Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a 2000 novel written by Chinese-French author Dai Sijie. It is a semi-autobiographical novel about two teenage boys growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a socio-political movement that took place in China from 1966 until 1976. The Cultural Revolution brought China’s education system to a halt. Almost all schools closed down, and the so-called ”educated” youth—meaning children who had received elementary to high school education—were sent to live and work in rural areas. The two teenage boys in the novel are such children, being sent to a mountain called “Phoenix of the Sky” near Tibet to work in the coal mines and with the rice crop. There the two of them fall in love with the Little Seamstress, the daughter of the local tailor. The story partly revolves around their relationship with the Little Seamstress, but the main focus of the novel is the boys’ quest to obtain and read forbidden western literature.
During the revolution, a lot of literature and art was banned, including western literature. Chinese artists and writers who were perceived as opposing the government were persecuted. This lack of art och literature made people unable to receive any education or cultural diversity. Instead, propaganda art was used as a campaigning tool and mass communication device, and often served as the main source of information for the people.
In Sijie’s novel, the two boys were allowed to watch films at the cinema in a nearby town and then retell them to the people as entertainment, only because of their great storytelling talent. This soon becomes a great asset for them as they gain popularity and influence in the village. They gain a good understanding of storytelling and easily see through the propaganda of the films.
Eventually, they find out one of their friends have a suitcase filled with banned books, and they blackmail him to be able to read them. They are soon completely enthralled by the western literature. They read many different authors: ”a company of great Western writers welcomed us with open arms. On top was our old friend, Balzac, with five or six novels, then came Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Remain Rolland, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and some English writers, too: Dickens, Kipling, Emily Bronte …”
For the boys, these books become a gateway to the world outside of their isolated village. It gives them access to a greater reality. It expands their worldview. One of the boys, the unnamed narrator, falls in love with a particular novel by Romain Rolland, Jean-Christophe:
”Jean-Christophe which, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual. Up until this stolen encounter with Romain Rolland’s hero, my poor educated and re-educated brains had been incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world … To me it was the ultimate book: once you had read it, neither your own life nor the world you lived in would ever look the same.”
This captures the importance of literature to free the mind to individual thinking and contradicting opinion. This is the potency of imaginative literature, and it is also the reason it is hated and feared by those who wish to control others and close the mind to moral and intellectual truth.
In the end of the novel, the power of literature is fully proclaimed when Balzac’s novel ultimately saves the life of the Little Seamstress.