Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Jun 20, 2011

This book takes place in the 1970s in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  The main protagonists are two boys who grew up in an intellectual family background, and for this reason were exiled to a very rural countryside to be “re-educated.” Their re-education equals mainly hard and demeaning labor. One of the boys is a violin virtuoso and is not allowed to play an instrument considered to spread western propaganda.

The boys tried to support each other and deal with their current life’s circumstances.  During their stay in the village, they meet a beautiful but plain and naive seamstress.  Originally intended as a distraction from their everyday life, they took on a “my fair lady” project to educate and civilize her. They teach her a proper language and introduce her to western literature and philosophy. The boys read to the seamstress forbidden foreign books they found hidden since such literature was illegal.

To entertain the villages and to continue his violin practice, the violin player boy created a disguise. He cleverly told the village’s political chief that “Mozart and Bach wrote music to celebrate the chairman Mao.”   They told the villagers stories from the world of literature and played violin music as an evening of entertainment.  The seamstress, being exposed to all different lifestyles, awakens to the world beyond her horizons and is transformed.  Knowing her new life choices and possibilities, while quoting Balzac, the little seamstress left the village for the pursuit of a better life in the city.

The book ends several decades later. The boys became grown men and successful professionals, a violin player and a dentist. They watched on TV as the whole valley with the enchanted ancient villages was being flooded to build an electrical dam, which was another cultural tragedy in the making.

All three main characters are very well developed. The book has some humorous parts. This easy read is intended for all audiences interested in an insight into the life of communist China, which at the time was striving to achieve a classless society.

Reviewed by Library Staff