Book Review - Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Cultic Studies Review, 6,(3), 2007, 313-316

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Sijie

New York, NY: Anchor Books (division of Random House, Inc.), 2002 English translation (original in French, 2000). Anchor ISBN-10: 0-385-722206; ISBN-13: 978-0385722209 (paperback), $11.95 US. 192 pages. Available online at

Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart

“Every nook and cranny of the land came under the all-seeing eye of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had cast its gigantic, fine-meshed net over the whole of China.”

Dai Sijie makes this statement near the end (page 160) of his first novel, a quasi-autobiographical tale about two young men sent from the city to the hinterlands of China in the early 1970s to be “re-educated.” The author left China for France in 1984, at age 30, but he did spend part of his youth between 1971 and 1974 in a re-education environment.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was an overnight sensation when it appeared in France in 2000. The novel begins in 1971 with the protagonist at age seventeen and his boyhood friend Luo at age eighteen arriving at a small peasant village in the mountains of northwest China. They are cold, hungry, and muddy after days of trekking with few belongings. Mao Zedong had launched the Cultural Revolution in 1968. Intellectuals and professionals by the millions had to submit to relocation to work for agricultural and industrial laborers. The peasants would “re-educate” Luo and his friend, who faced a potential lifetime of hard labor. The Communists have stripped schools of many subjects already, so the boys have only a rudimentary education anyway, but their parents, one a famous dentist, have been well educated and are “dangerous” to the revolution. Their parents have exposed the youth to Western music and literature. That “contamination” condemned the friends indefinitely.

Officials have confiscated and burned books that do not promote Mao’s Communism. The friends soon discover and befriend another relocated youth called “Four-Eyes” because he wears glasses. Four-Eyes keeps a secret stash of books locked in a suitcase in his room. After some cajoling, Luo and his friend manage to borrow one or two novels by Balzac from the stingy intellectual. One is a Chinese translation of Cousin Pons and another is Ursule Mirouet. Early in their internment at the village, the friends meet the striking young daughter of the local tailor. She is an illiterate seamstress whom they entertain with stories from Balzac, and she is quite taken with Madame Bovary. The friends earn a reputation for skillfully presenting stories for the villagers, and the local leader sends them regularly to the closest movie house more than a day’s walk away. Upon their return, the young men act out the entire Madame Bovary film for the locals, who delight in their performances.

Luo courts “the Little Seamstress” (she has no formal name in the story), and they become secret lovers. The novel reaches a crucial turn when the Little Seamstress discovers that she is pregnant. To spare Luo knowledge of the conception and the agony, the protagonist and the Little Seamstress go to the closest clinic, in the same town as the movie house, to arrange for a secret abortion. (The government forbade marriage for someone so young. The Little Seamstress’s traditional father would have been mortified that she “dishonored” him so. Luo would have been banished from her and she could not have kept the child anyway.)

I will not reveal the end of this intriguing tale that has many wonderful layers of meaning, with penetratingly simple descriptions of the people and their behaviors at that time and place. My interest in reviewing the book is less for its literary worth than for what it tells us about the cult-like milieu of the Cultural Revolution. My colleagues in the exit-counseling and cult-awareness arena often refer to the work of Robert J. Lifton, especially to Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A study of “brainwashing” in China, first published in 1961. In that book Lifton includes overviews of interviews he conducted in Hong Kong with several dozen victims of the early coercive thought-reform policies in Red China. Twenty-five of these individuals were Westerners released from Chinese prisons, and fifteen were Chinese refugee intellectuals. Lifton synthesized his findings in a model, or his “eight themes” that appear in any effective thought-reform program. Lifton has applied his themes to cult formation wherein “ideological totalism” becomes the rule. The all-or-nothing quality catapults a cult into harmful behavior as moderating influences diminish. Citizens who resist the totalist system find themselves reduced to non-persons or even persons of criminal status and must suffer the consequences.

Sijie introduces us to a kindly Christian minister who refused to praise Communism. The old man swept the streets with an oversized broom in the town with the movie house. He could not utter a word about the Gospel, but he appeared to live his faith in silence. Small children mocked him, and his own adult children pleaded with him to accept the new policies as they had. He died uttering a short prayer in Latin, one that his sons did not understand. The protagonist, who witnessed this death and who was not religious, nevertheless wanted to build a shrine to the old man. He envisioned a statue of the old man wearing a crown of thorns and holding a long-handled broom. I will not give out any more details, but I will summarize why I feel that students of cult behavior might value this book.

As Lifton points out, victims of thought reform have different responses and outcomes. Much depends on their individual traits and needs. In the novel a young intellectual finds relief from the tensions of forming an adult identity by becoming “a Communist.” You will meet peasants who enjoyed a rise in status for the first time in their lives. Lifton’s “psychology of the pawn” comes alive in a village headman. Relocated and demoted professionals learned to play the game of confessing their admiration for Chairman Mao, hoping to wait out the years of atrocity. Our young heroes learn some hard lessons about freedom and about what might happen when someone is set free from a totalist ideology.

Despite the pervasiveness of ideology in the milieu, Sijie inserts funny incidents and humor in unexpected places—as Lifton indicates, even in totalism the human spirit will find and seek freedom in any way possible. The novel is also instructive to those who wish to grasp what is happening in the new China that struggles to adapt old totalist values to a free market economy with its inevitable Westernization. In her struggle to express her essential spirit, the Little Seamstress eloquently captures Balzac’s Modernist perspective in her striking beauty and confounding complexity. Indeed, Balzac has reappeared in China.