Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Love, Liberation and Literature

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set in the early 1970's at the onset of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Universities have closed down, scholars were exiled or thrown in jail, and books, deemed dangerous, were confiscated and burned in city squares. Anti-intellectual ideas were at an all-time high and the regime had managed to overthrow modern thinking. Online history classes at online universities should be able to teach you more about the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

This novel by Dai Sijie is a story about two city-bred and educated teenage boys, 18-year-old Luo and the 17-year-old unnamed narrator of the story. Both were sent to be "re-educated" in an extremely remote mountain village called Phoenix of the Sky.

The rural community is made up of peasants, lowly farmers and merchants who were given the authority to teach and guide the boys away from bourgeois thinking. The two young men have noticed that the villager's ideas primarily based on their folklore and superstition, and what little the government feeds them. As the villagers sought to forcibly humble the teens' sophisticated ideals, they were given manual labor duties and other tasks that involves hard, distasteful and dreary daily chores involving fertilizing the farms with excrement and other wastes, and coal mining.

Life was pure drudgery and the only respite was a small stint watching films to be retold to the villagers. Other than that, it was back to the wastes and the coals for them. It was one fateful day that they meet a pretty and enchanting young girl, the daughter of a popular traveling tailor from another village. She was bright; had a sweet face and an engaging personality, and so it was not a surprise when Luo fell in love with her, though causing a minor rift between him and the narrator, who also found the girl to his liking.

It was at that time when they also met another young man being re-educated at another village, whom they befriended and called "Four-Eyes". The four have a complex relationship together, tight and bound as the spine of the prohibited books Four-Eyes was hiding from the entire village. These books were their ticket to rebel against and free themselves from the oppressive ideas of the government and the superstitious villagers. Luo stole the forbidden books to secretly educate the Little Seamstress. They pored over the contents of each bound books, read Hugo, Dickens, Romain Rolland, Dumas, and Tolstoy. The Little Seamstress focuses on these all new ideas and worlds that she was thinking and experiencing for the first time in her life.

Luo only wanted to introduce the Little Seamstress to a world where she has never stepped in before, through the trove of books. However, as the girl absorbs all the information she has begun to understand the world and her desires completely. Her transformation goes beyond what the two boys expected and the novel ends with the Little Seamstress leaving behind the entire village, the two heartbroken boys and all the backward ideas she grew up with. She fled the mountains as the power of these literature intoxicates and overwhelms her, but was the source of her freedom and liberation as the newfound ideas and ambition propels her to search of a different life for herself.

I was left hanging and astounded, but deep inside I've always believed that literature could literally transform a person and change his or her ideas in life. There's no more apt ending for this short but extremely wonderful novel full of the greatest literature in the world.


  1. Anonymous10:03:00 PM

    I loved this book so much! I watched an excerpt of the film at university, then saw and bought the book in French last time I was on the continent. It's such a fantastic story, and great for getting a little more insight into the modern history of China.

    Thanks so much for sharing Aicha, and, anyone else, you need to read this!

    Rosie of BooksAndBakes

  2. Aicha, Janice here! I read this book too. Fantastic story.