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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. [Paperback]

Dai. Sijie
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (149 customer reviews)

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"The village headman, a man about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a heart that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin." Read the first page
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that grows on a reader July 5 2004
With each passing day I mentally revisit scenes from this spare novel. (Spare in length and style.) The premise--the children of Chinese professionals who have been designated "enemies of the state" during the Cultural Revolution are sent to be "re-educated" by peasants in remote villages--is immediately engaging.
The chances for these youths to return to any semblance of their former lives are slim. The main characters in this story, the unnamed narrator and his close friend Luo, wind up sharing quarters in the same remote village on the side of a mountain and they find solace in their friendship and with their love and admiration for the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. They also discover and steal a cache of French novels, literature that has been forbidden by the anti-intellectual Red Guard. Nevertheless, they immerse themselves in the literature and the stories give them hope of better times and release from the hardships of their transplanted lives. The books are also seen by Luo as the means by which he may transform the Little Chinese Seamstress into a civilized, urbane woman. The complications of love and re-education drive the plot. Of course, re-education comes to mean more than what the powers behind the Cultural Revolution intend: it includes what the two boys learn about themselves and their neighbors and, ironically, the consequences of Luo's presumption that the seamstress will benefit from his civilizing instruction based upon the French literature.
Dai Sijie's style is clean and simple. The novel is very much about story-telling, and the narrator, in retelling his experiences, provides the model for an effective narrative (without Western Post-Modern self-referential gimmickry). The character's are endearing and memorable, the settings are vivid, and the events are believable and very, very human. Highly recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress July 30 2008
By Pauline
"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by Dai Sijie is a wonderful journey into China during the time of the infamous Cultural Revolution. The story is about two teens that have been sent to the country side for re-education. Both Luo and the unnamed narrator of the book are children from educated families, Luo's dad is a dentist who even worked on Mao Zedong's teeth and the narrator's father was a lung specialist and his mother was a consultant in parasitic diseases. Since both boys had educated parents they were sent to be re-educated.

The journey of re-education is harsh and the villagers are untrusting of all the items the two boys bring to the village. They are allowed to keep a rooster alarm clock and a violin. The boys are sent to watch movies in a nearby town with the expectation of when they return that they would act out the movie in its entirety for the whole village.

The book is about the power of story telling and mostly about the power of the written word.

The boys meet the seamstress' daughter and both fall in love with her. Luo has a relationship with her and decides she needs to be educated to better suit him. The two boys read to her western literature and her eyes are opened to many possibilities.

The two boys and their cache of forbidden Western literature including, of course, Balzac opens their eyes to a new world. The literature proves to be a double edged sword, however, for the boys lose the one thing that was making their life bearable.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Book about the Love of Books June 21 2004
An enchanting novelette with several themes - the Chinese cultural revolution, coming of age, first passion, and love of arts and literature. Perhaps the main theme is the indefatigability of human qualities such as imagination and quest for beauty in spite of oppression.
The story begins with two young men from the city arriving on Phoenix Mountain, the place they have been sent to by the Chinese government for reeducation, both guilty of being the sons of doctors. Life among the peasants is bleak, the jobs assigned to them the most menial and dangerous and there is no intellectual stimulation. Over time though two important things happen - first they meet the "little seamstress" the most beautiful and intelligent girl on the mountain, daughter of the area's tailor - and later they come into possession of a secret cache of forbidden books, all translations of western novels. At this time period, all books were banned in China except for those written by Mao and his cronies and technical manuals, the boys have never seen foreign fiction before and now they have Balzac, Flaubert, Emily Bronte, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and many others, whole new worlds to explore.
Quick to read with vivid descriptions, I will never forget the old man with the bed full of lice and jade dumplings with salty sauce. Also loved the ending, the little seamstress has absorbed all the education Luo has to give and keeps moving on the path of self discovery.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Best book I've read this year June 1 2004
I was given Sijie's book by chance just after I finished Da Chen's "Sounds of the River". Both books are set in the aftermath of China's terrifying Cultural Revolution of the late 1960's. (This is NOT the Chinese Revolution which culminated in 1949.) If you have Chinese friends or acquaintances, they, their parents or grandparents have been painfully marked by this era. Either of these books will increase your empathy and admiration for the strength of the survivors.
(For Westerners the lesson of the Cultural Revolution is what happens when people who have been brainwashed by a fundamentalist education are encouraged to indulge a craving for absolute power.)
Chen's book is set later in the era, when the wholesale persecution of the educated classes had quieted down and it was once more safe to study English, though with certain restrictions. The narrator is a country boy who goes to the big city to pursue a dream of studying English.
Sijie's novel is set earlier, around 1973 -- most books have been banned and burned. It is a crime to own anything not written by Mao or other communist lights. Intellectuals -- doctors, writers, professors, foreign-language speakers, scientists -- have been sent to mines and farms to suffer and often die in a torture called "re-education".
Although the formal education of the narrator and his friend in "Balzac..." consists of only three years of middle school, their parents are medical professionals, so they are branded as intellectuals. They are city boys, sent to the country to learn how to be good proletarians from a bunch of reluctantly reformed opium farmers.
The miracle of "Balzac..." is that it conveys the oppression and terror of its era without itself being oppressive.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Captures your interest.
Cute story. Well written.
Published 1 month ago by Psychotherapist
5.0 out of 5 stars Balzac and the Chinese Seamstress
A wonderful little book, can be read in an afternoon. This novel is about two sophisticated young Chinese men and their adventures in reeducation and romance during the cultural... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Mrs. Colleen M. Paul
5.0 out of 5 stars Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Beautifully written, I loved the characters, the setting, the feeling of being. Culture and believes thru out the book are both entertaining and surprising.
Published 22 months ago by Deanna G
3.0 out of 5 stars P-U
I see this book is coupled with KITE RUNNER and the only reason I can think of for this is that it's exotic in content and involves two young men. Read more
Published on Oct. 24 2007 by Harriet
4.0 out of 5 stars A small book, but a deeply moving one
The power of books to transform the unspeakable into the sublime. Why roses can grow on a garbage heap. Read more
Published on July 4 2007 by Mary Ellen
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple story--well told
Basically this is the story of China and the struggles that several people go through. I was reminded at times of "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Read more
Published on Sept. 22 2006 by D. Kauffman
4.0 out of 5 stars A well crafted novel with an ironic twist!
Aside from portraying a vivid image of China during the Mao years, this novel is also a very well crafted satire (in the same league as one of my favourite novelists -Somerset... Read more
Published on March 5 2005 by Andrea
3.0 out of 5 stars Okay book
Recently I've been lucky with my bestseller or recommended picks, having read Martel's LIFE OF PI and McCrae's CHILDREN'S CORNER. Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2005 by ThomsEBynum
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetic
This translation of Dai Sijie's novel can be poetic at times but, as is common with translated works, it can leave the reader questioning the cultural context of some passages or... Read more
Published on July 14 2004 by T. Davis
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and Understated
A wonderful, subtle, understated story of growing up during Mao's cultural revolution and 're-education'. Read more
Published on July 12 2004 by Jaye Beldo
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