Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
The Power of Literature: Western and Outside Sources in Mao’s World
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.
Female Empowerment in Communist China
Feminism is the advocacy of equality between men and women socially, politically, and economically. In Dai Sijie’s novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the narrator and his friend, Luo, are set on civilizing a young village girl who they meet during their re-education, known as the Little Seamstress. This novel displays a female protagonist, The Little Seamstress, who is not afraid to take control of her own future and goes against Luo and the narrator’s stereotypical beliefs that she is in need of being saved. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a feminist piece of literature because it uses the Little Seamstress to prove that women, no matter what background, are capable of doing many of the same things as men on their own.
At first, this novel may be mistaken as a sexist piece of writing rather than a feminist one because of the way Dai Sijie portrays the Little Seamstress, however it is written through the perspective of the narrator and Luo so it actually reflects the views of most men on women at that time, which the Little Seamstress later disproves. The way the narrator describes her when they first meet gives the impression of an innocent girl who spends her days sewing for the benefit of the men in the village, which hints at a feminine and childlike character. There is a strong emphasis on her appearance and dress, and the narrator notes that even her pink shoes “caught the eye, seeming delicate and sophisticated” (Sijie 21). There is no mention of any personality traits in this first encounter, yet there is an immense amount of detail placed on the more superficial parts of the Little Seamstress, for example her shoes, alluding to the mindset of the boys that she is possession. Without even getting a chance to know her, Luo and the narrator already objectify her as uncivilised. In contrast, the Little Seamstress recognizes what the boys might think of her and when she tells them she is unable to read, she justifies herself by telling them “but you needn’t think I’m a fool, because I enjoy talking to people who can read and write” (Sijie 25). She knows what assumptions one might make of her as a village girl, and she quickly counters this by showing her intelligence. Here, there is a feminist undertone because the Little Seamstress vocalizes her wishes to be considered on the same level as a man despite her setbacks. Although she is described in a stereotypical way by the narrator, the Little Seamstress’s actions demonstrate an outspoken woman who has a thirst for knowledge but has just not gotten the opportunity to reach her full potential yet.
As the novel progresses, a significant increase in her confidence is present, and she begins to disregard more and more misogynistic ideas. When talking about her tradition of diving into the lake to fetch Luo’s keys, the Little Seamstress makes it clear that she does it because she wants to do it, not because anybody else is telling her to. She opposes the impression one might get from this situation by saying “I’m not like a silly dog that keeps running to fetch the stick thrown by it’s master” (Sijie 144). The use of the word “silly”, which the Little Seamstress negates, implies that she is smarter than that and is aware of what she is doing. Luo is not her master and does not get to control the Little Seamstress’s choices; there is a balance in their relationship. By acknowledging that she is in control of her own life, the Little Seamstress becomes closer to realizing what power she holds as a woman in terms of exploring and discovering new things.
Nearer to end of the book, the Little Seamstress, no longer restricted by the influence of men, recognizes that she can build herself as a strong woman instead of a mere village girl and is ready to see what she can become outside of her mountain. Simple things, such changing her hair, where “ the long pigtail made way for a short bob, which was very becoming and modern-looking” (Sijie 79) impacted her actions. Long hair is generally considered more feminine opposed to short hair, however the Little Seamstress breaks a lot of the standards Chinese men acquired. This change of hair is also a symbol that signifies her overall change as a person after learning feminist ideas through text. Furthermore, one of the largest reasons this book is considered a feminist novel is because of the very last line, which states “[the Little Seamstress] said that she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is treasure beyond price” (Sijie 184). The fact that Sijie chose to make the last line of his book about feminism is another clear indication that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is intended to be a feminist piece of literature. As a concluding line, it sums up the entire book and what the true essence of it is about. While there could be a literate meaning to this quote about beauty, it can also be seen as what the Little Seamstress interpreted it as- the inner beauty. She is inspired by the thought of being able to do greater things by herself; an extremely rare notion at that time. Now, the Little Seamstress has an identity which she would never have been exposed to before if it weren’t for these books that helped her feel empowered. In the end, the very thing that the boys used to try and educate the Little Seamstress with to make her their possession is the thing that drove her away and made her take advantage of her womanhood.
Over the course of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the Little Seamstress makes great strides in her progression of confidence and knowledge. From the beginning, we can already see signs of her bold nature that had not yet gotten the chance to fully develop because of her lack of knowledge availability. However, when she does eventually realize what she can do as a woman, she takes full advantage of the opportunities laid out in front of her. Through her journey of female empowerment, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie reflects feminist piece of literature.
Insufficient Women or Insufficient Equality
Feminism is the equality of the sexes in social, political, and economic standards. Balzaccand the Little Chinese Seamstress shows how many assumptions and expectations there are of women, compared to those of men. This piece of literature does not support feminism because not only does the Little Chinese Seamstress tolerate two men who think they are better than her, but her ultimate solution to make a better life for herself stems from her newly bred confidence from her realization that beauty holds a great value. This is one of many stereotypical assumptions people make, saying that women must be beautiful in order to be successful, fit in, and find love. She gives in to Luo’s idea of sophistication which ultimately supports men’s unrealistic expectations of women and their way of thinking that places themselves above women.
