Thoughts on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie
(h/t Zhiyu for picking out this book for me as we browsed the tiny book exchange)
No spoilers until the 2nd half (you’ll get a warning before spoilers)
This book hooked me with the descriptive writing on the first page – clean and simple but precise, expressive, humorous but ominous, with clouds of meaning hanging over the images and narrative movement. Here, on the first page, the setting is already pressing in – the environmental setting of the mountain village and the historical setting of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, as two middle-class city boys have been cut off from their families and sent to the country for re-education.
But here too on the first page, the vivid sense of the local and the ethnic is already paired with a sense of something universal and human. As the village elder inspects the strange object belonging to the boys (a violin), the boys are already struggling with a sense of how to fit in, how to be understood in a world of adults who just don’t get it. It’s the perfect setting for a coming-of-age tale, where the local coordinates frame the archetypal struggle of adolescents trying to navigate an adult world. The book’s critical view of the Cultural Revolution, expressed with humor and with poignancy, is never far away, but it is also a universal story of kids growing up, joking around but feeling the full emotional weight of adolescence.
The personal and cultural layers of the book are in fact explicitly linked. Discovering the beautiful little seamstress their own age parallels the discovery of forbidden books (e.g., by Balzac) from the West, books that explore precisely the personal aspects of the human experience – friendship, loyalty, first love, and possible betrayal, innocence thwarted and dreams forbidden – which take on a peculiar urgency for these boys, torn from their families and in constant danger of being denounced. The first-hand view of the Cultural Revolution being played out in the mountain villages of China is one thing, vivid and valuable in its own right, but it is the other thing, the personal thing, the intensely heart-felt connection between two young friends and the little Chinese seamstress in the next village – that’s the thing that really sticks with you after the book is done.
SPOILER SECTION BELOW
At first glance, the last sentence of the book is my least favorite. The little seamstress packs it up and leaves Luo (her lover) and the narrator (a dear friend to both, the one who took care of her in her darkest hour, secretly in love with her himself but true to his friend, Luo) to try her luck in the city. When asked why, she notes that “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.”
A cursory glance at reviews suggests that many readers approve of her final choice as liberating, and perhaps they have a point. Maybe they are reading it with an eye on how to fit it to today’s political needs whereas I am reading it like a Romantic. In any event, like all great novels, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress opens multiple ways of reading. In my reading, for example, the final line is devastating. The idea that the little seamstress, artificially groomed and coiffed into something “modern-looking” and “stylish” with her “blue Mao jacket,” “bobbed hair,” and “white tennis shoes”– that she plans to leverage her “woman’s beauty” to stake her claim in the Mao-stifled city strikes me as rather a degradation of values than a liberation. The “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” somehow seemed more authentic.
But if we run with my reading, if we view the little seamstress’s flashy exit in the last sentence of the novel as demeaning, doesn’t this finale undermine the novel’s whole cultural trajectory? Where the body of the novel had suggested that the dehumanizing effects of the Cultural Revolution could be redeemed by the humanizing effects of Balzac and the other forbidden Western writers the teens discover, doesn’t the degradation in the last line suggest that those “humanizing” effects were not so humanizing? That the Western influences had merely introjected Western vanities into the heart of China, as represented by the little seamstress? And if the last line negates the cultural trajectory, the mirror-image trajectory of personal coming-of-age is also jeopardized. What if the ideals these teens had constructed about friendship and loyalty and love was no more than vanity – whimsical ideals to be tossed at the first chance of life in the city? Indeed, the coming-of-age archetype in literature often extends into a more cynical stage, the passage from innocence to experience, as the Romantic poets would have it. And the same deflated idealism hovers over that last line of Sijie’s novel.
But by the time I read the last line, I had become so emotionally invested in the characters, in their naïve teenage idealism, and in the beautiful China they were symbolically trying to shore up against the forces degrading it, that I was unwilling to let go that easily. What if the Chinese seamstress’s final comment does not negate the redemptive power of Balzac and all the spinoff values that Balzac represents in the novel? If my heart wants to argue this side, my head is not long in coming to its aid. After all, one cannot read this novel and conclude, no matter how one reads the last line, that the Western ideas of Balzac et al. were just a trick, a vanity, that Mao’s view of the Western ideal as a Trojan Horse was correct. No, too much of the book weighs against this reading.
The alternative reading is this. The last sentence, as much as it repulses my emotional registers, saves the book from a thematic malaise into which it might otherwise fall. The Western influence (or in this case the universal humanist influence, as channeled by the Western writers the kids discover) was essential to the coming-of-age transition, personal and cultural. But Balzac (symbol of that humanist influence pushing back against Mao) is not a magic bullet, not something you can simply overlay onto China. It is an instrument, not an end, in the boys’ coming of age; and it is an instrument, not an end, in China’s transition as re-envisioned in the symbolic structure of Sijie’s novel. Western culture is not a Trojan Horse to Chinese culture, but nor is the West to be fetishized. If you fetishize those hallmarks of Western culture as something more than they are, if you use them as a mere overlay, you get not the authentic universal human values they express, but you get Western vanity. You get the decision of the little seamstress. So Luo is right to burn the Western books – not because Mao is right about their worthlessness, but because they have completed their purpose in the coming-of-age transition; not because they would corrupt the spirit of China but because once they are read, it is time to move beyond those local Western expressions to the universal truths about the human spirit that lie behind them. The Western books were a ladder for the kids, but to bring something authentic to China, you need to climb the ladder and then throw it away and focus on more universal truths and beauties. If you get stuck on the ladder, if you get hung up on the West qua West, you get the vanity of the little seamstress.
So yes, Luo was right to burn the books. I understand that the conditions the seamstress and the boys found themselves in called for change. But at what cost in terms of one’s own identity? As I ponder that question, the final image of the little seamstress in her trendy new outfit heading for the city to see what she can get with her commodified beauty leaves me longing for the “lovely, unsophisticated mountain girl” of the earlier pages.
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