Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The village headman sits in the center of the house on stilts, inspecting the narrator's violin. The entire village looks on as the headman declares the violin a toy. The headman passes the violin to the villagers and deems it a "bourgeois toy," chilling the narrator and his friend, Luo. The room erupts with shouts to burn the violin, but Luo casually interjects that the violin is a musical instrument.
The narrator sets up first and foremost that there are major differences between himself and the villagers. While the narrator and Luo have been educated and exposed to culture (shown by the violin), the headman and the other villagers have spent their whole lives in the village.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
Friendship and Loyalty Theme Icon
The headman passes the violin back to the narrator as Luo explains that the narrator is going to play a Mozart sonata. The narrator is terrified—all music by western composers has been banned for years. The headman asks what the song is called, and Luo says the song is called "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao." The headman says that Mozart is always thinking of Chairman Mao, and Luo agrees. The narrator begins to play, and the villagers listen attentively. Luo lights a cigarette.
The success of Luo's trick comes from the fact that the headman doesn't know who or what Mozart is, despite the fact that the headman is charged with the re-education of Luo and the narrator. The villagers' reaction to hearing Mozart is the novel's first suggestion that art (including music and literature) is universally appealing.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
Storytelling, Censorship, and Power Theme Icon
The narrator addresses the reader and explains that in 1968, Chairman Mao began a campaign to close universities and send the "young intellectuals" to the countryside for re-education by the peasants. He continues that Mao's motives were unclear, but that the narrator and Luo decided that Mao simply hated intellectuals. However, the fact that the narrator and Luo are considered intellectuals is ironic, given that they've only completed middle school by the time they're sent to the mountain in 1971. The narrator says that even in middle school, he and Luo learned nothing, as the official curriculum consisted solely of lessons on industry and agriculture. All books aside from Mao's Little Red Book were forbidden.
Chinese society and culture are stifled at this point in history. Communism venerates the poor peasant as the ideal, and education stands in direct opposition to this ideal. Notice that the narrator states that he's learned nothing, even when he's spent several years presumably learning about industry and agriculture. This continues to develop the sense of the cultural divide between the narrator and the villagers, and shows how little the narrator thinks of Mao's goals.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Storytelling, Censorship, and Power Theme Icon
Luo and the narrator were deemed intellectuals because their parents had been labeled "enemies of the state." The narrator's parents were doctors; Luo's father was a famous dentist who claimed to have performed dental work on Mao, Mao's wife, and Jiang Jieshi, the prior president of China. Claiming to have worked on Mao's teeth was already a crime; saying in the same sentence that he'd worked on Jiang Jieshi's teeth only compounded the severity of the crime.
Mao's power came in part from his cult of personality, which raised him up to the level of a national hero. Because of this, an admission that Mao experiences dental issues like everyone else is damaging. Noting that both the country's "hero" and its worst enemy both have dental problems (and see the same dentist) does even more to break down Mao’s persona.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
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The narrator says that he and Luo grew up in apartments next to each other and were best friends. Luo only hit the narrator once, in 1968. A political rally was happening, and the dentist was going to be publically humiliated. Luo and the narrator ventured to the rally, where they saw the dentist on his hands and knees, wearing a heavy cement sign around his neck bearing his name and the word "reactionary." A man, speaking angrily over a loudspeaker, interrogated the dentist about sleeping with a nurse. The narrator began to cry, and Luo punched him.
Much of the Cultural Revolution consisted of public humiliations like what the dentist experienced. While the narrator only experiences an emotional reaction and feels helpless to do anything, Luo feels emotion and takes (misguided and violent) action. This shows that even as young teenagers, Luo is already more developed and mature, and therefore more willing to take action.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Friendship and Loyalty Theme Icon