From the beginning of the novel, Luo underlines the Little Chinese Seamstress as not good enough for him. After the narrator and Luo first meet the Little Chinese Seamstress, who is called the “princess of Phoenix mountain” (Sijie 21), the narrator questions Luo about his feelings for the Little Chinese Seamstress saying, “‘Have you fallen in love with her?’”, Luo replies, “‘She’s not civilized, at least not enough for me!’” (27). Luo’s prejudice against the village women displays how there is a male dominance encompassing society. By embracing these beliefs, Luo stereotypes the Little Chinese Seamstress as a lesser person than men; especially since the Little Chinese Seamstress is viewed as the best woman in the area by many others. The two boys also come across a book, upon which, they automatically think to read the book to the seamstress so that they might educate her and improve her. This exhibits how the village women are constantly constructed by society to strive to impress men, but the community never seems to ask the men to upgrade themselves for women. This is a socially unequal pressure directed towards women in the village, which implies that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is not a piece of feminist literature.
In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the characters often overly dramatize any visit with the Little Chinese Seamstress. No matter the occasion, the boys are always ecstatic to see the Little Chinese Seamstress; however, they view her more as a fascinating object than a person. When the Little Chinese Seamstress loses her virginity, she is compressed into the stereotypical power of men over women; especially because the book does not make a big deal of Luo losing his virginity. By speaking unequally about the two events, the book shows the higher expectations and society’s constricting rules for women in the time period. This differs from the idea of feminism because both men and women should be socially equal, meaning women should be given the same expectations and allowances of men. When the Little Chinese Seamstress is swimming in the company of Luo, she says, “I just love pleasing Luo, that’s all there is to it” (144). The simplicity of her tone shows how the need for her to better herself for Luo is now a commonality. At this point in the story, Balzac and other authors have changed the seamstress’s opinions and morals. Since the Little Chinese Seamstress is a woman, she should have retained the idea of women being equal to men; instead by saying this, she gave in to society’s idea of women. This does not support feminism because women do not need to change themselves for men and should be given the same standards as males as well.
The ending of the story ultimately does not support feminism, as women need not rely on beauty and their physical appearance. Luo’s attempt at making her more pleasing to him ends up changing the Little Chinese Seamstress so much that she is independently able to follow her dreams of a better life. This would be an empowering ending for women, until the author tells the readers why the seamstress is inspired. The last line of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress says, “She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” (184). After all that transpired, the only way for her to become confident was for her to realize the power of beauty. Although beauty is unfortunately very important in society, women should not be taught this like the Little Chinese Seamstress learned from Balzac. Men are never required to bind their feet, wear makeup, or even dress elegantly. Women are constantly asked to change themselves to be good enough of men, as they are treated inferior to men. The book needs to describe a place where men and women are entirely equal to support feminism, which is not showcased in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. This does not support feminism because beauty does not define a woman, and neither should the way someone fits society’s standards.
The voice of women is lost in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’s society, as they are given more rules to follow and a guide from society about what makes someone a woman. Men in the society are infrequently asked to change and can do as they please without repercussion. Balzac did not educate the Little Chinese Seamstress, he just gave an unconfident girl confidence. The book does not support feminism because it is socially unequal. The Little Chinese Seamstress shows us that men think of women inferior to them, women are often considered uncivilized compared to men, society has higher standards for women, women are taught to do whatever possible to please men, and the upper-class taught young women that beauty holds the highest value. All these principles are unfair and represent gender inequality. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is not a feminist piece of literature because it does not support the social equality of the sexes.
The Irony of the Re-Education System of Communist China
Re-education, a practice in Communist China where city youths are sent to rural villages in order for them to get in touch with the way of their ancestors and create a larger working class, may seem like a harmless system. However, re-education, to a degree, is pointless. In its irony, city youths going to rural villages in order to become one with the land ended up instilling their knowledge onto the villagers, the complete opposite of the goal of re-education. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie explains the irony of the re-education system in Communist China, as the two main characters, Luo and an unnamed narrator, end up changing the values of the villagers more than themselves. In the novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Luo and the narrator during the process of re-education change the villagers to become more civilized by manipulating them and introducing them to technology and western culture, expressing the irony of the re-education system.
