Review: ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

by Dai Sijie

  • Date finished: April 8
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2000
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2013,
  • Grade: B+
  • Thoughts upon finishing: 

Being a booknerd and former English major, I tend to know what I’m getting myself into every time I read a new book. And so it’s always a pleasant surprise whenever I read something totally unexpected and wonderful.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the story of two Chinese teenagers during the Mao years who are sent to the mountains to be “re-educated” because their parents are enemies of the Communist regime. While there, they discover an illicit trunk full of Western novels – a discovery that will change their life.

Kind of like Reading Lolita in Tehran, I like these stories because they illustrate the overwhelming power of literature as a force for good (kind of like a superhero!), regardless of the reader and their circumstances. Luo and the unnamed narrator (the novel is semi-autobiographical) have never encountered authors like Balzac or Victor Hugo before, much less anything from the United States. Not to sound cliche,  but the stories they find free them – perhaps not physically, but mentally they’re able to escape and dream of other worlds, other lives

The book is a slim one, and there’s a certain love triangle happening involving a beautiful seamstress they meet on the mountain. But I think the strength of the book really lies in what it says about literature and education. There’s room for critique: does the boys’ discovery mean that Western literature and culture is superior to the regressive Eastern world? I would say that Sijie (who was also re-educated in the 70’s but escaped to live out his life in France) would agree with that, in part. And I’m sure proponents of Eastern literature would find fault with that assessment. But then, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is also a reactionary novel based on the political environment of the time, and is a strong (and in my opinion, valid) argument against the cultural censoring powers that still govern China. 

Regardless of the politics, I would give this book to anyone who doesn’t believe books matter. Because they do.


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