Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

This book was a random find at the Goodwill months ago and I was drawn to it simply for the fact that it was originally written in Chinese and is set during Mao’s rule in China during the 1970’s. While I did find it an interesting and quick book to read, I probably won’t be anxious to reread it ever again.

Release: 2000

Page Count: 184

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: It is 1971, and Mao Zedong’s Chinese government is sending many educated young people to the country to be “reeducated” in the country. Two young men go to one of these tiny villages, far from home. Together they seek comfort in an attractive seamstress in a neighboring town and writings of Balzac, Tolstoy, and Rousseau, forbidden by their government.

Spoiler Review:

There were parts of this book I really enjoyed, while other parts really bothered me. The narrator is one of the two young men sent to the village in the mountain known as Phoenix of the Sky. The historical setting was fascinating, and to the best of my knowledge accurate as well, even though I am not particularly well-versed in this era of Chinese history. The narrator was likable, though every much a product of his world, naive but also selfish and twisted by his environment. However, there are also pretty horrific and serious content, which I’ll get into in a moment. But the ending was so bad, it really dampened my enjoyment of the book.

The story is told by the narrator of his memories on this mountain, or should I say a short time in these mountains, as the story starts with him and his friend arriving on the mountain and ends with them still there. I kept wanting there to be some progress in the characters by the end, but I was a little disappointed.

There are two main plots this story covers: the men’s fascinating with the books that they steal from a young man also being reeducated and their attraction to the young seamstress. I found it interesting that her, like the narrator, is never named, as if just as she is perhaps supposed to be the epitome of young lust, he is supposed to be the witness any person can be.

The narrator and his friend Luo find out another young man being reeducated, who they call Four-Eyes on account of him having glasses, has books and, after he is very cruel to them, they decide to steal the books (this is the shortened summary, and I won’t get into the details). Through these books they become fascinated with Western ideals they never knew about due to Mao’s burning of most books. However, after everything they go through, the book ends with the narrator and Luo getting super drunk and Luo burns the books…I really disliked the ending, because I thought it went against the main idea of this book. Knowledge is power and the more knowledge you have, the more control over your destiny you have. And yet, in this case, they devolve back into their more primal natures, giving up the beauty of literature.

The other story follows Luo starting an affair with the seamstress, even if the narrator also likes her. She ends up getting pregnant and, when Luo is away from the mountain attending to his sick mother, the narrator helps her get an abortion because, if her father or society found out she was pregnant, she would be ostracized. I won’t get into the issues with her choice on a moral level, but it also made no sense from a plot perspective either. After the abortion, she simply decides to leave Luo and her father (her father disowning her) and going off to the city. I mean, what? She killed her baby, not because she couldn’t take care of it or she knew the government might kill it anyway, but so she could be selfish and leave her home to be a girl in the city. What?

These two plot twists made me so mad and really lowered my enjoyment of the book. I would have probably given it at least four or five stars, but with the ending I ended up giving it three (and that was being generous with my dislike of the ending).

On one hand, I understand that these characters were part of their worlds, twisted by their society and upbringing, but I also wanted so much more from the book.

Have you read this book? I know I don’t usually do a just spoiler review, but with this one 90% of what I wanted to review was a spoiler. Does it look like something you would like to read? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

  1. I find endings hold a lot of weight in my rating and can often significantly change my opinion of a book. This sounds like an intense story, the type where you’re hoping the protagonist pulls through despite everything, and I can see how the ending would be disappointing after all of that build up. Wonderful review! – Jen

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, the course was focused on world lit and it was a fairly recent release at the time (15 yr ago). Probably the only reason I remember is one of the parents came in to talk about his personal experience of the Cultural Revolution.

        Liked by 1 person

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