During their re-education, the two boys manipulate the villagers to satisfy themselves, changing the villagers more than themselves and ironically destroying the core principle of re-education. When Luo and the narrator first come to their village, they bring along an alarm clock, which the headman then begins to use to tell time and tell the workers when to start their day and start working. However, Luo and the narrator sometimes do not want to work as early or late as usual, so they change the hands of the clock to manipulate the time. The narrator states, “in the end we had changed the position of the hands so many times that we had no idea what the time really was” (Sijie 15). The clock dictates the villagers’ lives, as the headman would use it to determine when they start and stop working. When the narrator and Luo manipulate the hands of the clock, which has become so integrated into the workers’ lives, they’re manipulating and changing the villagers to satisfy themselves. Working in rural villages is a part of the Communist ideal, so when the boys introduce this clock, which the villagers use, and then they manipulate it to control the working hours they do, they’re expressing the irony of the Communist re-education system. Luo and the narrator manipulate the villagers and the work system to satisfy their own wants and needs, thus defeating the goal of the Communist China re-education system. Luo even expresses a desire to civilize the workers, specifically his girlfriend, the Little Chinese Seamstress. Luo, when talking to the narrator, explains how he wants to manipulate the Little Chinese Seamstress to become more civilized. He says, “with these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again” (Sijie 100). Luo expresses a clear desire to manipulate the seamstress through books. By saying “she’ll never be a simple mountain girl again,” he explains how his main goal is to civilize the Little Chinese Seamstress, as he wants her to become more than just a mountain girl and he will achieve that by reading books, a symbol of modernity, to her, thus making her civilized. Luo is manipulating the seamstress to satisfy himself and reach his goal of civilizing her, showing the irony of the re-education system. The Little Chinese Seamstress is a picture perfect definition of the rural aspects of the mountain, so when Luo attempts, and succeeds, to civilize her, it is seen that the re-education system is pointlessly ironic, as a symbol of rural-ness is being manipulated to a city youth’s satisfaction to become civilized. The villagers are, on top of being manipulated by the two boys, introduced to new technology, which led to the villagers changing more than the boys.
Luo and the narrator also bring new and unfamiliar technologies and ideas to the village they are staying at, changing the villagers through introduction to innovation. Since the city youths are already exposed to these civilized things, they are not as impacted as the villagers. The narrator and particularly Luo have a gift for storytelling, and they bring civilized Western stories to the village by retelling the plots of movies. The headmaster enjoys these renditions and says, “‘I shall send you to see another film. You will be paid the same as if you had worked in the fields” (Sijie 20). Luo and the narrator consistently tell the stories of these movies, bringing new ideas to the villages. Considering the movies are urban works, and the two boys are bringing this piece of civilization to the village, the villagers are changed through this introduction to innovations. The fact that the headmaster says the boys will be paid the same as if they had worked in the fields shows the irony of the re-education system. Instead of working in the field and becoming accustomed to the land and the way of the ancestors, the boys are watching movies in a civilized town and bringing it to the villagers, the complete opposite of re-education. Also noteworthy is the fact that the headmaster is willing to send these boys to bring a piece of civilization to the rural village. The villagers seem eager to learn about urban technologies and ideas, which sparks the idea that people are always striving to learn and innovate, thus making civilization inevitable. The clock again, which symbolizes modernity, is a piece of technology that support this idea of the willingness of the rural villagers to learn about civilization, and in turn expressing the irony of the re-education system. When the narrator and Luo bring the clock to the village, they are “surprised to see how the alarm clock seized the imagination of the peasants… Everyone came to consult the clock” (Sijie 14). The two boys are already exposed to this technology before they come to the village, and they bring this symbol of civilization with them. The villagers are exposed to new technologies, and they welcome it, the alarm clock seizing their imaginations, and they use it, as they all come to consult the clock. Luo and the narrator bring new civilized technology and in turn, through the villagers using these innovations, the villagers become more civilized themselves, adapting to the ways of civilized people rather than the city youths adapting to the way of the rural people. The goal of re-education is not for the villagers to become one with civilization, it is for city youths to become one with the land, which is the exact opposite of what happens to the narrator and Luo,. The villagers in this novel are exposed to new technologies because of the city youths, thus making them become more civilized and expressing the irony of the re-education system. In addition to the introduction of new technology, the boys also introduce Western culture.
When the narrator and Luo are opened to outlawed Western literature and culture during their re-education, they introduce the same thing to the villagers, changing the villagers through the introduction of Western culture. When the tailor of the mountain requests to stay in the narrator and Luo’s house during his stay in their village, he asks for a bedtime story. The narrator, being recently exposed to Western novels, decides to retell the French story, The Count of Monte Cristo to the tailor. Eventually, the tailor starts to work French culture into the clothes he sews. The narrator says, “inevitably, some of the details he picked up from the French story started to have a discreet influence on the clothes he was making for the villagers” (Sijie 127). The boys are introduced to Western literature, and thus, Western culture, and they end up bringing it to the village they reside in for their re-education. When they open this culture up to the tailor, he integrates it into the clothing he makes. This integration of culture changes the workers. Considering civilization is thought to be Western in Communist China, through bringing this Western culture into the rural village, the village is in turn becoming more civilized. Since the tailor integrates Western, or more specifically, French, influences into the clothes he makes for the workers, and the workers wear this changed style of clothes, the workers become more civilized and accustomed to Western culture. The boys bring this new culture to the peasants, changing them and making them become more civilized. Not only is it ironic that the boys are exposed to Western literature during their re-education, it is ironic that the boys end up changing the villagers to become more civilized rather than the other way around. Furthermore, this passage again shows how willing the villagers on the mountain are to learning and integrating Western culture into their lives. The fact that it is described as inevitable just further proves the point that the lust for innovation and the growth of civilization is, in fact, inevitable.
