Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

by

Dai Sijie

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress can help.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator describes what it's like to work in "the little coal mine." He and Luo work together, naked and covered in coal dust, to haul baskets of coal from deep in the tunnel to a pile outside. He explains that, though copper mining has declined in the area, coal mining exists still on a small scale. The mines are owned collectively by everyone on the mountain, and all the youths undergoing re-education must work two-month stints in the mine. The narrator says that he and Luo didn't know that the mines would have such an effect on their lives—he says that hearing "the little coal mine" today, as an adult, gives him shivers.
Though the Cultural Revolution's policies ended in the late 1970s, the narrator's experience in the coal mine shows that the Revolution had lasting effects on the population, even if it didn't fully accomplish its goals. This suggests that the period of re-education was a damaging one, not an enlightening one as the government hoped it would be.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Luo and the narrator work in constant fear that they won't make it out of the mine alive. There are no safety measures in the mines, and the peasants who work there love to tell tales of fatal mine accidents. The narrator describes his visions of dying in the mine while he works, and at one point, he hears someone sobbing in the tunnel and knows it's Luo.
Though the mountain itself is dangerous and represents an escapable situation, the mine crystallizes Luo's and the narrator's fears that they won't leave the mountain alive, or ever: they may never have the opportunity to truly grow up.
Themes
Coming of Age Theme Icon
When Luo and the narrator have been working in the mine for six weeks, Luo contracts malaria. He feels cold and begins to hallucinate. The other miners laugh and discuss what to do. One man fetches willow and peach branches, strips Luo's clothing, and begins to whip his bare back to drive out the illness. Luo appears to barely feel the blows. When the man whipping Luo grows tired, he passes the branches to the narrator. Luo instructs the narrator to continue the whipping.
Remember that the narrator's parents are both doctors—this traditional remedy surely seems not just ineffective, but also wholly barbaric to the narrator. When the narrator is handed the branches, he's forced to consider what his loyalty to Luo truly means. Luo is lucid enough to go along with the whipping, but the narrator is confronted with the uncomfortably different customs of the mountain.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
Friendship and Loyalty Theme Icon
The narrator attempts to light a cigarette for Luo, but Luo says the cigarette is too heavy and drops it. When the narrator leans to pick it up, he sees a letter addressed to Luo. The narrator opens it and reads the note from the Little Seamstress. She explains that the headman of her village has agreed to host Luo and the narrator so they can recite a film and have a reprieve from the mine. She includes a postscript that says she's been disappointed to come across others who have long second toes.
The Little Seamstress saves Luo from further pain with her letter. The reader gets to see that she can indeed write; she's just not at the educational level of Luo and the narrator. The Seamstress's headman's offer shows that all the villages on the mountain likely value storytelling, and further that they're interested in stories from films and urban sources.
Themes
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Theme Icon
Storytelling, Censorship, and Power Theme Icon
Get the entire Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress LitChart as a printable PDF.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress PDF