Historical Fiction Book Reviews

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

If I had to pick one word to describe this book, I’d have to go with clever. I wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going as the plot is heavily character driven, but the last page had me smiling. The book, while not incredibly deep, still left me feeling good.

“She said she learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.”

The story follows two boys sent to rural mountains for “re-education.” During their stay the boys discover a mutual love not only of books but also a beautiful seamstress, the crown jewel of Phoenix mountain. One boy courts her while the other watches on in envy, “protecting” her from other suitors when his friend is not around while imagining stealing her away. Both boys feel a sense of ownership over her, are proud of her and love to show her off. They dream of educating her so that she will no longer be an uncultured mountain girl, which I imagine sounds just as insulting to you as it did to me. Actually there were a lot of things about the boys’ relationship with the seamstress that while it started out cute it ended up speaking volumes about “traditional” attitudes toward women and their role in society. What is the worth of a woman? For that matter, what is the value of an education?

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a wonderful historical piece that gives insight into Mao’s Cultural Revolution while also exploring themes of love and adolescence. If you aren’t terribly familiar with Mao’s Revolution than I would definitely recommend looking it up before giving this book a read to add some context. All around the book was a pleasant read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: September 11, 2001
Number of Pages: 201
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

At the height of Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution, two boys are among hundreds of thousands exiled to the countryside for “re-education.” The narrator and his best friend, Luo, guilty of being the sons of doctors, find themselves in a remote village where, among the peasants of Phoenix mountain, they are made to cart buckets of excrement up and down precipitous winding paths. Their meager distractions include a violin—as well as, before long, the beautiful daughter of the local tailor.

But it is when the two discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation that their re-education takes its most surprising turn. While ingeniously concealing their forbidden treasure, the boys find transit to worlds they had thought lost forever. And after listening to their dangerously seductive retellings of Balzac, even the Little Seamstress will be forever transformed.

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