Written by Dai Sijie, Balzac and The Little Chinese is a novel about two teenage boys sent to the countryside by the communist government during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The two protagonists, Luo and our unnamed narrator, are sent to a mountain near Tibet called, “Phoenix of the Sky”, where they have been assigned to work the coal mines and participate in rice cultivation as part of their re-education. They are assigned to re-education because their parents have been declared enemies of the state as intellectuals. Both Luo and the narrator happen to fall in love with the same young girl who happens to be the daughter of the town’s tailor, making her The Little Seamstress. She is considered to be the areas resident beauty and both boys are quickly smitten.
The two boys, sent for re-education because of their parent’s status as intellectuals, ironically achieve a special status in the community thanks to their upbringing. They are well versed in classic literature and having grown up in the city, they have seen movies. They retell stories from their literary and movie repertoire to the townspeople who quickly fall in love with them. They especially enjoy Luo’s stories as he is considered to be quite the talented orator. They two boys are even given special leave from their work to see films at a nearby town so that they can retell them later to the townspeople in a process called “oral cinema”.
As the story continues, you see that Luo wins the minor romantic rivalry between the boys. I always got the feeling that their friendship was rather one sided, with Luo being the dominant friend and our narrator being a bit of a sidekick. Luo is the talented orator that everyone really likes. He has a larger personality and presence about him. Our narrator is a somewhat forgettable friend. In that way, the novel is similar to another of my favorites, The Great Gatsby. In the end, I felt extremely sorry for the narrators of both stories. They are like bystanders to the more substantial, meaningful, and eventful lives of another.
Just like The Great Gatsby, the narrator of Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress, finds himself in the middle of a romantic relationship involving two people he loves. Our narrator cares for The Little Seamstress, both as a friend and romantically. However, Luo wins both her attention and her virginity. When Luo is given a pass to return home so that he can tend to his sick mother, The Little Chinese Seamstress finds out that she is pregnant. Because both she, and Luo are too young to get married and having children out of wedlock is not permitted, The Little Chinese Seamstress is forced to get a secret abortion which our narrator finds himself having to set up. He finds a doctor who trades his services for an illegal foreign book. That book is Ursule Mirouet, written by Balzac. When Luo returns to the town three months later, he and the Little Seamstress continue their relationship. Luo and the narrator have introduced her to the world of literature. And through them, the Little Seamstress learns about the outside world via books that they borrow from their friend “Four Eyes” who is also being re-educated. Eventually, the Little Seamstress quietly leaves the mountain and her rural life to start a new one in the city, spurred to move by the forbidden books that Luo and the narrator introduced her to. At the end of the book, you see a drunk Luo, burning all of the forbidden books. As he realizes that it was those vary books that instigated her departure.
I love this book because the story reads perfectly on multiple levels for all of the characters. It is a metaphor for the ideas of the Cultural Revolution in China. It is a coming of age story. It is a story of love and loss. It is a tale of friendship. It is a story of a young women’s empowerment through literature. It is the story of people’s empowerment through education. It both affirms an understanding of why Mao and the Communist Party wanted to re-educate the youth, while simultaneously affirming the inherent flaws in that vary idea itself.
The part that I love so much is Luo’s reaction to The Little Seamstress leaving. He realizes that it was him teaching her literature that spurred her to leave and see more of the world. However, it was literature that allowed him to garner her favor and time in the first place. In that way, him helping to educate her was a double edge sword. And in the end, he reacted just like Mao. He got drunk to dull his senses, and burned the books that set free the person he wanted most. In a way, it was as if he came to understand Mao’s rationale.