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Themes in “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamtress” by Dai Sijie

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Our three protagonists in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress are sent to re-education in a remote mountain; there they are greeted by monotony. The discovery of a hidden treasure chest of forbidden foreign books enriches their lives with the value of intellect, literature, liberty, love, friendship and desires. It is an epic tale of the coming of age of two boys and a girl through individual growth.

Coming of age

The coming of age is a central theme throughout Balzac and the little Chinese Seamstress as the three teenager’s loyalty, love, liberty, dreams and aspirations are put to the test. Although the coming of age plays a prominent role in the novel, other themes such as passions and liberty are inextricably interwoven and contribute to the coming of age of our three protagonists. One of the most blatant examples of an inner conflict is that of the narrators. His lust for his best friend’s girlfriend ultimately is tested for his loyalty and the value the narrator places on friendship.

The intensity of this experience for the Narrator and Luo is poignant and enchanting as it highlights a first-time “sex and love” [p.93.] For many people liberty is an ideal and privilege many of us have forgotten to appreciate and be thankful for. In the position of the little Chinese seamstress, through reading western literature her imagination is stimulated. This has generated “awakening desires” [p.57] and dreams, this is evident because in the end of the book she ‘vanished without of trace’ [p.167] to pursue her ever longing thirst for freedom and true feminism by leaving to the city. The author captures three youthful soul’s discovery of the purity of love through individual maturity, meanwhile intensified with themes of jealousy, survival and adventurousness.

Impact of Cultural revolution

The impact of the Cultural Revolution penetrates deep into the novel, from the successful purge of foreign influence to the re-education schemes. This impact has, undisputedly, affected the lifestyles of China’s people, China’s economy and Chinese cultural beliefs, for better or for worse. At the beginning of the novel, the village headman brands the narrator’s violin as a ‘bourgeois toy.’ [p.2] The diction of the word ‘bourgeois’ connotes negatively, as they were considered reactionary and forbidden. The noun ‘toy’ represents that in the Headman’s perspective the violin is child-like and holds no value. It also conveys to the audience that the Headman does not appreciate art, music, literature and language because of his lack of time. Our two boys: Luo and the narrator, are ‘city youths’ [p.3] and ‘reactionary,’ [p.9] therefore labeled as ‘enemies of Mao’s China’ [p.14] and are sent off to re-education. The impact of re-education and the Cultural Revolution can be approached on different aspects; physically and mentally.

On the physical level, Luo’s health deteriorates severely and he catches Malaria. The traditional cures of Malaria used by the peasants, inspired by the cultural revolution, is ridiculously unscientific and ranges from ‘beating Luo with peach tree branches’ [p.40] to ‘sorceresses keeping watch of Luo.’ [p.44] This ignorance towards scientific reasoning and the lack of intellect resembles the irony of “re-education” from peasants. This flippant behavior of the Cultural Revolution has evidently given China setbacks in scientific advancement and the improvement of quality of life.

On the mental level, Lou and the narrator’s daily lives are threaded with pessimism as they are both reluctant to believe in the hope and possibility of returning to the city.

Lou communicates his ‘depression’ [p.50] by crying under the bridge thinking that he will die. The narrator’s doubtful perspective has led him to react to situations and tasks more pragmatically to improve their mundane lifestyles on Phoenix Mountain.

The Transformative Power of Literature

The three main characters acquire a chest of foreign books that bridge the cracks from the Cultural Revolution to a foreign world of “awakening desires, passion, individualism and love.” [p. 57] The power of these great works have profoundly enlighten and nurture the three main characters’ minds, sparking them with aspirations, passions and ideas of sweet freedom and independence. The discovery of Western Literature abruptly swing open the doors to new ideas and their cravings for the wisdom contained within each page grows stronger book by book and page by page. When the Little Chinese Seamstress is introduced into the novel, Lou decides to embark on the operation to purify her from her primitive, uneducated and unsophisticated roots. Luo’s desire to “re-educate” the Seamstress is the fuel that motivates him to obtain more books for them, in order to provide her with culture and educate her.

The narrator and the Seamstress are clearly transformed by the power of Balzac, Dickens and Romain Rolland’s masterpieces. Firstly, the narrator communicates to the audience that without Jean-Christophe he would never have “understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual.”[p. ?] Our narrator learns how to think for himself and act as an individual as it does not mean selfishness. This knew source of information offer him an escape from the harsh realities on Phoenix Mountain.

The effect of the success of transforming the seamstress from an “unsophisticated mountain girl” [p.167] into a woman thriving with culture is ironic. The Seamstress is clearly transformed by the experience and decides to leave the mountain and begin a new life in the city. Luo has succeeded in transforming her; however, the choices she will make from then on are beyond his control as now she can take ‘independent actions.’ In my opinion, a new life in the city offers her anonymity about her pregnancy whilst being unmarried, as well as to satisfy her desires on feminism and freedom.

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