The narrator and Luo in Dai Sijie’s novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress manipulate and introduce new technologies and cultures to the villagers during their re-education, changing them to become more civilized and in turn expressing the irony of the re-education system. There was no point to the re-education system in Communist China, as the re-educated people ended up diffusing their culture onto the rural people more-so than the other way around, as it was meant to be. It is quite possible that cultural assimilation and technological advancement is inevitable, and while it was a valiant effort on Mao’s part to keep China in a form of the Dark Ages, the inevitability of advancement prevailed. Perhaps communities are meant to become civilized and to constantly advance. In the novel, rural people are astounded by new technologies, such as the alarm clock, and they bring it into daily life, and they accept Western-style clothes with open arms, despite these “bourgeois” ideas being outlawed and suppressed. People are meant to evolve, as seen through the course of history, with technological advancements happening daily. There is no point to try and keep a community in dark, as human curiosity and the inevitability of advancement will always prevail.
Dai Sijie’s Creation of Beauty
Beauty – in its physical embodiments – is one of the most important overarching themes of Dai Sijie’s novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Dai creates a sense of beauty in the novel by highlighting the beauty of the characters, the place and the natural scenery. In exploring beauty in a truly multi-faceted manner, he is exceptional in his use of literary techniques such as attention to detail, juxtaposition, connotation, and metaphor, techniques that together indicate the human desire for beauty.
Firstly, Dai creates a sense of beauty through his portrayal of specific characters; most obvious embodiment of this approach is the Seamstress. In the third chapter of the novel, when Luo and Ma arrive at the tailor’s shop and are first introduced to the Seamstress, she is described with extraordinarily close attention to detail. Instead of talking about her appearance as a whole, Dai instead chooses to write about specific qualities such as the ‘sparkle in her eyes’, the ‘sturdy and supple’ appearance of her shoes, and the way that her pigtail falls from the ‘nape of her neck down to the small of her back’. The smallness of these details, combined with the vulnerability suggested through connotation by words such as ‘supple’ and ‘nape’, illuminates the image of the Seamstress in an incredibly intimate way. The sense of emotional closeness—of tenderness, almost—created as a result is what really makes her seem beautiful.
The Seamstress’s loveliness is also emphasized through the use of connotation in the passage. Throughout the passage, Dai describes her as ‘delicate’, ‘sophisticated’, and ‘fine’. These words, which suggest grace and daintiness, create an image of distinguished beauty. Dai also uses juxtaposing word pairs such as ‘cheap’ and ‘sophisticated’, and ‘barefoot’ and ‘supple’, which also contribute to this impression by showing the contrast between the Seamstress’s feminine refinement and the unattractive coarseness of her surroundings.
However, Dai’s characters don’t just possess beauty in terms of their appearance. The Little Seamstress is one of the most coveted women in the valley, her absence causing ‘great distress to all of the young bachelors.’ Her father the tailor, another major character in the novel, is also shown as having extremely high status, with ‘scenes of great excitement’ following him wherever he went. The pair are also referred to respectively as ‘like a king’ and ‘the princess of Phoenix Mountain’, suggesting that they have been exalted to the status of royalty. The fact that the pair are successful and celebrated almost to the point of being deified adds to their appeal by making the readers view them as people of incredible worth.
It is also worth noting that the tailor’s success is mainly due to the fact that new clothes are ‘much in demand’. The villagers’ desperate want for new attire, as well as the painstaking means through which they acquire it (going ‘all the way’ to Ying Jing to buy cloth and then sitting through arduous meetings with the tailor) suggest that the tailor is a metaphor for the desire for beauty. Dai doesn’t just portray the beauty in his characters, but also in the natural scenery. In the final paragraph of the extract, he recounts the boys’ ascent up a ‘steep, slippery path shrouded in milky fog’. The word choice in this passage is very interesting— ‘shrouded’ suggests etherealness, but also alludes to death; ‘milky’ creates mystery, but also emphasizes the opaqueness and danger of the fog; ‘steep’ and ‘slippery’ suggest excitement and adventure, but also mortal peril. The stark juxtaposition between the mountain’s apparent appeal and its implied danger creates a paradoxical allure.
Dai ultimately depicts the human desire for beauty as a driving force that drastically transforms the lives of his characters. Luo’s desire for beauty – in particular, physical beauty – leads him to pursue the Little Seamstress, a sexual awakening which marks his transition from into adulthood. Similarly, Four-Eyes’ desire for the beauty of Western literature motivates him to smuggle a suitcase of banned books into the country, a foolhardy and extremely dangerous action, but one that ultimately changes his destiny, as he trades the books for poems that enable him to go back to the city. But the most obvious embodiment of the desire for beauty is the Little Seamstress. Four-Eyes’ books introduce her to a world of sophistication and romance, a world which she immediately begins to covet. Such is the extent of her longing for the beauty she saw in the books that she chooses to her appearance and leaves her village in pursuit of her vision. Thus, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress creates a sense of beauty by highlighting the beauty of the characters, and by doing so through carefully-honed yet diverse literary techniques.
