Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
Posted March 18, 2016on:
Set in China and based on adolescent experiences, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a critically-acclaimed young adult novel by Dai Sajie. It is about two older teenagers who are, during Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, exiled to the countryside for reeducation. My husband and I both read this book. We found the plot episodic, while at the same time we enjoyed the exposure to a culture different from our own Western one.
When I looked up the term reeducation, I found it defined as the effort to rehabilitate or reform, sometimes against an individual’s will. In the case of the latter, I also discovered that reeducation camps were initially the title given to the prison camps operated by the Communist government of Vietnam following the end of the Vietnam War, but then also later were used to describe prison camps operated by China to reform revolutionists. In reeducation camps, prisoners were often provided with only minimal food and medical care. In addition, the emphasis seemed to be on overturning the social order or by forcing the wealthy to perform physical and often dangerous labor. Finally, attempts were made to control even the thoughts of prisoners by disallowing books, songs, and other such entertainment of former governments.
All of the above held true in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. The two older boys, guilty of being sons of doctors, were exiled to a remote village on Phoenix Mountain. The only access to the mountain is a narrow pathway “threading steeply through great walls of craggy rock”. Their accommodations consist of an almost entirely unfurnished house on stilts. In the village, they’re sentenced to work at various physical pursuits, including carrying buckets of excrement on their backs, working in the coal mines, and laboring in the fields. While cigarettes are readily available, little else seems to be. At one point, the narrator’s best friend almost dies of malaria, until finally a remedy is found in a local plant. For all their restrictions, our two heroes do have access to a violin and to films—and later even books that they keep well-hidden but use as a source for telling stories for entertainment. Dai Sijee has created a world that no doubt was overly familiar to him, but will feel unique to many of his readers.
While my husband and I read Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress with fascination, at the same we felt disappointed at the episodic and, at times, confusing plot. For example, while the pathway to the mountain was portrayed as being a life-or-death road for our heroes, visitors seemed to maneuver it with ease. Then there are the coal mines to which they were sentenced. At one moment their seamstress friend is requesting their presence, as a way to help them escape endless torture, and the next they’re spending time in the fields with a fellow prisoner. Much later in the novel, the narrator evokes the jealousy of peasants who live in the same village as the seamstress. He flees, barely getting out alive. In his haste, he even allows a book to drop and exposes himself to potential charges. But the next day he’s back with the seamstress, and it’s as if nothing bad had ever happened. There are too many loose ends or unresolved scenarios, even in the conclusion, for either my husband or me to feel completely satisfied with our read.
For the past couple of years, my husband and I have tried to pick a book that we’ll both read and discuss. We use lists of best-sellers and award-winners to make our selection. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstressis a somewhat engaging and informative read about reeducation in Communist China. However, mature subject matter makes it largely inappropriate for young people, while adults may find themselves wishing more from the details and plot. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress won’t make the list of our favorite books.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?