An Unexpectedly Pleasant Acquisition:
What a quiet little jewel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie turned out to be. A thin book that you could easily miss on a bookstore shelf, it packs a powerful story that helped me muster a degree of patience when dealing with some of the lingering disorder in China while I was living there earlier this year.
The story tells of two ‘intellectuals’, labeled such by Mao Zedong’s regime, who are sent to be re-educated. An experience that entails being shipped off to a peasant village where technology such as a tabletop alarm clock is regarded with an awe normally reserved for the supernatural or alien invasions. An experience that thousands were put through during the cultural upheaval wrought by the Chairman’s misguided zeal.
Actual intellectuals were simply imprisoned, or worse. With the goal being to stamp out the traditionally educated class, the more useful an individual you were, the worse your punishment. The parents of the two boys, competent doctors, had been declared enemies of the state…because they were doctors…because they knew how to help people.
Lord. Living in China could be frustrating at times (at many times), but at least I was not being sent to live in a hut simply because I had the audacity to progress past middle school.
Gentle, Humorous, and Hopeful:
The story itself is touching, with elements of coming-of-age blended with themes of the transformative power of stories. A reserved tale about how imagination and desire can flourish even beneath the odium of an oppressive state and widespread ignorance, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a work that leaves you with a newfound appreciation for art yourself, grateful for the freedom to dream, and to share those dreams without fear of being punished for such daring.
Even though the premise of the novel is bleak, there is plenty of joy and humor to be found in it, molded into these little moments through the book. An optimism bleeds through. Knowing that the author himself experienced such ‘re-education’ and can compose a tale about it with a tender touch is reassuring, comforting somehow. That instead of reacting to such absurdity with venom or pessimism or hatred as would be all too easy, he treats it as what it is, and makes the most out of it, channeling the past (unpleasant or not) into a creative work.