Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress takes place during China's "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside" movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which sought to "re-educate" young intellectuals by removing them from their urban homes and sending them to rural areas to work and learn from the peasants. The narrator states that Chairman Mao Zedong's reasons for sending Chinese youth to the countryside were somewhat unclear, as individuals like Luo and the narrator, whom the Chinese government classified as "intellectuals," weren't intellectuals by any stretch of the imagination—they had actually only completed a middle school education. With this cruel irony front and center, the novel sets out to explore what education means when knowledge itself is stifled, and what the consequences are of trying to mandate how individuals and populations behave and think.
The peasants in charge of Luo and the narrator's re-education are mostly illiterate. They live simple lives and perform backbreaking work; in short, they are exactly what the communist regime wants the population to be like. Though Luo is obviously against the government's idea of re-education, he wishes to perform his own brand of re-education on the Little Seamstress and transform her from a beautiful but simple country girl into a cultured young woman worthy of his affections. This, of course, backfires when the Little Seamstress takes what she's learned from hearing Luo and the narrator read Balzac to her and decides to leave the mountain and Luo behind. The Little Seamstress undergoes the exact opposite of the government's idea of re-education, as do Luo and the narrator. Their exposure to banned Western literature provides them with ideas and goals that run completely counter to the communist project of the country.
Though the narrator, Luo, and Four-Eyes are the only official recipients of re-education in the novel, the narrator continues to suggest that the idea of re-education isn't unique to them. The entire mountain is in the process of its own form of re-education, as it once thrived on the opium trade and, thanks to the Cultural Revolution, is now forced to embrace the idealized life of the poor, noble peasant. While the narrator doesn't go into great detail about what the villagers' lives were like before the Cultural Revolution, he suggests that they weren't thrilled to switch from cultivating opium to other crops. The villagers never fully bought into the ideals espoused by the government, as illustrated by their "quiet anarchy" when the village headman leaves for a month. Though the headman's motives aren't detailed, it's suggested that he cares more about maintaining and exerting his power than about either opium or enforcing communism in his village. Essentially, he doesn't seem to care where his power comes from; he just cares that he has it. This shows that the images of both re-education and the "noble peasant" are just that: images, not actual reality. The villagers, and the headman in particular, seem far more committed to obtaining and keeping power than they are to ideals espoused by the government. Though the Cultural Revolution was intended to shape the Chinese way of life by educating or re-educating citizens to fit a certain ideal, the novel suggests that attempting to shape people to embody a particular vision is a difficult or impossible task, and that controlling what happens as a result of another person's education is equally impossible.
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution ThemeTracker
Education, Re-Education, and the Cultural Revolution Quotes in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
The peasants' faces, so grim a moment before, softened under the influence of Mozart's limpid music like parched earth under a shower, and then, in the dancing light of the oil lamp, they blurred into one.
The sheer audacity of our trick did a lot to temper our resentment against the former opium growers who, now that they had been converted into "poor peasants" by the communist regime, were in charge of our re-education.
All this talk of literature was getting me down. We had been so unlucky. By the time we had finally learnt to read properly, there had been nothing left for us to read. For years the "Western literature" sections of the bookshops were devoted to the complete works of the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha...
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.
"This fellow Balzac is a wizard," he went on. "He touched the head of the mountain girl with an invisible finger, and she was transformed ... She ended up putting your wretched coat on (which looked very good on her, I must say). She said having Balzac's words next to her skin made her feel good, and also more intelligent."
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."
In the ensuing political vacuum our village lapsed into quiet anarchy, and Luo and I stopped going to work in the fields without the villagers—themselves unwilling converts from opium farmers to guardians of our souls—raising the slightest objection.
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.
It was not long before I took it upon myself, out of a sense of courtesy and respect for womanhood that I had learned from Balzac, to relieve the Little Seamstress of her laundering duties...
There was nowhere for them to go, for there was no conceivable place where a Romeo and his pregnant Juliet might elude the long arm of the law, nor indeed where they might live the life of Robinson Crusoe attended by a secret agent turned Man Friday.
It was insane, but the bourgeois intellectuals upon which the Communists had inflicted so much hardship were no less morally strict than their persecutors.