Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress | From the Guardian | The GuardianThe Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong altered Chinese history in the s and '70s, forcibly sending hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals to peasant villages for "re-education. Sijie's unnamed year-old protagonist and his best friend, Luo, are bourgeois doctors' sons, and so condemned to serve four years in a remote mountain village, carrying pails of excrement daily up a hill. Only their ingenuity helps them to survive. The two friends are good at storytelling, and the village headman commands them to put on "oral cinema shows" for the villagers, reciting the plots and dialogue of movies. When another city boy leaves the mountains, the friends steal a suitcase full of forbidden books he has been hiding, knowing he will be afraid to call the authorities. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo, who adores the Little Seamstress, dreams of transforming her from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Washington Post Book World Set in a rural Chinese province in the early s, during the horrifying period of Communist "reeducation" known as the Cultural Revolution, Sijie's book tells the story of two privileged friends forced into a life of backbreaking labor for the state. Because their parents are doctors, the boys become objects of relentless suspicion, making their chances of parole unlikely. They have only their wits, and their mutual love of storytelling, to help them survive. After the boys find a box of contraband Western literature in Chinese translation, they begin discussing the stories with an unschooled seamstress. It's a bold move that becomes the turning point of their lives. Sijie's novel has all the makings of a great story: strong-willed, sympathetic heroes faced with tremendous obstacles, who are unwilling to compromise their ideals; a clear-cut antagonist; and even a little romance.
In , teenage friends Dai and Luo, both children of class enemies, are expelled from the city to the hills. Their re-education involves carrying buckets of excrement up precipitous slopes and digging for coal in hand-hewn mines.
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C an a chicken be described as "bourgeois"? That's a question - the answer to which turns out to be yes - thrown up during this engaging Chinese-French co-production: an offbeat love-story set during the Maoist "re-education" camps of the s. Reactionary urban types were packed off to the countryside there, to refresh their ideological purity at the wellspring of peasant revolution. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress shows China's ambivalent attitude to both its past and present, and leniently - maybe a little too leniently - remembers the Cultural revolution as no worse than national service: a rough-and-tumble boot camp with absurd rules and a bullying yokel party boss in the gruff sergeant-major role. It is here that two teenage boys, Luo Kun Chen and Ma Ye Liu receive a sentimental education of sorts at the hands of a young woman from a neighbouring village. She is the beautiful granddaughter of the local tailor, known as Little Seamstress - played by Zhou Xun, seen in British cinemas three years ago as the enigmatic Meimei in Ye Lou's Hitchcockian drama Suzhou River.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress , translated from the original French the book was a bestseller in France is a tale centered on, of all things, the Cultural Revolution of China's Chairman Mao Zedong. Anyone who takes for granted the freedom from government that Western cultures enjoy would do well to read this book. But this wonderful novel novella really is not about politics,except in a cursory way; nor is it a treatise on the evils of China during the reign of Chairman Mao. It is, instead, a gentle, wise and humorous tale of two teenaged friends, young boys, and of a young teenaged girl, theseamstress of the title, whose striking beauty charms them both. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reads like an amalgam of a Grimm's fairy tale and a story by the great writer of realism, Guy de Maupassant rather than the title-named Balzac. Certainly the ending is not unlike the endings in many a Maupassant tale in its surprise and its quietly humorous perversity. Luo and his friend, the narrator of the book, are young boys taken from their homes as were many during the Cultural Revolution and sent to a remote village to be "re-educated".
The last 60 or 70 years, when the timeless traditions of brute force and realpolitik have gone into hiding behind a series of outlandish ideologies, have probably been the most bizarre in all human history. The new-style Orwellian ideologues -- Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others -- have proved more bloody and ruthless than the worst of the Old World's tyrants, mere megalomaniacs like Caligula and Napoleon. Perhaps the most Orwellian system of all -- more Orwellian than anything even Orwell could have imagined -- was Mao's Cultural Revolution, which began in and continued until the dictator's death a decade later. It was intended to stamp out the educated class and directed specifically against the ''Four Olds'': old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. The urban bourgeoisie were deemed enemies of the people, and so-called young intellectuals -- that is, youths who had attended secondary school -- were sent to the country to be ''re-educated'' by the supposedly virtuous peasantry. Between and , some 12 million youths were thus ''rusticated.