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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Summary and Analysis

by Dai Sijie

Part II, Chapters 5-7

Summary

Chapter 5

The narrator and Luo collect eighteen songs from the elderly miller by writing them down. When they bring the songs to Four-Eyes, he grows sullen and angry to realize how lewd and simplistic the lyrics are. Disappointed, he refuses to lend them any more books.

Luo and the narrator insist that the songs are authentic, and that the miller’s singing was beautiful. Four-Eyes suddenly realizes that he can adapt the lyrics of the louse song to make it appropriate to the revolution and hence the journal. He includes new words describing the proletariat's rise against the bourgeoisie. The narrator is incensed by the change, and attacks Four-Eyes.

Chapter 6

The narrator and Luo travel to Yong Jing to see another film, and bring the Little Seamstress with them. The film is the one that the narrator had described to the seamstresses, the North Korean melodrama The Little Flower Seller. Because the court is packed, they must watch the film from behind the screen, but the Little Seamstress is enchanted nevertheless, and the narrator and Luo are equally enchanted by her beauty as she watches. The narrator is touched when she whispers to him that she preferred his telling of the story to the actual film. Later that day, the narrator learns that a rich woman has come from the city to fetch her son, who is being released from re-education.

On their way back to the village, Luo and the Little Seamstress briefly separate from the narrator so she can visit her grandfather's grave. While he is alone, the narrator meets the woman, who is being carried up the mountain on a wooden chair. He talks with her to learn that she is Four-Eyes’s mother. She boasts proudly of her son's ability to collect the folk songs, and the narrator compliments her collection of books. Though she initially agrees, she quickly recants any knowledge of the books. Suspicious, she asks his name, and the narrator instinctively identifies himself as Lao. Four-Eyes's mother asks about Lao's father (who is in detention) and tells him that Four-Eyes speaks highly of him (Lao) in his letters, though the boy considers Luo's friend (the narrator) to be sneaky. She adds that Four-Eyes wrote of how the narrator attacked her son, but was defeated. The narrator swallows his pride, and allows her to believe the fib.

The narrator soon catches up to Luo and the Little Seamstress, who have found the grave. The narrator tells them the whole story, but notes that he is the only one visibly upset by Four-Eyes's imminent departure. When he warns that they will lose their chance to read more books once Four-Eyes leaves, the Little Seamstress suggests that they steal the suitcase.

Chapter 7

To celebrate Four-Eyes’s departure, he and his mother plan a banquet for his village. The narrator, Luo, and the Little Seamstress decide that the banquet will provide the perfect cover for their theft of the suitcase. In preparation, they craft a skeleton key from some old nails, so that they can bypass the padlock on his door and on the suitcase. In the days leading up to the banquet, the narrator dreams that he breaks into Four-Eyes’s shack, only to find Four-Eyes’s mother smiling at him.

Four-Eyes's mother wants a buffalo slaughtered for the feast, and is willing to pay for it. However, the villagers know that the Communist Party would disapprove of wasting a working beast, so they push the buffalo off a cliff and claim it accidentally fell. The narrator describes the painful wailing the animal makes as it dies.

Luo, the narrator, and the Little Seamstress watch the banquet from afar. They see Four-Eyes and the village headman drink the buffalo's blood, paying heed to the belief that the blood gives a man strength. Then, five sorceresses (including the four who helped Luo when he had malaria) appear as guests of honor, and Four-Eyes’s mother pays them to read her son's fortune. The result seems to be negative, and they perform a dramatic exorcism.

While everyone eats, Luo and the narrator break into Four-Eyes’s cabin, using their skeleton key. The suitcase is lying on top of the bed, with the rest of Four-Eyes’s belongings. They open it to discover a treasure trove of Western novels. Luo promises to use the books to “transform the Little Seamstress” (100).

Unfortunately for the narrator and Luo, the window through which they planned to escape is nailed shut, and they had re-locked the door padlock. Before the boys can finagle the door padlock again, Four-Eyes and his mother return to the shack because Four-Eyes has diarrhea. Luo and the narrator hide just in time. Four-Eyes’s mother notices that the suitcase is no longer wrapped in rope, but Four-Eyes assuages her worry by noting that the books are untouched. In the discussion, Four-Eyes mentions that he only stayed friends with the the other boys so that Luo’s father would perform dental work for the family.

His diarrhea suddenly flaring, Four-Eyes rushes outside to relieve himself. When the boy's mother follows with advice, the narrator and Luo escape with the suitcase.

