacques Sassier © Gallimard Editions

Dai Sijie is a Chinese-born filmmaker and novelist who has lived and worked in France since 1984. His first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, was an overnight sensation; it spent twenty-three weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Praise | Awards

Praise

“An unexpected miracle–a delicate, and often hilarious, tale.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A funny, touching, sly and altogether delightful novel . . . about the power of art to enlarge our imaginations.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Poetic and affecting. . . . The descriptions of life in this strangest of times and places are so riveting that the reader longs for more.” —The New York Times Book Review

“[A] thrilling and . . . truly great work. . . . [A] richly complex fable.” —San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

“Gives the rest of the world a glimpse into that dark place where the human spirit continues, against all odds, to shine its light.” —The Boston Globe

“A wonderful novel . . . formed by detailed layering and exquisite craftsmanship, like a beautifully tailored garment.” —The Chicago Tribune

“Poignant, humorous, and romantic.” —The New York Times

“Seduces readers into its world. . . . [A] very wise little story of love and illusion.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

Awards

WINNER New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“An unexpected miracle—a delicate, and often hilarious tale.” —LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie’s poignant tale of love, literature, and reeducation in the harsh world of Chairman Mao’s China.

About the Guide

In 1971, as Mao’s Cultural Revolution swept over China, shutting down universities and banishing “reactionary intellectuals” to the countryside, two teenage boys are sent to live on the remote and unforgiving mountain known as Phoenix in the Sky. Even though the knowledge the narrator and his best friend Luo had acquired in middle school was “precisely nil,” they are nevertheless considered dangerous intellectuals and forced to spend their days carrying buckets of excrement up and down the mountain to fertilize the fields. But when they bargain their way into obtaining a forbidden Balzac novel from their friend Four Eyes, a new and dizzyingly vast world opens up to them. Through Balzac, the narrator discovers “awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden” [p. 57]. And when Luo falls in love with the beautiful Little Seamstress, life and literature come together in a passionate romance. Luo and the narrator plot to steal Four Eyes’ suitcase full of books both for their own pleasure and to transform the seamstress from a simple peasant into a sophisticated woman. Their success in doing so, and the unexpected consequences that follow, drive the novel to its stunning, heart-wrenching conclusion.

Part historical novel, part fable, part love story, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a moving testament to the transformative power of literature.

About the Author

Born in China in 1954, Dai Sijie is a filmmaker who was reeducated during the Cultural Revolution. In 1984, he left China for France, where he has lived and worked ever since. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, his first novel, was an overnight sensation when it was published in France in 2000, becoming an immediate bestseller and winning five prizes. Rights to the novel have been sold in nineteen countries, and it is soon to be made into a film.

Discussion Guides

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? What does 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?

Suggested Readings

Honore de Balzac, Ursule Mirouet; Bei Dao, Blue House; Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai; Ha Jin, Waiting; Jian Ma, Red Dust: A Path Through China; Maurice J. Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic; Anchee Min, Red Azalea; Lulu Wang, The Lily Theater; Jan Wong, Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now; Rae Yang, Spider Eaters; Xiao Di Zhu, Thirty Years in a Red House: A Memoir of Childhood and Youth in Communist China.

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