Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Sijie Dai

There are two kinds of good books: those that leave you feeling satisfied and those that leave you wondering. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Sijie Dai is one of those that leaves you wondering.

Set during the Cultural Revolution of mid-twentieth century China, the book chronicles the lives of two Chinese youths who are sent from the city to a mountain village to begin the process of “re-education,” Chairman Mao’s attempt to purge young intellectuals of their bourgeois ideas and reform them into good Communists. They spend most of their time doing back-breaking labor under the eye of the sadistic village headman. During one of their rare holidays, they meet the young daughter of a tailor in a neighboring village. Gentle, unsophisticated, full of her own native wisdom, and intoxicatingly beautiful, the little Chinese seamstress stirs romantic longings in both the callow youths, and they vie for her attentions in their different ways.

Visits to the little seamstress give their lives new meaning, but a second obsession takes hold of them when they discover a cache of Western literature unbelievably secreted away in these remote mountains. Books of all sorts, except the most dry scientific and political ones, had been banned since the time of Mao, so this was an incredible treasure. Reading these books and sharing them with others they dared to trust makes their interminably boring and brutal lives more tolerable.

The little Chinese seamstress is of course among the first with whom they share their treasures, and she listens wide-eyed and open-mouthed, drinking it all in. The effects of these new ideas lead to a dramatic turn in the novel and leave the reader wondering: is it always good to make the innocent wise? What makes knowledge a good thing, and what prevents it from harming us?

This novel is among the book club kits available in our library system, and its open-endedness makes it a good choice. I am greatly looking forward to discussing it with my book club and finding out what the other members think about the fate of the little Chinese seamstress.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog

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One Response to “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Sijie Dai”

  1. Ash Says:

    It was truly an interesting book and I agree with your conclusion on the fine balance between innocence and having too much knowledge

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