A Mountain of Stories

March 5, 2001

Dai Sijie (Ine Rilke trans.), Bladzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, London: Chatto & Windus, 2001

Reviewed by Glen Jennings


An important sub-genre of Chinese writing is currently making an impact on the world.  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress joins an impressive list of Cultural Revolution memoirs and novels published in the last two decades, most written by authors with first-hand experience as victims of Red Guards or as urban youth banished from their homes for re-education in the countryside.  This literary genre is far from exhausted.  Millions of urban youth – Dai Sijie among them – were sent to cool their heels, to pay their penance, to languish or to die on mountains, farms, and in China’s remote wastelands in the late 1960s and ‘70s.  Dai Sijie’s novel is set in rural Sichuan, near the border with Tibet.  It is the story of two high school students from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and their relationship with a local girl on wild Phoenix Mountain.  Their story unfolds at a time of sweeping social movement in Mao’s China, but on their remote peaks and in the immediacy of Dai’s first-person narrative their story reads as personal and unique, an intimate expression of friendship, despair and love framed by the terrible beauty of precipitous mountains.

The two teenage boys, Luo and the unnamed narrator, arrive in the backward region in 1971, after ‘completing’ a high school education seriously disrupted by the political rampages of the Cultural Revolution and severely limited by the narrow prescriptions of Maoist orthodoxy.  Luo, the son of a famous dentist who had worked both on Mao Zedong and his nemesis Chiang Kai-shek, is now labelled the offspring of a class enemy.  The same fate has befallen the narrator, the son of two important – but less prominent – doctors.  The boys face a life of re-education under the supervision of poor peasants, many of whom are illiterate, all of them struck with wonder at the sight of Luo’s alarm clock.  Phoenix Mountain is economically and culturally underdeveloped.  It had been an opium-growing region in the past, and the veneer of socialism is particularly thin.  Local sorceresses appear like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, and the poorly educated village youth think any picture of a westerner must be either Marx or Engels.  Authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism feature prominently, and the boys live under political surveillance and threat.  They labour in unsafe coalmines, in terraced fields, and on narrow mountain passages, slopping excrement in heavy buckets strapped to their backs.

Friends from school days, and linked by a common fate, Luo and the narrator become confidantes and allies.  They struggle to keep each other safe and sane, helping with any physical labour or emotional need, and protecting each other from political danger.  Luo, for example, cunningly defends his young friend’s devotion to Western music – thereby saving him from further punishment – by explaining to the incredulous village headman that the violin sonata he was playing is called Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.  The narrator – in his turn – protects Luo’s illicit relationship with the eponymous seamstress, the beautiful teenage daughter of the local tailor.  What dangers they create for themselves they meet together, and they take risks to make their lives more bearable and enjoyable.  Soon after arriving on Phoenix Mountain the two boys realise their creative talents, developing a repertoire as storytellers.  To the awed delight of local peasants, these intellectual youth refashion “safe” plotlines from Chinese and North Korean films.  But for their own secret consumption, and for a select few – especially the little seamstress whose beauty and compassion inspires devotion in both of them – they risk more challenging narratives.  They steal, secretly read, furtively copy, and joyfully elaborate forbidden classics of western literature, works by banned authors including Balzac, Romain Rolland, Hugo and Dumas.  Dai’s narrative conveys the depths of feeling shared by Luo and his friend as they secretly devour these forbidden texts and share their new adventures and emotions with their local muse.  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an exploration of meaning in and through stories.

The foreign books loved by this secret trio were banned during the Cultural Revolution, for they did not meet the xenophobic and proletarian strictures of Chinese Socialist Realism.  Fu Lei, the Chinese translator of Rolland, was condemned as a bourgeois expert and enemy of the people, just as Luo and the narrator’s parents were labelled class enemies.  Dai Sijie does not mention this fact in his novel, but Fu Lei and his wife committed suicide in 1966, during a particularly violent phase of Mao’s revolutionary storm.  Luo and the narrator – a couple thrown together during this social hurly-burly – do not leap off a precipice, but they do constantly worry if they will die down the mine, or if they will ever achieve political rehabilitation and leave Phoenix Mountain alive.  They persist in living, despite the obstacles.  They duck and scheme and contrive ways to be with the little seamstress.  They risk discovery or death in order to live, and to be touched by genuine – not politically sanctioned – feeling.  Luo and his friend are witty and audacious.  Their adventures are both fast-paced and reflectively considered.  It is not difficult to sympathise with their thoughts and emotions, and one can imagine readers finishing this personal narrative in a single sitting.

Like the local yokels who ogle from outside her door, we are drawn to the radiance of the little seamstress – an unparalleled beauty that inspires protective pride in Luo and the narrator.  We admire her vigour and her unusual degree of independence; her widower father is frequently away in nearby villages, making wedding clothes or outfits for New Year.  She is a young woman of a certain personal confidence, despite her self-conscious lack of formal education.  She dares to take the plunge, and to pursue her desires.  We applaud her friendship with the two urban outcasts, and empathise with her suffering borne of a love that could bring ruin.  But through the course of the novel we never learn her name, and rarely do we see the world from her perspective.  Her innocence is obvious, and her loyalty assumed.  Perhaps we fail, along with Luo and the infatuated narrator, to come to a full understanding of the little Chinese seamstress as the object of desire.  It is a world, as Balzac knew, where a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.

Dai Sijie, who was sent to the countryside from 1971 to 1974, now lives in France.  The western books he lovingly describes in this engaging first novel are French, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress achieved critical and popular success when first released in France in 2000.  For his young narrator, a teenager in trouble and under suspicion who nonetheless is awakening to personal responsibility and to female companionship, the words of the French masters help him to understand the world, to respond to injustice, to seek individual meaning through love and courage, and to find his own way through conflict and disappointment.  Novels are diverting, and can be inspiring.  For desperate teenage romantics they may even be life-changing.  But not all novels end happily, and the shock of Dai Sijie’s denouement in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress contrasts starkly with the gilded class optimism of Socialist Realism, the formulaic and debased form of literature required by the Chinese state during the ironically named Cultural Revolution.

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