“She’s not civilised, at least not enough for me!”
Luo's initial reaction to the Seamstress foreshadows the dynamic of their relationship. After they become romantic, Luo focuses on teaching her things he believes will 'civilize' her. His mission includes reading her Balzac and helping her look and speak more like a city girl. Though his affection with her is undoubtedly genuine, he instinctively patronizes her in his efforts, revealing a certain classist attitude. Even his swimming lessons have a subtext of class conflict – he wants her to use her arms to swim, rather than dog-paddling like the other villagers do. Ultimately, his patronizing purpose backfires when she embodies his lessons so well that she no longer has any use for him.
“We would share our spoils, as if we were a gang of three.”
On its most basic level, this passage reveals how the narrator, Luo, and Four-Eyes have internalized none of the communal values that re-education is supposed to instill. The reference to a "gang of three" alludes to the Gang of Four, the group of politicians that controlled the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. By comparing himself and his friends to the Gang of Four, the narrator compares the Gang of Four to juvenile boys, since they hoard power and wealth at the expense of the people. While this novel is generally more concerned with human relationships than it is with politics, the veiled critique of the Gang of Four is consistent with Dai's suggestion that Communism did little to help the working people it was supposed to support.
“This fellow Balzac is a wizard. . . . He touched the head of this mountain girl with an invisible finger, and she was transformed, carried away in a dream. It took a while for her to come down to earth. She ended up putting your wretched coat on (which looked very good on her, I must say). She said having Balzac’s words next to her skin made her feel good, and also more intelligent.”
In this passage, Luo once again positions the Seamstress as an uncivilized rube in need of education. Here, his arrogance is more apparent than ever. His reference to "this fellow Balzac" implies that he considers Balzac a peer, almost an equal. Such an attitude is reinforced by his perception of himself as superior to the uncivilized peasants. He also downplays the Seamstress's appreciation of Balzac, describing her as "carried away in a dream." This suggests that she is incapable of thinking critically about the texts in the way that Luo and the narrator can. Yet despite the arrogance of its speaker, the passage reinforces the novel's message about the beauty of literature. The Seamstress's appreciation for Balzac's writing is not so different from the narrator's and Luo's, and she ultimately shows a more extreme response to the work than they ever do, possibly because she has experienced a more practical, real-world education and hence has more appreciation for the possibilities of individual freedom.
“I hadn’t expected that a tiny glimmer of hope for the future could transform someone so utterly.”
When the narrator and Luo return to Four-Eyes with the elderly miller's songs, the narrator notes how Four-Eyes has been warped to selfishness. In its most basic sense, the passage suggests the narrator's sense of betrayal. Four-Eyes, a fellow in their hatred of the Cultural Revolution, now looks past them towards his possibility of individual freedom. However, the change in Four-Eyes also suggests another downside of repression. In a world where everyone is forced to look out for himself, even a "tiny glimmer of hope" has the potential to turn that person from his own community. It is a sad irony of totalitarian states that even a virtue like "hope" can get corrupted when an individual must live in fear rather than with freedom.
“Me too. [I feel] loathing for everyone who kept these books from us.”
As the narrator and Luo revel in the literary treasures from the suitcase, they find themselves resenting "everyone who kept these books from us." This passage initially seems to refer to Four-Eyes, who was extremely reluctant to share the books with them. However, the passage also refers to the Communist government, which banned the books in the first place. The implicit suggestion is that education is crucial towards revealing to a people what life can be like. Without these books, the boys might not have had a full sense of how repressed they were under Mao. Now that they have encountered the possibilities inherent in freedom, they are more resentful of the society that prohibits it. Dai confirms this larger interpretation by noting immediately after the passage that such sentiments could get the narrator and Luo into trouble with the authorities, who feel obliged to limit education in order to reinforce their control over the public.
“With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again.”
Many of the novel's primary themes are interlinked with the paradox at the heart of Luo's affection for the Seamstress. While he genuinely cares for her, he ruins his chances through his patronizing attitude. This paradox extends to many of the things he forces upon her: a new manner of speech, a new way of swimming, etc. However, literature is one area in which Luo and the Seamstress prove to be equals, as the passage suggests. Through the education and perspective afforded by the Western novels, the Seamstress can eventually equal Luo in terms of sophistication. The great irony, of course, is that the Seamstress gains more from the books than Luo does. They inspire her to actually change her life, to leave her "simple mountain girl" existence behind. Her transformation is far more profound that Luo ever intended.
“But Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual.”
Here, the narrator reveals the way in which the Western novels influence his philosophy. This rebellious, individualistic way of thinking helps to understand why the Communist government felt it necessary to ban such novels. Although Jean-Christophe is a fictional story, its talented protagonist inspires the narrator to take "free and independent action as an individual" – a life philosophy that goes against everything the government stands for. However, the passage is somewhat ironic because we later see that the narrator learns as much about individualism from the Seamstress as he does from the novels. It is not until his learning aligns with life experience that he truly confronts the reality of "independent action," both in terms of its glory and its cost.
“Suddenly, I felt the stirrings of an uncontrollably sadistic impulse, like a volcano about to erupt. I thought about all the miseries of re-education, and slowed down the pace of the treadle. ... I had turned into a sadist––an out-and-out sadist.”
Throughout Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai tempers the novel's comic, romantic tone with realistic scenes that show the cruelty of re-education. Here, the narrator takes revenge on the authoritarian village headman by making his filling more painful than it has to be. This passage reveals the psychological effect of living a life of limited freedom. The narrator's resentments are so intense that they inspire in him a sadistic impulse that he practices even while recognizing it as immoral. The culture of paranoia and fear have changed him. Through this scene, Dai suggests that the worst effect of the Cultural Revolution was not any particular abuse, but rather the culture of cruelty it engendered even amongst otherwise good people.
“It was a totally new experience for me. Before, I had no idea that you could take on the role of a completely different person, actually become that person––a rich lady, for example––and still be your own self.”
By this point in the novel, the narrator has expounded about the beauty of literature on several occasions. However, the Seamstress here makes an observation that the narrator does not discuss. Perhaps because she cannot read much, the Little Seamstress is particularly taken by story-telling. Further, because her culture does not typically reward artistic expression, she has never had much opportunity to experiment with acting. However, she here considers the power of practicing empathy, attempting to walk in another person's shoes. Her observation parallels one of the novel's primary points: attempting to imagine other perspectives on life enriches the soul.
“There was nowhere for them to go, for there was no conceivable place where a Romeo and his pregnant Juliet might elude the long arm of the law, nor indeed where they might live the life of Robinson Crusoe attended by a secret agent turned Man Friday. Every nook and cranny of the land came under the all-seeing eye of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which had cast its gigantic, fine-meshed net over the whole of China.”
The high romantic style of this passage shows how the narrator's aesthetic has changed through his exposure to reading. At the beginning of the novel, he describes events concisely and rarely launches into flights of fancy. Here, though, he allows his imagination to take over, and pictures himself, Luo, and the Seamstress in a variety of situations inspired by literature. In this passage, the narrator uses his reading experiences to help him mentally escape from his troubling situation. The passage certainly indicates the difficulty of living in a totalitarian state, but that happens often in the novel. What is unique about this passage is that its style makes an implicit critique as well - in a state that refuses its people art, the people might lack the imagination to make themselves better.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The Seamstress’s choice to leave without warning, is in many ways inspired by the boys themselves. For much of the book, Dai seems to implicitly approve of Luo's patronizing attempts to 'educate' the girl. Though he certainly feels real affection...