The Cultural Revolution sought to eliminate any kind of art, music, or literature that didn't fully support the political aims of the government. The narrator says that both western and classic Chinese literature are banned, and some works of music have been altered to pay homage to Mao. With this backdrop, the novel explores how storytelling and censorship work together and in opposition to each other, particularly showing how storytelling can give individuals power, and censorship can enhance the power and allure of works of literature.
China's strict censorship of artistic expression and intellectualism suggests, first of all, that there is value and power in art, music, and storytelling—if there weren’t, such types of expression wouldn’t be a threat to the Chinese government’s aims of a fully communist society. Artistic and literary pursuits, particularly when they shed light on other parts of the world or champion individualism, take power away from the government by making it clear to the people that there are other ways of living, and that people who live differently might be happy. This is best illustrated by the narrator's reaction to reading Jean-Christophe. The narrator takes from the novel that individuals who challenge the world are good and noble, and that staying alive to challenge the world is of the utmost importance. This point of view gives the narrator the courage to arrange the abortion for the Little Seamstress. Forbidden literature, then, is shown to lead directly to forbidden action.
Throughout the novel, characters use works of literature as currency. The narrator and Luo trade physical labor for one of Four-Eyes' novels, and later, the narrator trades two novels to the gynecologist to pay for the Little Seamstress' illegal abortion. By ascribing this kind of value to literature, the novel shows that literature isn't just powerful in an emotional sense; it has real material value. Notably, literature as currency works in the narrator's society because banning them has made them all the more valuable to those who don't completely buy into the Party ideals. Essentially, by attempting to disempower the population by depriving them of this literature, the government gave those who do have access to the literature a great deal of power.
The novel itself contradicts the narrator's initial claim that storytelling, while a charming talent, isn't one that's truly valued or worthwhile in communist China; the government's insistence on censorship makes that very clear from the beginning. In addition, the village headman obviously values storytelling as entertainment; he's willing to pay Luo and the narrator for four days' worth of manual labor so they can instead go see and recite films for the village. Similarly, Luo and the narrator collect the miller's folk songs for Four-Eyes so that he can land a job at a revolutionary journal. Finally, because the novel is based on the author's actual experiences of re-education, the novel itself stands as proof that storytelling and literature, particularly literature that challenges censorship and gives voice to individuals, is worthwhile and powerful.
Storytelling, Censorship, and Power ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Censorship, and Power 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.
The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers—more's the pity.
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.
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.
"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."
What this gentleman is looking for is precisely that: the authentic, robustly primitive words of ancient ditties.
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.
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.
It would evidently take more than a political regime, more than dire poverty to stop a woman from wanting to be well dressed: it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children.
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.
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.
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?