Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


Dai Sijie

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Dai Sijie

Dai Sijie's parents were medical professionals in Sichuan Province. As an only child, Dai would've been excused from Mao's "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside" program, which sought to "re-educate" young students by sending them to work and learn from the rural peasants. Dai chose to participate, however, and he cites the allure of rigorous training as his reasoning. His experience being sent to live among peasants during the Cultural Revolution was the inspiration for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which is semi-autobiographical. After returning from his re-education, he taught high school in Chengdu and studied art history at Sichuan University before receiving a scholarship in 1984 to study film in France. In France, he directed several films before turning to writing. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was his first novel, and it won five French literary awards. It has been translated into 25 languages as of 2017. Dai lives in Paris and writes primarily in French, though he does possess a Chinese passport and can travel to and from China freely.
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Historical Context of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Chairman Mao Zedong began the Cultural Revolution in 1966 with the intent to assert communism as the primary ideology of China, while doing away with anything western or traditional. Within months, schools were closed and students at Tsinghua University Middle School formed the first Red Guard group in support of Mao and his goals. Mao voiced support for the group, giving it legitimacy, and more Red Guard groups sprang up across the country with the goal of "making China red (Communist) from the inside out." These groups destroyed a number of historical and cultural sites and artifacts, including the gravesite of Confucius, and they burned entire libraries. Two years later, Mao began to disband the Red Guard and instead started the "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement." While one of this movement's primary goals was to dilute the Red Guard's power by getting them out of the cities, individuals like Luo and the narrator (who weren't Red Guard members) suffered greatly as a result. Though the government considered them to be intellectuals, most of the young "intellectuals" sent to the countryside were too young to be truly well-educated. These dislocated youth were allowed to return home in the late 1970s. Though Mao declared that the Cultural Revolution ended in 1969, its policies continued for several years. Reformers began to dismantle the policies in 1976.

Other Books Related to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an example of scar literature, a Chinese literary movement that developed after Mao Zedong's death in 1976. Its name comes from the 1978 short story "The Scar" by Lu Xinhua. The genre consists of the stories of those "intellectuals" who were re-educated during the Cultural Revolution, and much of the work is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. A notable example of scar literature is the autobiography Mao's Last Dancer (2003) by Li Cunxin, an Australian ballet dancer who was originally educated in the early 1970s in a Chinese dance academy. Literature is centrally important to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and most of the novels that Luo and the narrator find in Four-Eyes' suitcase are classic French works from the 19th century. Honoré de Balzac's novels Ursule Mirouët, Cousin Pons, and Père Goriot belong to his 94-part series La Comédie humain. Though La Comédie humain's female characters run the gamut from prostitutes to virtuous wives, Ursule Mirouët, in particular, is one of the series' most virtuous heroines. The narrator's favorite novel from the suitcase, Jean-Christophe, is the first of a four-volume series by Romain Rollande. Of course, in the world of Dai’s novel, all of these books are forbidden due to censorship by the Chinese government. A number of other novels from around the world similarly explore the consequences of censorship, ranging from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 to Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Though Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is infinitely more fantastical than Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, it too tackles the relationship between Communism and censorship.
Key Facts about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
  • Full Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (originally published in French as Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise)
  • When Written: late 1990s
  • Where Written: France
  • When Published: 2000 in France; first English publication in 2001
  • Literary Period: Contemporary, Post-Tiananmen
  • Genre: Semi-Autobiographical; Historical Fiction; Scar Literature
  • Setting: Phoenix of the Sky mountain in Sichuan province, China, 1972-73
  • Climax: When the Little Seamstress leaves the mountain for the city
  • Antagonist: Chairman Mao and his oppressive communist government; the village headman
  • Point of View: First person, narrated by the unnamed narrator. There are short interludes narrated by the Little Seamstress, Luo, and the miller.

Extra Credit for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Film Censorship. Dai Sijie directed the 2002 film version of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress himself. Though the Chinese government granted Dai permission to film near where he himself was re-educated, China banned the finished film from being screened in the country.