In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie two young boys, the narrator age 17, and Luo, age 18, are sent to a remote village in the mountainous Szechuan region of China in the 1970’s as part of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution of China vilified intellectuals. Schools were closed and many of the educated-class were imprisioned or sent to live in the country for hard manual labor and re-education by the peasant-class. The two exiled friends meet the Little Seamstress, a young illiterate peasant girl, and, ironically, discover a secret cache of Western literature, which has a profound affect on both boys and the Little Seamstress.
From the Publisher
At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin—as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.
But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.
From within the hopelessness and terror of one of the darkest passages in human history, Dai Sijie has fashioned a beguiling and unexpected story about the resilience of the human spirit, the wonder of romantic awakening and the magical power of storytelling.
Book Club Party Ideas for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
An excellent choice for music is Chinese Violin Compositions: Pastoral Song. The violin helped keep the boys connected, although tenuously, to the world from which they were exiled.
Book Club Menu for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
As a huge Chinese food fan, I had a great time preparing the menu and shopping for my ingredients. There are four major regional cuisines of China: north, south, east & west. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set in the western mountainous region of Szechuan. (The Szechuan region is actually closer to Tibet than to Bejing.) Szechuan cuisine is notably spicy and hot. The Szechuan chilis are used to clean the palate and to cope with the hot, humid climate of the Szechuan region. (FYI: hot foods cool down the body!)
Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
I also made sure I had plenty of Huy Fong – Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce for some extra bang.
The Chinese just don’t have western-style desserts as part of the traditional Chinese meal. The Chinese Almond Cookie (from what I’ve read) is an American invention, like the fortune cookie, but I just had to bake something and these cookies are delicious!
For more information on Szechuan cooking or to try other recipes, I recommend the following books: The Good Food of Szechwan and Chinese Szechuan Cooking (Cooking for Today Series).
Book Club Resources for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
- “Poetic and affecting. . . . The descriptions of life in this strangest of times and places are so riveting that the reader longs for more.” – The New York Times Book Review
- “A wonderful novel . . . formed by detailed layering and exquisite craftsmanship, like a beautifully tailored garment.” – The Chicago Tribune
- “Gives the rest of the world a glimpse into that dark place where the human spirit continues, against all odds, to shine its light.” – The Boston Globe
- “An unexpected miracle–a delicate, and often hilarious, tale.” – Los Angeles Times Book Review
Discussion Questions for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
- Discuss the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao and how can citizens, such as the Narrator’s and Luo’s parents, be labeled “enemies of the people”?
- Compare and contrast the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to what is occurring in many extremist Muslim nations today. In what ways are traditions and religious beliefs enforced?
- Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is also a young adult, coming-of-age novel. How does the narrator, Luo, and the Little Seamstress grow and change by their experiences?
- Discuss the narrator’s strong reaction to the burning of Four Eye’s novels by Luo.
- What did you think of the Little Seamstress’ decision at the end of the novel? Did you find her decision to be ironic and contrary to Luo’s intentions to “transform the Little Seamstress”?
|Dai Sinjie was born in China in 1954 and has first hand experience of the Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He was sent to rural Sichuan for three years in the early seventies for reeducation. His novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is a semi-autobiographical account of his own reeducation experience. In addition to being a novelist, Sinjie is also a film director. He currently lives in France.|
Personal Insights, Favorite Quotes, etc…
Storytelling was an integral element in Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress and I was reminded of a book of Chinese fables I had as a child. I have no idea what happened to the book of my childhood, but found this wonderful book Ho Yi the Archer and Other Classic Chinese Tales to add to my library and to share with my friends.
Further information on Chairman Mao Zedong and The Chinese Cultural Revolution can be found here.
And, to learn a bit about the French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac, click here.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“Every nook and cranny of the land came under the all-seeing eye of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had cast its gigantic, fine-meshed net over the whole of China.”
“She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.”