Dai Sijie’s deceptively simple book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2001), is in large part a conversation with the cultural revolution in 20th-century China and the novels of 19th-century Europe—Dickens, Dumas, Bronte, Faubert, and, of course Balzac, among others. The conversation is complex and I believe Sijie’s novel is, in important ways, a revision of those stories.
The novel’s narrator is the teenage son of a doctor who, along with his friend, Luo, son of a dentist and a poet, is sent to a tiny village on Phoenix Mountain for “re-education.” They are cut off from the urban and family life they knew before with almost no chance of return (“three in a thousand”). When they meet the pretty daughter of the mountain’s traveling tailor, they quickly fall in love, but they don’t do much about their love aside from polite visiting until they come under the influence of a suitcase full of romantic Western novels. After stealing the suitcase and reading the books with all the passion and obsession that teenagers can bring, Luo begins meeting the girl as often as possible and starts reading the stories to the girl. His goal is to share something he loves with her and, perhaps more important, to give the country girl some “culture.” Their idylls at a secluded mountain pool include lovemaking and, eventually, the girl, whose name we never learn, becomes pregnant.
Pregnancy for an unmarried, teenage girl was disastrous at this time and could have meant a life spent in ignominious poverty and servitude. Fortunately, while Luo (ignorant of the girl’s condition) is away caring for his serioulsy ill mother, our narrator parlays two of the books into an abortion for the girl. But the girl is no bumpkin. The novels have served to wake her up to the possibilities of her future and she heads for the city without the boys, who rue the day they read the books; they burn every one of them in drunken grief over losing her and the irony of them still being trapped in the countryside while she has the opportunity to start a new life in the city.
The plight of women in the 19th-century novel is almost always the opposite. Typically, and whether by male design or not, a woman in these stories falls into an illicit relationship that eventually ruins her reputation and life, frequently leading to suicide or other death for her. The passionate life, following love and art above all things, gives her the highest form of self-expression she has experienced, but the concomitant breaking of social taboos about female independence and sexuality leads to her downfall. Sijie twists this narrative all around by using the novels to open the passionate life to both the young men and the girl they hope will be their leading lady (Galatea to their Pygmalion), but then freeing the woman and trapping the man in society’s machine. The class differential is also upside-down from such stories; in Sijie’s, the young, upper-middle class men are stuck, while the working class woman is relatively unhindered. The delicious irony of using novels that depict women as helpless to doom the male characters and free the female, makes Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress a cultural clash with a tragic, yet triumphant resolution.