Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, numerous authors have engaged in profoundly depicting the passage of Chinese history. Among a great number of novels, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie definitely deserves to be mentioned.
Originally written in French, this novel tells the story of two teenage boys who are sent to a peasant village on Phoenix Mountain in the Sichuan province for re-education. Labeled as bourgeois doctors’ sons, they are assigned to carry pails of excrement up a hill everyday and are also sent to transport coals with their backs in a small insecure local coal mine. They somehow survive from the extreme hardship due to their skills in story telling. The village headman commands them to go watch movies in town and come back to retell the plots and dialogues of the movies to the entire villagers once in a while. The beautiful daughter of the famous local tailor becomes their most devoted listener. One day, while visiting their friend, a poetess’s son who also came to Phoenix Mountain for re-education, one of the boys accidentally discovers a secret hidden suitcase full of forbidden Western classic novels owned by their friend. They carefully design a plot and steal the suitcase the night before the owner leaves for the city for good. Immersing themselves into the works of a host of European writers, the boys find worlds that they never imagined. Luo, who falls in love with the little seamstress, is determined to transform her from a simple village girl into a sophisticated lover by reading her Balzac’s stories. However, a totally unexpected result occurs, and brings him much despair.
To me, the uniqueness of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, compared to other novels of the same subject, is that this novel doesn’t only focus on exposing and condemning the unbearable living conditions and intellectual constraints inflicted on many during the Cultural Revolution, but also focuses on depicting in detail how those people struggled to survive the adverse situation they were unfairly put in. Although they faced many obstacles, they still wanted to dream and pursue normal lives using their courage, wisdom, and great optimism.
This debut became an instant bestseller and prize winner in France after its publication in 2000. An English translation by Ina Rilke was published in 2001. A movie with the same title was made in 2002 starring Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, and Liu Ye.