Freudian Explanation for Significance of the Narrator’s Dreams
Freudian Explanation for Purpose of the Narrator’s dreams in “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”
Various theories of why we dream range from practical applications like facilitating encoding memories for long term storage or working through problems in an abstract fashion, all the way to activation synthesis theory, which states dreams have no purpose or meaning at all, and are the result of random activity from the pons and brainstem. For anyone unfamiliar with Sigmund Freud, put simply, his theory emphasized dreams reveal our subconscious thoughts and innermost desires. According to Freud, dreams have both manifest content, the remembered story line, and latent content, the hidden meaning. In this theory, dreams are key to understanding inner conflict. This theory can be clearly understood in “Balzac”, as it is easily applied to the central unnamed protagonist. Particularly since the Narrator is confined to a small isolated area with little ties to the outside world and few outlets for his desires and true inclinations on the mountain in the midst of his oppressive reeducation, the Narrator works through these impulses by experiencing extremely vivid dreams. In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, the Narrator’s’ honest, harsh and unwanted thoughts can be blissfully played out within dreams.
The Narrator is constantly torn between his feelings of loyalty towards his best friend, Luo, and feelings for the girl Luo says he loves. This inner tug-of-war is something that is simply impossible to express in reality without creating some kind of emotional fallout or scene, which would be likely to destroy the Narrator’s longtime friendship and would not be tolerated by the strict regime in place on the mountain. To make up for this, the Narrator’s subconscious formulates fantasy worlds for him. One of the narrator’s dreams involved his best friend to have “…dreamed Luo entrusted the master-key to me.”(Sijie 91) a device which is critical to the success of their mission to steal forbidden western novels, of invaluable worth. His dream throws him into the midst of another fairy tale utopian world. Luo’s complete trust and approval has been given to him through this master key, showing the dream gives him one of his deepet desires, Lou’s complete and utter trust and respect. In the dream the mission is successful “As a last resort I tried the master-key again, and suddenly, with a dry click, the padlock gave away.”(92) revealing how these dreams are obviously the narrator’s covet, as the mission goes perfectly only after his own intervention. Dreams also display the Narrator’s greatest sources of expression of hidden desires, seen when the narrator points out “the villagers shouting and singing revolutionary songs” (91). Unable to reveal his yearning for new knowledge in the midst of an oppressive re-education allowing for no western ideas whatsoever, immediately passing the celebration narrator’s actual wishes are, shown in his dream. The narrator’s conscious attempts to concern itself with the events in the village, while the Narrator’s true want is to explore elsewhere in the world, he wants to explore western ideas, or in this case, direct access to Four-Eye’s foreign books, the action taken in the dream, and later in reality when it becomes feasible. The dreams are the direct outlet for his id and those honest yearnings which can not be accepted in the real world.
Another dream of the narrators’ proves his inner thoughts can be more harsh and self-centered altogether. His first thoughts upon waking up in fact seem disappointed, noting that “it took (him) a while to work out where (he) was.” (116). This remark exudes disappointment, suggesting the narrator was happily lost and wrapped up within his dream world. In the dream, the narrator is following close behind a young girl, “A girl of our class, modest, ordinary, the kind of girl I had forgotten existed.”(116). who soon turns “into the Little Seamstress, vivacious, full of fun”(116). In his dream he is finally with the Little Seamstress, a direct link from his real life to fantasy dream life. “I felt myself blushing and my ears turning red-hot, like a teenger on his first romantic assignation.”(92) indicating the Narrator working through his repressed sexual desires, and the subsequent wet dream. After transforming the seamstress grew wings and briefly flew, “While her young lover Luo followed behind on all fours.”(116). Unhappy thoughts of the Seamstress maturing and leaving the clinging Luo behind because she has no need of him anymore are not wanted by the narrator, but make their unwelcome appearance in his dreams. After the dream takes him near a steep cliff, the narrator sees “the Little Seamstress had fallen over the side.” (117). revealing the unknown observations the narrator has subconsciously made, the knowledge the Seamstress is preparing to leave, and his fear she will ‘fall’ and have serious harm come to her as a result, what his subconscious formulates in a description of horrific injuries from the fall over the edge to her death. Possible events the Narrator cannot bring himself to contemplate are done so whether he wants to or not in his dreams.
