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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

I remember the time as a teenager when I first read great literature. I became totally absorbed. I couldn’t believe you could write like that to stir the imagination. I was transported to another world, the world of the author but at the same time, everyman’s every world. It was through the writings of Austen, Dickens, Zola, Dostoevesky and Balzac that I understood something about the human condition. Reading became an essential part of my life, thanks to the great writers. The three teenagers of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress had the same awakening. Two young men, sent to a faraway rural village for re-education during China’s Cultural Revolution, kept their hearts and minds alive by reading the forbidden fruit of foreign literature. They told the stories to a beautiful young girl, the daughter of the local tailor. She too learnt about that other world that seemed so strange and yet real.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie (Knopf Publishing Group, September 2001; Vintage, March 2002)

The author Dai Sijie was re-educated between 1971 and 1974. He wrote from experience of how young folks from the cities were sent to the villages to learn from the backbreaking lives of Chinese peasants. “What we dreaded most of all was having to carry buckets of shit on our backs ... With each step we could hear the liquid sewage sloshing in the bucket, just behind our ears”.

What the two young men learnt was not the wonders of rural life but about themselves. They experienced friendship, love, passion and abandonment. One of them had a relationship with the young seamstress. Under the spell of Balzac’s work, they made love under the trees and in a rock pool. The day the young lovers lost their virginity, the young man went back to his friend to show him the evidence of lost innocence. Of course the inevitable happened—she became pregnant. The other young man, who was also charmed by the seamstress, was called to help.

In a mere few lines, Dai takes us through key parts his story with great efficiency. He is the sort of writer that leaves much to the reader’s imagination. He trusts that the overall atmosphere he weaves is sufficient for us to feel the heartbeat and the breathe of his characters. This book is proof that you do not need hundreds of pages to tell a great story. At the end of the tale, the one who is liberated is the little seamstress. Something about Balzac touched her deeply. She gained the gift of self-actualization.

Christine Loh is CEO of the Civic Exchange, an independent non-profit public policy think tank in Hong Kong