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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was hardly a laugh a minute, but the semi-autobiographical Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, is surprisingly buoyant and humorous in tone. This seems to be the spirit of Asia. At times of hardship and difficult times, Asians move on to toil and sweat in the hope to alleviate themselves from poverty or ascend to prosperity, along the way turn life of hardship to a material of jest. There is even a Chinese saying, “bitter laugh” ku shio, a smile or laugh amidst misery experienced.

The story is told in the eyes of Ma. Two young intellectual city youth, Luo, 17, and the narrator Ma (it is not mentioned in the book but in the movie the second youth is named Ma),16. In 1971, they are sent to a village in the Phoenix Mountains in the province of Szechuan in 1971 to undergo ‘re-education’ according to the edicts of Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution for being the sons of class enemies. Ma, the son of a poet and writer, is a scholar and an accomplished violinist, quiet, studious and pensive. Luo, the son of an exiled dentist, is the more cheeky and gregarious of the two.

I read many experiences of Chinese bourgeois who has been cast away to the countryside, but none as poignant as sad as this one. Perhaps it is an autobiographical account of Dai Sijie that makes it real for me. The two teenagers re-education involves carrying buckets of excrement up precipitous slopes and digging for coal in hand-hewn mines, all of which are hazardous and Lou feels that he will not come out this experience alive. Lou is right to think like this, because only 3 out of 1000 re-educated person are allowed to go back to the city. One such person who is faced with this positive prospect is Four-eyed (a Chinese nick for someone who wore glasses), who lives in neighbouring village. His mother has thought up a plan for Four-eyed to gather a sample of folk songs from the minority tribes of China and present the opportunity to go back to the city to present this collection for Mao’s propaganda and promotion of a united China, instead Four-eyed failed in the mission and came back from the mountains full of fleas on his back and it up to Ma and Luo who will help complete this mission but for an exchange of Four-eyed hidden suitcase of ‘forbidden’ 19th century Western literatures.

This suitcase was stocked full of wonderful literatures, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Dumas, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy.. ….. that the boys wanted to get their hands on. Meanwhile, Ma and Luo are infatuated with the local tailor’s beautiful daughter. For the youth, it takes only a few paragraphs of Balzac and the beautiful Chinese Little Seamstress to transform a world of fog and rain into glorious Technicolor.

I didn’t expect the book to make me laugh. Every short chapter offers a thought provoking incidents of nonsensical existence of re-education, of the hypocrisy of the communist propaganda and the love and infatuation of youth. Another thing I wasn’t prepared for is the abrupt ending of the book. It ended with untied loose ends and I’m not quite sure what to feel.

The teenagers experience their first taste of love and passion, but as Chairman Mao knew, knowledge is a dangerous thing. Luo’s determination to educate his little seamstress by reading to her unwittingly gives her the keys to her own freedom. Infused with the magic and spark of myth and fable, Sijie reminds us how precious intellectual liberty is. Perhaps that is my main take-away from the book, i.e. how fortunate we are to have access to such abundance of intellectual materials in this information age that I can’t imagine how one would ever live if the government decide to deprive the citizen of it. An inspiring 172-page read.


Paperback. Publisher: Vintage East 2006, originally published 2000; Length: 172 pages; Setting: A remote village in Sze Chuan, China.  Source: Library copy. Finished reading at: 5th February 2012.

Note: This is the first book I read in February and was hoping for a chance to watch the movie to include the review. I think I’m not getting it in time after February, hence the review as it is. 🙂

Other views:

Things Asian.com: Although the story is essentially tragic, its pathos is punctuated with episodes of wry humour and comic irony.

Wilfrid Wong: During my reading, I was so absorbed into the characters and the story not wanting this 172-page novel to end.  I was expecting a political heavy novel but it is not.  Instead, it is engaging, humorous, and there are enough twists to make the plot unexpected.

Q8bookers: Even though the story is fictional, the reference to the Chinese Cultural Revolution is clear and alive, and turns the story believable.

Did I miss your review? Have you read the book before? If No, would you like to read it?

About the writer:

Dai Sijie (Chinese: 戴思杰, pinyin: Dài Sījié; born 1954) is a French author and filmmaker. Because he came from an educated middle-class family, the Maoist government sent him to a reeducation camp in rural Sichuan from 1971 to 1974, during the Cultural Revolution. After his return, he was able to complete high school and university, where he studied art history. In 1984, he left China for France on a scholarship. There, he acquired a passion for movies and became a director. Before turning to writing, he made three critically acclaimed feature-length films: China, My Sorrow (1989) (original title: Chine, ma douleur), Le mangeur de lune and Tang, le onzième. He also wrote and directed an adaptation of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, released in 2002. He lives in Paris and writes in French. A novel, Par une nuit où la lune ne s’est pas levée (Once on a moonless night), appeared in 2007.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


15 thoughts on “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

  1. Wow. This seems like the kind of book that I would love to read as well Jo! A book that makes me laugh – I would give a right arm, and a left arm for that (since I am left-handed lol!).

    I loved the Chinese expression – ku xiao that you used. Bitter laugh – it doesn’t translate well into English, but it really does show sometimes the spirit of Asia that has always fascinated me.

    I had heard of this book for so long, but I had resisted picking it up – reading your review, perhaps I can do with a bitter laugh or two! 🙂

    Posted by Soulmuser | February 26, 2012, 8:42 am
    • Soul,
      I think you will like this book. It’s a thin book and it won’t take long for you to finish it but I think it is very entertaining and thought provoking. and Yes, I think at times it is better to bitter laugh it off about life! lol 😀

      Posted by JoV | February 27, 2012, 2:29 pm
  2. I did like the autobiographical elements of this book but unlike you, I didn’t really connect with the characters so didn’t care what happened to them. I’m glad you enjoyed it more than I did…

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | February 26, 2012, 6:56 pm
  3. I read this book a couple of years ago and I really liked it a lot-it was so much fun to see the young men and the seamstress discovering the great European novels-I enjoyed recalling it through your very good post

    Posted by mel u | February 27, 2012, 4:12 am
  4. You are reading some really good books lately. The members of my book club read this on the side once, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to join them. They all liked it quite a bit.

    Posted by Ti | February 29, 2012, 4:44 pm
  5. this is another I have on my tbr pile Jov I m not read enough chinese fiction still waiting for books to kick the passion for it I ve read tfour and only ma jin book is the one I liked ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | March 7, 2012, 5:26 pm
  6. Thanks for the review and link!

    Your write-up brings back sweet memory of I reading the book. I even remember where I read it and in what circumstances (Bandung). I love that book. It just seems so … original.

    Posted by Wilfrid | March 8, 2012, 12:15 am
    • Wilfrid,
      It does feel original because it is the author’s personal experience? I like it too but I must say I don’t like the ending. But now that I look back I think the ending serves a bigger purpose, hence it’s necessary. Bandung = Balzac, not bad an association!

      Posted by JoV | March 8, 2012, 7:25 pm
  7. I have seen the movie and liked it a lot. The film also manages to balance fun, humour and love amidst the oppression surrounding the villagers. Particularly memorable was the violin scene. In a way, it is representative of the story’s wit.

    Posted by Marcus Clearspring | April 15, 2012, 11:05 pm
    • Marcus,
      Thanks for your first comment. I like the film a lot too. I like the farewell scene and it seems as if our little Seamtress was walking on a narrow lane towards the edge of the mountain.

      Posted by JoV | April 16, 2012, 8:31 am


  1. Pingback: February 2012 : Wrap-up « JoV's Book Pyramid - March 11, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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