In the same dream, the narrator finds himself constantly worrying about Luo, another unique connection between real and dream world. One of his introductory thoughts was “what she could be doing there with Luo on the mountain.”(116). The Narrator is so concerned with the competitive aspect between the three friends that he can not even shake the thought in his utmost fantasy world. The unknown girl at the beginning of the dream is a harsh reminder that it may not be the Seamstress herself that the narrator is drawn to, but the femininity, or the boyish competition and adrenalin he receive competing with Luo. The dream gives him readers a look at a harsh reality, but a true, desired reality for the narrator himself. To get revenge and some kind of personal satisfaction, the narrator notes the Seamstress “while her young lover Luo followed behind on all fours.” (117). The narrator has subconsciously bent his dream at will to turn his best friend into a person with beastly, rudamentary animal features, dehumanizing a childhood friend, not to mention his only real connection to his past life. Here, the dream is again giving in to what the Narrator really feels, in this moment an expression of his desire for dominance and victory over Luo, something the Narrator refuses to acknowledge in his conscious actions to avoid jeopardizing the relationship. The dream is able to contain the harsh instinctive urges of the Narrator.
All in all, dreams are an obvious and extremely necessary outlet for the Narrator’s unwelcome and repressed feelings, desires, and fantasies he cannot express or experience, and the thoughts he cannot consciously articulate or refuses to. All of these can be worked through in his dreams, where he cannot escape them and there are no immediate real world repercussions. While the inner machinations of the Narrator’s mind can be made much clearer through psychoanalysis, often our own dreams can be exceeding less telling, much to our own dismay.
‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’ Psychoanalytic-Marxist Analysis of Luo
In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Luo’s attempt to re-educate the Little Seamstress is indicative of his own participation in the class struggle. This protagonist projects his own desire to be a member of the more sophisticated ‘upper-class’ in his education of the Little Seamstress. However, the end results of Luo’s endeavors reveal the somewhat paradoxical approach to issues of class and agency that is central to the narrative
Luo is the son of a victim of China’s oppressive ruling class under Mao. A famous dentist who fixed the supposedly perfect Chairman Mao’s teeth, despite being upper-class in China’s pre-Mao era, Luo’s father was labeled as a reactionary and publicly humiliated “A great slab of cement hung round his neck from a wire so deeply embedded in the skin as to be visible…I could make out a dark stain on the ground…” (Sijie 9). forced to falsely confess to sleeping with a nurse as his crime. Luo is enraged that his father suffered this, becoming fixated on the fact the oppressive regime put his father down. This is made clear from Luo’s punching the narrator in the face after he tears up in sympathy for Luo’s father, causing an outburst of anger from Luo, the only time there was conflict between the two friends. Luo promises “We’ll note down everyone who denounces my father, or beats him. That way we can take our revenge when we’re older.”(9). The dominant class which puts Luo’s father in prison ignites a desire for Luo to seek reconciliation for this wrong by becoming a sophisticated, upper-class man as his father was to undermine and topple Mao’s ruling regime as his revenge.
Once confined to the mountain, Luo transfers his own class struggle through his desire for the seamstress to be recognized as sophisticated, Since “…Luo nor I were high school graduates. We had not enjoyed the privilege of studying at an institution for advanced education…as young intellectuals we had only the statutory three years of lower middle school.” (7). This inferiority complex and need to become cultured and thus upper-class manifests itself in how Luo wants the seamstress to be. Naturally, Luo chooses the daughter of the member of the village who is highest on the social hierarchy, the Taylor. “The Tailor lived like a king…served the choicest food…a pig might even be slaughtered”(22). If Luo could change the daughter of such a man to be sophisticated, it must mean Luo was himself was himself the most erudite. When the narrator asks Luo about his feeling towards the seamstress, Luo replies “She’s not civilised, at least not enough for me!”(27). Luo takes great pride in his teaching the seamstress of western literature. “With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again.” (100). Luo wants the seamstress to embody those same aspects he strives for, educated, refined, powerful, and holding sway over others. Luo projects his aspirations on to her by trying to shape her into something he himself strives to be.
In Luo’s teaching of the seamstress he wants another enlightened ally to help overthrow the bourgeois, China’s oppressive dictatorship, in a world where “Every nook and cranny of the land came under the all-seeing eye of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had cast its gigantic, fine-meshed net over the whole of China.” (160). In the name of his father. Luo comes to deeply care about the seamstress, and falls in love with her, just as he desires to self-actualize through becoming cultured and thus meeting his goal of completing the class struggle through the uprising of the true proletariat as they dissolve Mao’s regime and appropriate an cultured, intellectual, and prosperous life for all— minus the decadence and free of the oppression of the previous bourgeoisie. As the seamstress articulates “It was a totally new experience for me. Before, I had no idea that you could take on the role of a completely different person, actually become that person––a rich lady, for example––and still be your own self.” (145). Just like the seamstress, on an unconscious level, Luo is method acting as an enlightened teacher, projecting his own desires into creating a sophisticated seamstress will indicate he is himself a superior member of the upper class along with her, since he himself is the one who educated the seamstress. “Luo was delighted with her transformation”(104). With an enlightened seamstress by his side, Luo hoped break free of class oppression and escape the mountain, although ironically, it was the seamstress alone who achieved this goal, leaving Luo behind.
