For most Westerners, daily life in communist China remains a mystery hidden by political and cultural red tape. The same ignorance exists the other way, as most Chinese living under communist government are prevented from knowing much about the reality of Western culture.
But for filmmaker Dai Sijie, author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Knopf), Western literature offered an unexpected window to life outside the peasant village where he was relocated during Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Sijie grew up at a time when citizens who had an education beyond middle school were separated from their families and forced to work on farms in the remotest areas of China.
Sijie taps his personal experience of this “re-education” system in the charming debut novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Although fictionalized, it draws most of its anecdotes from actual events.
The unnamed narrator and his close friend, Luo, are placed in a village on the mountain of Phoenix of the Sky, where daily tasks include carrying buckets of excrement up the mountain and crawling along narrow shafts of an unstable coal mine. In an attempt to get out of these disgusting and often life-threatening tasks, the two teenagers make a reputation for themselves as storytellers and are soon sent to distant, larger towns to view films. They then return to the village and relate stories as “oral cinemas.”
The duo’s repertoire expands beyond the average government-permitted propaganda films once the two secretly acquire a number of French novels, including several by Balzac. They use these illegal books in bartering with locals, trading their storytelling abilities for better food and increased vacation time. Luo soon begins using the books to refine a local beauty, the daughter of an esteemed tailor. Previously a near-illiterate country girl, the exposure to Western culture sparks unexpected changes within the young seamstress.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was originally published in France, where it became an instant best seller. In its English translation, the book maintains a soft but short phrasing, which is both calming and exhilarating. Sijie’s storytelling style and subject matter bring to mind another product of communist China: Ha Jin, whose volume of short stories Ocean of Words depicts life as a Chinese soldier during the early 1970s.
The most perplexing question raised by Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is that of morality, as the effect of the stories on the three youths shows both the dangers and benefits of unguided education. Although it could hardly be used to prove the benefits of banning books, the novel allows the reader to make the final judgment of the characters’ actions. Sijie tells only the truth of his story and leaves the moralizing to the reader.
Sijie will connect his new role as an author to his old role of filmmaker when he returns to China to begin filming of the screen version of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It is expected to be finished and released in 2002. Past films include The Eleventh Child and China, My Sorrow.
The impression of seeing how affected the novel’s heroes are by their first brush with the classics of French literature can only be rivaled by the effect this impression has on the reader. For many, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress may be the first look at a culture blocked from their view, and one could not ask for a better or more complete view of life in communist China.
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