In life, reading is a gift. Reading often remains an instrumental component of growth, change, and influence. At times, reading literature delivers a magical power that can reveal new worlds and perspectives to people. Beginning in 1966, The Cultural Revolution in China, created by Mao Zedong, exiled the upper class youth into re-education camps in an ironic attempt to ‘limit’ their learning. Despite the name of the camps, Mao restricted all forms of education, including reading. For the majority, only those who secretly gained possession of ‘non-approved’ literature were actual able to further broaden their knowledge. In Dai Sijie’s novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the various Western books greatly influence the narrator by changing his perspective on individualism during his re-education, from one of limited free, unbiased thinking to one based on independent thought, reasoning, and judgment.
Romain Rolland, the author of Jean-Christophe, greatly helps the narrator find transit into a world of freedom and individual choices, while also leading him to hate the Chinese re-education system. After reading Jean-Christophe, the narrator comments “up until this stolen encounter with Romain Rolland’s hero, my poor educated and re-educated brains had been incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world” (Dai 110). This quotation broadly grasps the effects of western literature on the narrator. His culture and those in charge of his ‘re-education’ were telling him that society, as a whole, was more important than one individuals thought or desires. But he was reading, learning, and believing that one man, or woman, can make a huge difference, and that this impact will not necessary harm society, but has the potential to better it, and make it more fulfilling for all. The wording and comedy in this quote also demonstrate the narrator’s realization of his previous seclusion from independent, ‘western’ ideals. It clearly demonstrates the power of the stolen books on him. He believes this literature improves a “poorly educated” mind that did not know much about the joys of outside world such as love, to a man that believes in a more individualistic approach on life. When the narrator crosses the dangerous ridge to get to the Little Seamstress, he contemplates, “I wonder what my good friend Jean-Christophe would say if I were to turn back” (Dai 114). The narrator starts to adapt what he reads into deciding his choices by considering Jean-Christophe’s opinions on his actions. In this case, Jean-Christophe helps the narrator realize the value of his life and convinces him to turn back and not risk the chance of falling. These examples show the influence that Jean-Christophe had on the narrator as he starts to incorporate the Western values that he reads about such as love and desire into his previous selfless, rural-based life.
Many of the books that the narrator reads contain common ideals about love, women, and sex, which expose the narrator to new feelings and emotions. After stealing books from Four Eyes, the narrator comments that the Western novels introduce new feelings such as being “seduced, overwhelmed, spellbound by the mystery of the outside world, especially the world of women, love and sex as revealed to us by these Western writers” (Dai 109). It initially shocks the narrator when exposed to these “Western” concepts. But he incorporates these desires into actions showing the power of literature. He starts to think “After all, how could I die now, without having known love or sex, without having taken free individual action against the whole world” (Dai 114). The narrator realizes that his life is worth much more than how he previously believed it was. Because of his exposure to ideas such as love and sex, the narrator wants to experience these aspects in his own life. The Western writers introduce and describe real human desires, deep emotions, and joys of life to the previously sheltered narrator, which changes his perception on freedom and individualism. The Western novels influence the narrator, as he becomes more resentful towards the Communist Government because they repress the people of China by banning most books. Once the narrator and Luo reach the literary treasures found within the suitcase in Four Eye’s house, the narrator comments that he feels “loathing for everyone who kept these books from us” (Dai 99). The narrator and Luo both find themselves full of rancor towards the society that prohibits and “keeps these books from [them].” If not for finding these books, or perhaps others, the narrator may have not seen how repressed the people of China are under Mao Zedong.
Dai implies that the narrator begins to realize that ‘re-education’ actually restricts what life can truly be like. The narrator compares the repressed and censored Chinese films that he has seen, to his new Western way of thinking, which he retained from the books when he says “the stark proletarian realism of those stories, which had represented the sum total of my cultural education until a short while ago, struck me as being so far removed from human desires and true emotions, in short from real life” (Dai 124). “The stark proletarian realism of those stories” from the Chinese films shows little to no aspects of true human desires and emotions because of the restricted censorship that the Communist Government places over the Chinese people. After the narrator encounters the possibilities inherent in freedom due to the books, he realizes these limitations placed by the Chinese ‘system’. This realization causes the narrator to have contempt and hatred towards the authorities. It is a fitting conclusion that those who sent the narrator for ‘re-education’ to enforce their desires upon the masses, end up being despised because of their hypocrisy. Despite the attempt to limit the narrator’s ‘education’ by forcing him into a rural mountain area with little outside influence in hopes of limiting his drive, it has the opposite effect. This failed effort on the narrator demonstrates the long-term folly of ‘re-education’, or any excessive restraint on our natural desire for freedom.
Though many may go through a similar deconditioning experience, even in today’s world, and not fully adopt an independent mind, perhaps due to the lack of outside influence, especially books, enough will seek out and discover knowledge, most often through the written word, to radically change themselves and the world around them. The narrator’s outlook on life followed just this route, changing from one of limited independent thinking to one based on free thought and desire, just from reading stolen Western books. This influence on the narrator reveals the remarkable power of literature and its potential effect on the entire human race.