Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (China)

When I was in graduate school, my friend Hanjo, also in the program, told me that he found the English language to be flat and two-dimensional. In Chinese, he said, when you write, you actually see the thing you’re writing about. It’s like drawing a tree and writing tree at the same time, he said. Chinese writing. Chinese food. Chinese dragons.

China has had such a HUGE unique presence in the world that I felt fine with reading a little tiny book for my Chinese choice. (I feel I know more about China than some other countries I’ve picked out, that is.) And this tiny good little bBalzacook fell into my hands from the free box at Auntie’s. Score!

The Setting

The book takes place during China’s cultural revolution, when intellectuals were sent into the country to work with their hands and peasants were sent into the cities to be academics.

I can only imagine how awful it would be to be ripped from doing what you love and sent to do something you don’t know how to do. I am an intellectual. I would hate to have to work in a rice paddy or, like the city boys in the book, get exiled to a mountain village where first they have to work in a coal mine and later they have to carry buckets of excrement and water on their backs to the fields.

But the peasants sent to the city don’t have it much better–I imagine that the dentist who pulls the tooth of the village headman was one–he pulls the wrong tooth and the headman returns to his village worse off than before. There’s a scene with a sewing machine and this tooth that almost made me pass out.

But despite all of the upheaval, life goes on, and one of the boys falls in love. Even better, they suspect their friend Four-Eyes has smuggled a suitcase full of books into exile and begin scheming to get their hands on them.

There are a lot of comic moments in the story and I thought this worked well to underscore the larger tragedy, the wasted lives of people forced beyond their inclinations for the sake of an empty ideology.

It’s interesting because the story is told from the point of view of one of the boys, but in the end it is the girl that turns everything on its head.


I would give this one a suitcase full of books!

It’s funny how, reading these books randomly, one informs the other. There is a reference in this book to Don Quixote, which I just finished…

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