Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress

Enchanted by the movie, I searched for a used copy of the book for about half a year. In my impatience, I finally bought the paperback edition new from Amazon. When it arrived, I read it in a night. After all my anticipation, I felt a little let down. The book is slight. In fact, without the movie to provide detail and context, it would not have had much of an effect on me.

Set in early 1970s China, the novel with some autobiographical elements is about two first loves intertwined: the discovery of the opposite sex and the discovery of literature. Two city boys are sent to the peasant countryside to be reeducated. Reeducation consists primarily of carrying manures and night soil to the fields or working in the coal mine. Their parents are professionals and have been condemned as class enemies of the state. The boys, however, prove to be just boys. The story does not focus on history, politics, or even much of the privation of rural life. Instead, the boys fall under the spell of illicit foreign literature and the charms of the little Chinese seamstress. The narrator’s friend has an affair with her. He seduces her with stories of faraway places and hopes to raise her to his intellectual level so that she can be a suitable mate. He succeeds too well. Once the little Chinese seamstress tastes of the fruit of the tree of knowledge…

Perhaps the point of the story is that even a terrible experience like Mao’s reeducation experiment can be tinged with the nostalgia and bittersweet memories of first love. Overall I was much more affected by Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans. She, too was from Chengdu and sent to the mountains for reeducation. No nostalgia there. Is this the unbridgeable difference between men and women? Women endure suffering. Men escape it via sex and books.

My comparison is unfair. Dai Sijie has said the point of his book is to show the power of literature, and was not intended to be a critique of history of politics. I feel the movie succeeds in this even more than the book. Because of it, Balzac’s Cousin Bette is next on my reading list.

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