The fable of spiritual awakening

Aggie Zaremba
Special to the Daily"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" tells the story of an inner journey that continues against all odds.

The very first pages of the book take the reader to infamous times of Chinese Cultural Revolution.

“…towards the end of 1968, the Great Helmsman of China’s Revolution, Chairman Mao, launched a campaign that would leave the country profoundly altered,” writes Dai Sijie, who himself experienced the odds of the revolution. “The universities were closed and all “young intellectuals,’ meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated by the poor peasants.'”

Luo and his unnamed friend (the narrator) are among those hundreds of thousands exiled “young intellectuals.” They are sent to the place known as the Phoenix of the Sky, the area comprising twenty villages hidden in the slopes of Western China. At the age of 17, guilty of being the sons of doctors, they find themselves living in the most harsh conditions one can imagine, surrounded by primitive and hostile villagers, who smell sabotage in any unknown object, even if it’s just a violin or a clock. Forced to cart buckets of excrement up and down steep, winding paths and crawl naked through mines, hauling coal to the surface, two teen-agers soon become to live in their own world of music, storytelling and juvenile humour.

From then on, the story continues as a combination of quite loose plots, which finally lead the boys to worlds they had thought were lost forever.

Their inner journey begins when the village headman discovers Lou’s storytelling skills and sends two boys to the nearby town. Their task is to attend a movie show and re-enact the film for the villagers. Soon the two become quite proficient at bringing uncivilized farmers to tears over North Korean melodramas, like “The Little Flower Girl.”

Support Local Journalism

In the meantime, they meet the Little Seamstress, the daughter of a local tailor. This “princess of Phoenix mountain,” who wears pale pink canvas shoes, quickly attracts Luo’s attention. The girl becomes Luo’s lover and companion in his trip towards enlightenment, which has its climax when two boys discover a leather suitcase filled with translations of forbidden Western books at their friend’s house.

The discovery has a stunning effect on both teen-agers.

“Picture … a boy of 19,” says the narrator, “having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion … love, of all the subjects that had been hidden from me.”

Hoping to make the Little Seamstress more sophisticated as well, Lou reads the books to her. Afterwards, she will never be the same – she feels as if “carried away in a dream.”

“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is the first book by Dai Sijie. Born in China, Dai Sijie is a filmmaker, who was himself “re-educated.” In 1984, he left China for France, where he has lived and worked ever since. The book got numerous prizes and is being made into a film.

It’s available through Verbatim Booksellers in Lionshead and the Bookworm in Edwards.

Support Local Journalism