Thursday, May 15, 2014

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by Dai Sijie

When I started this blog, I set out to introduce people to new worlds, as well as critique fantasy books, sci-fi books, historical fiction books, classic novels, and books of those genres blended with romance. Somewhere down the line, I forgot to critique the historical fiction of authors who still live and breathe as of now. And so, without further ado, I introduce you to Dai Sijie (a living author), and his intricate historical fiction, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

I picked this book up, as per usual, at a thrift store, and upon looking at the cover, my decision was made- I must read this. But, as time marched on, I didn't read it, that is, until last year, when my reading quota was down due to switching states. Dusting it off, I began to read, and found myself immersed in the Cultural Revolution of China.

If you want to learn about the Cultural Revolution, this is the book I would advise you to read. Although it is fiction, and admittedly, I knew little about the Cultural Revolution before I picked up this book, it gives you the experience of feeling like you've lived it, as much as is possible from the comfort of your own armchair. The characters aren't characters to you, they're people. Everything about the story seems so plausible that you are convinced that it somehow must be non-fiction, even though it is clearly marked "a novel".

The Plot:
Our unnamed narrator and his friend Luo (both teenagers) are sent to the countryside of China to be "re-educated" by villagers, on the mountain called "Phoenix of the Sky". There the narrator's violin is set to be burned, until the boys say that they can play "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao" on it, saving it from destruction. Their alarm clock also causes a stir amongst the villagers, who are used to setting their day by sunrise and sunset. They soon meet the Little Seamstress, who lives on the other side of the mountain, and quite curiously, has a book set out on her sewing table, even though such items are surely banned if not written by Chairman Mao...

This book makes you realize how lucky you are to be able to read any book, no matter what the current leader of your country favors. And the ability to listen to the music of your choice, at any time, not just in the dead of night when the wind is howling. It educates us all on how we often take everything in our lives for granted, because often it is the little things that we like that we think make us unique.

For example, my view of my interests, if I could use books, music, tv shows, movies, ect.:

My favorite books are the Bible, Rebecca, the Lord of the Rings series, Gone With the Wind, The Hero and the Crown, and countless more. I love listening to Queen, the Killers, Florence and the Machine, classic rock, and the occasional rapper. I watch The Blacklist, Defiance, Sherlock, Elementary, and Ghost Hunters devotedly. My favorite movies are The Princess Bride, The Lord of the Rings movies, Star Wars movies, Star Trek movies, and Bridesmaids. I love reading, writing, painting, cooking, baking, and playing with my dogs.

The Cultural Revolution edition of me?

Err... I knit, cook, bake, paint Chairman Mao on walls, rewrite his quotes, and train my dogs to herd sheep.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to separate yourself as an individual during that time? You wouldn't feel like yourself, because your interests were suddenly off limits, and even if you did manage to hide some precious books, you couldn't read them openly, unless your country's leader approved of them.

Nowadays, people like reading about dystopian societies, as in books like the Hunger Games, and Divergent. But before we read those, perhaps we should take a couple days to read up on our own histories of societies that weren't so great, even if the book is historical fiction.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a book that makes you think about many things, written in such a way that makes it easy to devour. There are countless moments where you laugh with the characters, and other moments that bring you to the brink of tears. It is, at times, difficult to continue, but in the end, it is a solid read about a most troubling time in Chinese history.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars for a beautiful portrait of a disturbing time in history.

Content: This book deals with difficult subjects, most notably abortion. Best read when 18 or older.

Page Count: 184 in my paperback edition


  1. One of my professors (gosh almost 2 years ago now) had recommended this to me and I had been meaning for a long time to pick it up. I've studied a bit about China's cultural revolution and it really was a pretty scary time. Now I definitely want to read it, great review! :)

    1. After I wrote this review, I found out the author had lived in China during the Cultural Revolution- so some of what he wrote about in this novel he may have actually experienced. It really is a great read for portrait of that period of time in China.
      Thanks for commenting Jamie!
      ~Litha Nelle


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