Post-Colonial Theory in ‘By Night in Chile’ and ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’
Post-colonial theory divides the colonizer’s point of view from that of the colonized; however, literature, with its promiscuous plurality of points of view can understand, contain, and even synthesize different cultural perspectives. Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile describes members of Chile’s ruling elite under the Pinochet’s dictatorships. Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells of two young bourgeois who are sent to the mountains during China’s Cultural Revolution to be reeducated. How the Chilean and Chinese characters view Western culture depends on the class. Generally, while the educated privileged Chilean and Chinese appreciate and embrace Western culture, peasants either distrust Western culture, as in Mao’s China or are ignorant and indifferent to it, as in Pinochet’s Chile. The novelists, unlike the characters in the novel, are given access to plural visions; only the novelists can see from all points of view: western and colonized, privileged and peasant. Indeed, both Bolaño and Dai explore the complex relationship between different classes by investigating the characters’ relationship with Western Culture. By Night in Chile describes the tormented life of Father Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest, and writer, who is telling the story of his own life throughout a deathbed confession narrative. Father Urrutia, on the verge of death, understands and admits the bad he has done throughout his life. Indeed, Bolaño uses Father Urrutia’s understanding of his faults as a criticism of the Chilean intellectuals. In By Night in Chile, the cultural elite silently accepts both US interference in Chile’s politics and Pinochet’s dictatorship because they sustain their position and privilege. Indeed, what Father Urrutia regrets more is not what he had done throughout his life, but rather what he did not do. He admits that, One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences. (Bolaño 1) Indeed, Father Urrutia had a double moral obligation to act in favor of the doomed, if not as an intellectual, at least as a priest. From his confession, it becomes evident that he was more concerned about his position as an intellectual rather than his position as a priest. From the moment when he enters Farwell’s estate the first time, he becomes more and more obsessed with this new world he just entered in contact with. It is at Farwell’s estate that Father Urrutia can immerse himself into Western literature and culture. Even though he had already entered in contact with Western culture during his seminar having “read a little of Giacomino da Verona and Pietro Bescapè, Bonvesin de la Riva as well” (Bolaño 15), he is not as cultured as Farewell is. Indeed, Farewell wrong-foots Father Urrutia by asking him what he knows about “Sordello? Which Sordello?” (15). From that moment on, Father Urrutia becomes obsessed with Sordello, so that the question “Sordello? Which Sordello?” (15) Becomes a central motif of the story. Sordello represents Father Urrutia’s need to be recognized as an intellectual, so that the thought of “Sordello? Which Sordello?” (15) Will come to his mind in the most various situations. Father Urrutia thinks of Sordello while being hosted in different churches around Europe as well as he thinks of Sordello after having taught Marxism to Pinochet and his general. At this point, Father Urrutia is completely alienated by literature. When he comes back to Chile from his long journey across Europe, he finds a complex political situation. Before coming back, he decides that once in Chile he should have started acting as a patriot and do something for his country, yet once again he will not act. This is no time to dream, I said to myself, I must act on my principles. […] I must be a patriot. In Chile things were not going well. For me, things had been going well, but not for my country. […] When I got back to my house, I went straight to my Greek classic. [… ] I started with Homer and then moved on to Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon, and then a pro-Allende general was killed. […] I also read Demosthenes and Menander and Aristotle ad Plato […] and then came the coup d’état […] the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place and I thought: Peace at least. (Bolaño 73-76) Father Urrutia spends his time reading Greek philosophy books while Pinochet is organizing his coup d’état. Instead of embracing his intellectual role by doing something for the society (he could have denounced the political situation in his literary works) he spends his time reading and writing reviews of other intellectuals’ books. As a consequence, Father Urrutia represents the indifference of the literary class towards the political crisis of Chile. Indeed, not only he does not act, but he also feels relieved when Allende commits suicide as if the political instability his country is going through distracts him from what he considers more important: acting as an intellectual. If up to this point Father Urrutia’s only fault is that he did not act, now he becomes an active supporter of Pinochet’s dictatorship by giving him philosophy’s lessons. It is true that Father Urrutia could not have refused a role assigned him by Pinochet, yet he could have used his knowledge in his favor. Pinochet sees himself as a member of a privileged restricted group of people, those who read and have a culture, and he counterpoises his group to those who he defines as ignorant, a category that comprehends both the common people and his political opponents. He seems to justify his political takeover by valuing culture as an essential political tool. Indeed, to gain more power, he asks Father Urrutia to teach him some basic Marxist notions. For that reason, Pinochet reveals to Father Urrutia that, If someone doesn’t read or study, he’s not an intellectual; any fool can see that. And what do you think Allende used to read? […] Magazines. All he read was magazines — summaries of books. Articles his followers used to cut out for him. I have it from a reliable source, believe me (Bolaño 89-90) Allende lack of culture becomes for Pinochet a valid justification for his coup d’état. In his opinion, to maintain power, one needs to be curios and study other forms of government too. Indeed, while talking about Marxism with Father Urrutia, Pinochet, and his generals often compered Marxist theory with “Chairman Mao’s military accomplishments […] [and] the Cuban secret services” work (Bolaño 86). Culture assumes a negative value again since it becomes a tool useful in