At its most basic level, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the coming of age stories of Luo, the Little Seamstress, and the narrator. While the three engage in the perfectly normal process of testing boundaries and questioning the truth of what they've been taught by parents and the government, the particularly oppressive nature of the Cultural Revolution makes this process significantly more dangerous and high-stakes for them.
Because Luo and the narrator's parents have been labeled enemies of the state, the chances that Luo and the narrator will be allowed to return to their families is three in a thousand. This creates a great deal of anxiety for them around their coming of age, as their time on the mountain doesn't necessarily have an end date. The boys find themselves in a state of limbo, which leads them to grasp for ways to try to control their futures. As a violinist, the narrator knows that if he becomes accomplished enough, he could possibly have a future playing communist music. Luo, however, has no such talent to get him away from the mountain. Instead, he turns to romance with the Little Seamstress as preparation for the future, as the narrator indicates that Luo marrying the Little Seamstress is a distinct possibility. Luo views his secret rendezvous with the Little Seamstress as a mental and emotional escape. However, even though knowing he'll marry the Little Seamstress makes Luo slightly happier, it can’t replace the hurt of being denied the future he once thought he would have.
The narrator and Luo's coming of age begins to take off when they're introduced to the possibility of reading literature. The narrator tells the reader that all literature, western as well as Chinese, had been banned at the start of the Cultural Revolution. By the time he and Luo learned to read, the only thing to read was Mao's "Little Red Book." He describes the thought of literature as being intoxicating: just hearing about it is enough to conjure the idea perfectly in one's mine. All the novels in Four-Eyes' suitcase open the boys' eyes to the western world and to adult concepts like love and sex. Notably, Luo and the Little Seamstress have sex for the first time after Luo reads Balzac's Ursule Mirouët, which suggests that western literature paved the way for his and the Little Seamstress's sexual coming of age.
The narrator develops his own unique view on life and the world around him after reading the novel Jean-Christophe by Romain Rollande. Jean-Christophe is particularly intoxicating to the narrator because it features a character who takes "free individual action against the whole world"—an idea that goes against every communist teaching the narrator has ever heard. This leads the narrator to wish for something that is wholly his own, not something shared with Luo as most of their possessions are. This idea of independence as a marker for maturity applies to the Little Seamstress, as well. Thanks to what she learns from western literature via the narrator and Luo, she finds the power within herself to actually take individual action against the world by leaving the mountain and her lover behind. Though love, sex, and education are some of the first ways in which the characters begin their coming of age processes, the novel suggests that the final tipping point to maturity occurs when a character seeks independence as a consequence of what they've learned from love or literature.
Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Coming of Age Quotes in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
She's not civilized, at least not enough for me!
Just as your parents and mine always dreamed that we'd be doctors like them, Four-Eyes's parents probably wanted their son to be a writer. They must have thought it would be good for him to read books, even if he had to do so in secret.
In spite of my complete ignorance of that distant land called France (I had heard Napoleon mentioned by my father a few times, that was all), Ursule's story rang as true as if it had been about my neighbors.
The change he had undergone since receiving his mother's letter was truly remarkable. A few days before it would have been unthinkable for him to snap at us like this. I hadn't suspected that a tiny glimmer of hope for the future could transform someone so utterly.
But I shouldn't let it worry you too much. Right now, ignorance is in fashion, but one day the need for good doctors will be recognized once more. Besides, Chairman Mao is bound to need your father's services again.
"So are you weeping tears of joy?" I said.
"No. All I feel is loathing."
"Me too. Loathing for everyone who kept these books from us."
He shut the suitcase again and, resting one hand on the lid like a Christian taking a solemn oath, he declared: "With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She'll never be a simple mountain girl again."
But Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual.
Before, I had no idea that you could take on the role of a completely different person, actually become that person—a rich lady, for example—and still be your own self.
I couldn't resist taking slight liberties, adding bits here and there by way of a personal touch to make the story more interesting to her. When I felt good old Balzac was running out of steam I would contribute little inventions of my own, or even insert whole scenes from another novel.
Although illiterate, my tormenters, or rather the Little Seamstress's swarm of disappointed suitors, were flabbergasted by the sight of this recondite object: a book.
It was insane, but the bourgeois intellectuals upon which the Communists had inflicted so much hardship were no less morally strict than their persecutors.
I wondered what was making me chase Luo across this treacherous mountain slope? Was it friendship? Was it affection for his girlfriend? Or was I merely an onlooker anxious not to miss the ending of a drama?