Written by Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress takes place during the peak of the Chinese Cultural revolution ran by Chairman Mao Zedong in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Reason for this revolution was because in Moa view, people had to go back to the way they used to live before change, is one similar to a peasant. This caused the temporary ban on western literature in China, because Mao believed a person’s individualism and idealism (their identity) is what makes up their own perspective on things; identity. When thinking about the term identity, it can be interpreted that it is the way we see ourselves and the way we are seen by others, and a person’s identity is usually influenced by certain external factors, such as reading. Dai Sijie addresses the point that the exposure to culture through the use of literature has the power to build a person and their view of the world. There are many characters in the novel that are influenced and educated by context in western literature, three of which are the nameless narrator, Luo; naraters friend, and the Little Seamstress. Firstly, the narrator of the novel is a person whose individuality and maturity grew over the course of reading the novels.
Prior to the discovery of the books, the narrator and his friend, Luo, would work at the village’s fields as part of their re-education. Once in awhile the narrator and Luo would entertain the villagers with skill they obtained in the city, like playing the violin or storytell. However, when Luo and him discovers a stash of Western classics, he started to develop his own perspective on things and develop skills. Out of all the books he’s read, the one that stood out the most was a novel called, “Jean Christopher” by Romain Rolland. During a point in the novel, when the narrator and his friend need to pass over a narrow and steep path, the narrator calls upon Christophe for guidance. “I couldn’t move, and there, stuck in the middle of the ridge, I wondered what my good friend Jean-Christophe would say if I were to turn back.” (114). Using his own judgement, using the character as reinforcement, the narrator made a choice to avoid crossing the ridge to prevent unfortunate outcomes, like falling.
Jean-Christophe has evidently had the effect of providing the narrator with the skills of being independent towards himself and his choices. showing that the narrator is maturing and developing. Jean Christophe, without him, the narrator claims that he would never have understood the “splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual (110)”. This is just the main skill he has picked up from reading books, he had some perspective changes on certain topics, such as the idea of love and women. Therefore, all this shows that the narrator of the novel definitely did change due to the impact causes by the novels.
Secondly, Luo is also an example of someone who’s idea of the world changed and matured after being affected by the effects of literature. Luo as a character already possesses qualities in leadership, individualism and keenness. Thus, the novels themselves didn’t really affect Luo directly, however the effects the novels had on his girlfriend, The Little Seamstress, results in him understanding the effects literature can have on people. At the begining of the novel, when Luo met the Seamstress, he immediately fell in love, though he thought she could be a little more “civilized and cultured” for him. He uses the books the narrator and him found to educate the seamstress and make it his goal that with the books, he intends to transform the seamstress, and that “She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again (100).
” The novel did indeed change the seamstress, however, the authors of the novels completely changed her perspective on life, more specifically Balzac. Luo certainly noticed changed in the seamstress, and was delighted but also very suppose, what they were unaware of, was the ultimate payoff of this metamorphosis, the feat of Balzacian reeducation (180).” From this experience, Luo became dumbfounded by the results left by the stories he had read to her, so he burns all the books because of what their influence did to his one true love.Finally, the character who was in fact the most influenced by the novels was The Little Seamstress.
When the narrator and luo first meet her, she is described as being the prettiest girl they have ever seen. As a result, both characters fell in love with her, however Luo wanted her to be more civilised to be worthy of his love. The Seamstress herself also desired to learn alot about culture outside of the mountain, (as a resident on the mountain, she was an unfortunate victim to Mao’s law of no literature, lack of accessibility to bourgeois objects such as instruments, and school). So, to introduce her to everything, Luo would just retell a couple of short stories he had known of the top off his head, but once the boys have their hands on some books, they would secretly bring passages of the books and let the seamstress read them. As she read the books, she became evidently attached with books written by Balzac (whose books are mainly based on women empower). As she reads a passage from Balzac’s from the inside of the narrator’s jacket, she wore it when she finished. The narrator narrates, “This fellow Balzac is a wizard. He touched the head of this mountain girl with an invisible finger, and she was transformed, carried away in a dream… She said having Balzac’s words next to her skin made her feel good, and also more intelligent.
(62)” . from this, readers can tell that she is starting to mentally mature as she reads and obtain knowledge and ideas from the books she’s read. Mid way through the books, the little seamstress and luo react a scene from novel they read earlier, and the little seamstress is proud of whom she tried to impersonate.
“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). At this point, she realizes that she can be anything she wants to be, and it is evidently something she is really interested in. Near the end of the novel, the little Seamstress starts altering her appearance to look more modern. She then unexpectedly heads out to the city, while taking with her the acquired knowledge of her celebrated beauty that allowed her to move forward and embark on a new life; by taking Balzac’s words to heart, “a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” (184), The Little Seamstress set forth to make use of the one quality she knew she had and explore opportunities that would separate her from the mechanical life she was doomed to live. Literature offered her not just experiences she had offered by Luo, but also the understanding that she had to be part of such a world for her new dreams to be realized.
So from this it can be further understood that Dai Sujies illustrates that the ideas of culture laid out by pieces of literature can help evolve a person’s individualism and development of sense of self. In conclusion, The Narrator, Luo, and The Little Seamstress were all great representations of this idea when looking at their experiences and how they have grown as characters . As a result of this, it can be understood why Mao banned books, as the experiences of the characters help explain how external factors like literature can improve one’s self understand of themselves, resulting in changes in their perspectives and the way they approach thing.