Analysis

This section continues with the sub-plot about the elderly miller’s mountain songs. As established in the previous chapters, the narrator and Luo appreciate the authenticity of the songs even though the lyrics are lewd and simplistic. This contrasts significantly with Four-Eyes, who sees the songs as low culture, useful only when he can appropriate them to his purposes. The narrator does not explain why he attacks Four-Eyes, though there are two possible reasons. The first is his obvious disappointment over being denied books, after the boys suffered the long hike and the lice. However, his anger can also be explained by his affection for art of any kind. He and Luo are able to view low and high culture as equally important; authenticity and honesty are what matters. When Four-Eyes adapts these authentic songs for Communist purposes, the narrator arguably feels a betrayal of not only their situation, but of art in general. Interestingly, despite having control of the narrative, the narrator does not explain exactly why he attacks Four-Eyes. It is possible that he does not want us to over-analyze him when he himself was acting from a conflux of teenage emotions and resentments.

In truth, Four-Eyes’s response to the ballads is rich with irony. Four-Eyes seeks “sincere, authentic folk songs full of romantic realism” (64). With the possible exception of romance, the miller’s songs fulfill all of these requirements. The fact that Four-Eyes needs to modify the songs to make them acceptable reveals the hypocrisy of the Cultural Revolution’s ideology.

Although this novel is not an explicit political critique, it does include subtle jibes at the Chinese authorities. Dai comically repurposes many phrases that were in the news at the time. For example, the “breakdown in diplomatic relations” between the narrator, Luo, and Four-Eyes refers to the tense relationship between China and the two major Cold War powers, the United States and the Soviet Union (81). Dai's overstatement of the phrase suggests that the Cold War employed a similar type of dramatic overstatement itself. Likewise, the reference to Four-Eyes, the narrator, and Luo as a “gang of three” refers to the Gang of Four, a group of politicians who controlled the Communist Party at the time of the novel (45). By likening the Gang of Four to three boys hoarding their food, Dai critiques the behavior of the Gang of Four, whose decisions often benefited the Communist Party at the expense of the people it was supposed to serve. The parallel also more obviously compares these politicians to desperate teenagers.

Four-Eyes becomes significantly less easy for the reader to sympathize with. Initially, Dai emphasizes the good times that Four-Eyes shares with the protagonists, and depicts his stinginess and paranoia as minor flaws engendered by the conditions of the time. Yet by the end of Part II, Four-Eyes reveals a rather ugly tendency towards self-interest. Whether he lies or not about staying friend with Luo for the sake of dental work, he reveals in that statement an ability to tell the listener what he or she wants to hear. Similarly, his re-appropriation of the miller's songs (and subsequent refusal to lend the promised books) suggests a hypocrisy that evokes the Communist party at the time. Four-Eyes is arguably a perfect match for the politics of the Cultural Revolution, since he is capable of believing whatever he wants in order to achieve his purposes.

Although she only appears in this section, Four-Eyes’s mother works as a foil for the Little Seamstress. Unlike the Seamstress, she is rich, elegant, and worldly. She also has a shrill manner with her son, which contrasts with the Seamstress’s gentle care for Luo when he was sick. Dai also positions Four-Eyes’s mother as the kind of woman that Luo wants the Seamstress to become. By the end of the novel, the Seamstress will adopt many of the older woman’s qualities, including her sophistication and elegance. Ironically, the Seamstress also develops the mother’s narrow self-interest, which leads her to abandon Luo and move to the city. Dai subtly suggests that the pastoral peasant life and sophisticated city life do not easily co-exist, that one ultimately must choose between the two. Yet again, we can see how economically Dai (or the narrator himself) crafts his story - he only speaks of those elements that resonate with each other, all to focus on this specific story of love and choices.

Although Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is generally quite streamlined, Dai pauses the plot in this section to offer a drawn-out description of the banquet and the sorceresses’ prophecy. He also details the mountain custom of drinking buffalo blood for courage. His attention to these elements reveals Dai’s appreciation of mountain culture. Although the villagers do not have conventional vehicles for cultural output (like musical instruments or books), they do have their own rich cultural traditions. During the Cultural Revolution, traditional cultural output was often persecuted with as much ferocity as Western literature was. For instance, the sorceresses’ ceremonies are almost certainly forbidden, since they represent a type of religion. Ultimately, Dai wants us to remember that the peasants were not responsible for re-education, and that people everywhere have a shared love of tradition and community, even when a totalitarian government demands that they feel otherwise.

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