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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Chick Gets Liberated

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, fanciful tale by Dai Sejie, deals with post-Cultural Revolution China and the “re-education” of students sent to the countryside. Our narrator remains nameless throughout the entire journey, as we see his love for the Little Chinese Seamstress, daughter of the Mountain Tailor and his adventures with fellow student and storyteller, Luo.

Although their education barely began, the Cultural Revolution sent thousands of junior high, high school, and college students into the fields to learn what it was like to be a proletariat. In reality, they destroyed three generations’ worth of potential middle-class workers and reduced them to hard labor as farm workers. It wasn’t to teach them; merely to punish them for being born into opportunities that others did not have.

These particular students are finishing out 6 weeks of labor in various villages. Their education, as being somewhat limited, has marked them as subversives since they are able to read English and Chinese. Luo and the Narrator discover their talents as storytellers, actors, and musicians, as they are sent on journeys from the small village they are quartered at, in order to see a movie and act it out as entertainment for the peasants back at home base. Of course, it is done under the threat of confinement to the fields if, at the end of their stay, they do not feel that either of the boys have been adequately humiliated…err “re-educated.”

On one of their trips, they meet Four Eyes, an arrogant, condescending student who is nearly blind without the aid of his glasses and possesses a hidden cache of contraband treasure: a suitcase of Western literature. Anything from the West was deemed subversive and books, like Balzac, were burned and their owners murdered or embarrassed in the kangaroo courts of public opinion.

Luo and company offer their services to Four Eyes in order to get a look at and borrow the forbidden books. Eventually, they are made desperate by the latter’s broken book promises and plans to move back to the city, until they finally work up the courage to steal the suitcase.

Once they do, Luo and the narrator embark upon a literary sojourn into medieval Europe, Victorian England, and the French Terror, always fearing that they will be caught and executed. The Little Chinese Seamstress happens upon the writings of Balzac and Luo, trying to impress, reads her passages out of their stash of books, sneaking out each night to trek across a perilous chasm.

The irony is, the Little Chinese Seamstress loses the simplicity that so charmed Luo, tailors her clothes, cuts her hair, and leaves for the city, believing that her beauty is too precious to be wasted upon a country bumpkin. The sophistication she assumes leaves Luo’s arms empty and the storyteller’s fantasy broken.

Writing in first person without having a name for the central character is usually a major stumbling block for most authors. Sejie, however, makes it seem completely natural, so that you don’t even notice it until you start hearing the titles of each person used. I only noticed midway through the novel, which I finished in one sitting.

The story is sweet, without being too wistful. This contemporary Asian Romeo, ends up being left because Juliet donned heels and decided Verona was too provincial. It is amusing to see the preconceptions the Little Seamstress had about sophistication yet pathetic to see how limited she still remained, absorbing only the surface content of what these Western writers had to author. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress manages to blend history, romance, and irony and innocence in the mountains of rural China.

About the Contributor
MiMi Yeh served as arts editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2001-2002; *2002-2003; 2003-2004 *Evan Sicuranza served as arts editor for Fall 2002 Disclaimer: Years served is based on online database and may not detail entire service.