totalitarianism. However, in his book, Bolaño is not critiquing culture itself; he is critiquing the effect that culture has on the intellectual. Father Urrutia is the character that better symbolize intellectuals’ alienation from society. For instance, when he is going to Farewell estate, he meets some peasants that offer him foods and beverage and ask him to say a prayer for a sick child. Instead of accomplishing his priest task, Father Urrutia thought, [T]hey were all ugly. The women were ugly, and their words were incoherent. The silent man was ugly, and his stillness was incoherent. The men who were walking away were ugly, and their zigzag paths were incoherent. God have mercy on them and on me. Lost souls in the desert. I turned my back on them and walked away (21) He is disgusted by the peasants, and he does not want to spend his time with them. He recognizes them all as lost souls and turns his back on them. By turning his back on them, Father Urrutia is representing both the failure of the church and of the cultured people who betrayed the common people of Chile in favor of their interest. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the story of two city boys, the unnamed narrator and his friend Luo, who during China’s Cultural Revolution have been sent on the mountain to be re-educated. Re-education aims to bring the city youth closer to the simplicity of country life and to free them from the danger of culture. However, during their stay on the mountain, the two boys influence the peasants more than the peasants influence them. From the beginning of the story, the two guys influence and surprise the peasants with their culture. However, the peasants need time to appreciate the culture of the two boys and to find a way to exploit it to their advantage. When the boys first arrive on the mountain, the peasants are intrigued by the narrator’s violin that they see as a “stupid toy […] from the city” (Dai 8). They look at it with perplexed expressions, and they become even more puzzled when Luo suggests that his friend plays a Mozart sonata since “[a]ll music by Mozart or indeed by any other Western composer had been banned years ago” (Dai 9). Indeed, to be allowed to play the sonata the two boys need to say that its title was “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao” (Dai 9). The narrator admits that “the peasants’ faces, so grim a moment before, softened under the influence of Mozart’s limpid music like parched earth under a shower” (Dai 9). Thus, music becomes an element capable of uniting different worlds and making everyone feel the same emotions. It does not matter that the two boys had to lie about the name of the sonata, what matters is that through the music they discovered that the peasants are not so different from them. However, music is also an escape from the new reality that makes the two boys feel sad; it represents a link with their past life. For instance, when Luo wake up in the middle of the night feeling depressed, he asks his friend to “play [him] something on [his] violin” (Dai 16). The peasants also seem to appreciate Luo’s talent in telling stories, a talent that seems to be, instead, underestimated in modern society. Even though they never could enter in contact with culture, they seem to appreciate it. The narrator admits that “the only man in the world who truly appreciated [Luo’s] gift, to the point of rewarding him generously, was the headman of [their] village, the last of the lordly devotees of narrative eloquence” (Dai 18). The two boys, indeed, started telling the stories of old movies they saw to the villagers, who were so enthusiastic about their performance that they decided to give the two guys four days of leave to go to the nearest city and see a film that they would then have to tell them. The boys’ culture becomes an extremely appreciated tool, so that once a month the two boys “will be paid the same as if [they] had worked in the fields” to go to the city and see a movie (Dai 19). The main objective of re-education is, therefore, failing: living in an isolated village on a mountain does not prevent the two boys from continuing to increase their culture, even if in different forms. It is precisely in the mountains that the two boys come into contact with the some almost forgotten Chinese poems as well as with Western culture. The two boys discover that their friend Four-Eyes has a suitcase full of Western books that have been banned in China for some time. To get in touch with those forbidden books, the two boys offer to help Four-Eyes in exchange for those precious manuscripts. Four Eyes asks his friends to go to the old miller, who is a guardian of local folk songs, and collect some of the poems he knows for him. Wanting to share the ancient Chinese poems with one of his Western books, Four Eyes puts the same level as the Chinese culture and Western culture, showing that despite being different from each other, neither of them is superior. The universality of culture is also demonstrated by the narrator himself. Reading those forbidden books, he can understand what he wants from his life. Although the protagonists of his beloved books are totally different from him (living in a different historical period and a different cultural context) the narrator can recognize himself in them. He discovers that his dreams are not so different from their dreams; therefore, he can project himself into those books, discovering himself. He is particularly impressed by the book Jean-Christophe, so that he admits that, “Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him, I would never have understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual” (Dai 110). The splendor of individuality is, indeed, a feature that unites all human beings, without distinction of nationality or culture.
On the whole, By Night in Chile and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress are two books that analyze the relationship between characters and culture. Culture can have different roles depending on the social class to which one belongs and the historical period in which one is living. However, culture is a fundamental element of the life of a community. It does not matter whether it is popular culture or elite culture, it should always be used to improve people’s life. Father Urrutia could have changed the lives of many ordinary people in Chile thanks to culture, just as the life of the narrator changed thanks to Western literature. Culture, therefore, should always improve people’s life.
Work Cited Dai, Sijie. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Paw Prints, 2010. Bolano, Roberto. By Night in Chile. A New Directions paperback.