Friday, May 22, 2020

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

I read BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS for the first time when I was a very young teenager. I applaud my mom for giving this to me because, like a fine wine, this book is easy to consume when young, but gets better for age. Under 200 pages, with spare prose and simple language, it's a short, easy read and goes by quickly, and it helps that the characters themselves are teenagers as well, even though this isn't a young adult book.

The (I believe unnamed) main character and his friend, Luo, are sent to the Chinese countryside during the "reeducation period" under the leadership of Chairman Mao. During the reeducation period, the children of the bourgeois were sent to the rural parts of China to toil alongside the working class and basically learn what it meant to be a real patriot: hard-working and free from finery.

Luo is the quick-thinker of the duo and is able to save the narrator's violin by convincing the inspector that it's an instrument, and that the Mozart song is actually an ode to Mao.

As the story continues, we see them try to adjust to the discomfort of living on a mountain, slogging around shit, working in the muddy fields, and braving the precarious twists and turns of the mountain paths. One day, they meet the daughter of the tailor-- the "Little Chinese Seamstress"-- and Luo falls in love with her. At the same time, they acquire a book through bribery (and then more through theft), and Luo is convinced that with these books, he can civilize LCS into a real bourgeois city girl.

Books at this time were banned, so the whole time you're reading this story, there's a very real sense of danger. At the same time, it's endearing to watch three young people fall in love with reading, drawn to the forbidden with the same reckless candor that attracts modern youth to alcohol or drugs. My parents had me watch the movie before I read the book and I remember saying, in my naivete, "They should just ban books because then kids would actually want to read them." Which is probably true, but banning books carries a whole host of problems that naive 13-year-old me didn't consider.

Whether it's the odd hypocrisies of the Communist era of China, the pleasure of learning to fall in love with reading, or the oddly satisfying ending of Pygmalion being thwarted by his Galatea, there's a lot to unpack in this book and I think I actually enjoyed it in a different way the second time around. I would definitely recommend this to young adults, though, and honestly, now is the PERFECT time to read it, because May is AAPI Heritage month, and this would make a great pick.

4 out of 5 stars

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