Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is told by an unnamed narrator, a 17-year-old Chinese boy.
The year is 1971. The narrator and his best friend Luo are two middle-class teenagers who have been sent to a remote village in China for ‘re-education.’
(During China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and the 1970s, many people who were perceived as ‘bourgeois’ were sent to detention or labor camps. Urban students were taken out of high school and sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated’ by rural peasants. There, they would work at manual labor alongside the peasants. The goal was to make urban youths more loyal to the Communist government, and to curb unemployment in the cities. The authorities also hoped that these educated young people would bring new knowledge to the remote areas they visited (Wu).)
On their first night in the village, the narrator and Luo meet the peasant headman and the other villagers. The peasants are extremely curious about the narrator's violin because they have never seen one before. After examining it, the headman declares the violin “a bourgeois toy,” and orders it to be burned (4). Luo quickly intervenes, explaining that the violin is a musical instrument, and that the narrator will use it to play a Mozart sonata called Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao. Though extremely nervous, the narrator plays the sonata, which wins the peasants over with its beauty.
The narrator briefly explains what the Cultural Revolution is. Although he and Luo have been categorized as “young intellectuals,” they never actually started high school because the schools were closed during the early years of the Cultural Revolution (6). However, they have been sent for re-education anyway because their parents are medical professionals (the narrator's are doctors, and Luo’s father is a dentist). Luo’s father ran into particular legal trouble after telling his students that he had performed dental work on Chairman Mao - it was considered a serious crime to suggest that Mao would need dental work. A few years before the novel begins, Luo’s father was publicly humiliated; he was forced to wear a cement block around his neck and admit to having an affair with a nurse. After witnessing this incident, Luo punched the narrator in the face without provocation because he was so angry and humiliated.
The narrator discusses the village to which they have been assigned. It is located at the summit of a remote mountain called Phoenix of the Sky. Historically, the mountain’s main industries have been copper mining and opium production. Other villages on the mountain are also hosting urban youths for re-education, but Luo and the narrator are the only students who have been assigned to this one. They live together in a drafty, hand-built house on stilts, with no furniture. Under the house lives a pig which they can hear, and see through the floor-boards.
The peasants have grown fascinated with Luo’s alarm clock, which feature a toy rooster inside it. They have never had a clock in the village before, so people routinely stop by the boys' hut to check the time. The headman uses the clock to determine when everyone should wake up for work, and they often hear him outside in the morning, waiting to check the time. The narrator and Luo quickly realize they can change the time on the clock so they can sleep in, or start (and thus finish) the day early.
As weeks go by, the narrator and Luo become depressed. Because their parents are well-known ‘class enemies,’ the boys will probably never be allowed to leave the village. The narrator explains that the chances of a young man leaving re-education are three in a thousand. One night, Luo runs out of cigarettes and becomes so miserable that he begs the narrator to play him a song on the violin. The narrator plays an uplifting Tibetan song that had been reworded as a propaganda tune. He hopes that his talent for the violin will eventually provide his ticket out of the village. If he continues to hone his skills, he might be allowed to play and travel with the Red orchestra.
However, Luo’s only real talent is storytelling. Although this is unlikely to earn him eventual freedom from the village, it does make him popular with the peasants and the village headman. No one in the village has ever seen a movie, so the narrator and Luo win great praise through their recounting of film stories.
One day, the village headman sends the narrator and Luo to the movies in a nearby town (two days’ walk away), so they can view the film and retell its story through what the narrator calls an “oral cinema show” (19). The town is extremely small, and shows the film on the school's open-air basketball court, but the boys appreciate their reprieve from field work.
Although the narrator is shy and nervous, Luo tells the story with great theatricality upon their return. The villagers love it, and the headman promises to send the boys to a movie each month, and then pay them as if they had worked in the fields.
The first chapters of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress introduce many of the novel’s primary themes, which include friendship and the beauty of art. Although the narrator and Luo have lost their freedom and their families, they still take great pleasure in each other’s company. Their close relationship helps them to transcend their circumstances, and they work together to overcome difficult situations – like the violin incident – which they could not otherwise face alone. Dai also emphasizes the value of teamwork by showing that although Luo is the more talented storyteller, even he cannot relate a film's story without the narrator's help. Their relationship speaks to the enduring power of childhood friendships, as well as to the importance of finding and forming a community.
Dai also introduces the novel’s appreciation for art and culture. While the bulk of the novel will focus on the beauty and transformative power of literature, the opening vignette establishes the import of music. The boys were destined to be immediately distinguished upon their arrival - they have been labelled as class enemies and sent to uneducated peasants as de facto enemies of the state. That they can change their identity through the power of violin music suggests the transformative ability of art. Instead of being viewed negatively, they are viewed as mysterious. Arguably, this helps make their lives easier; the could otherwise have been punished more harshly. The transcendent allure of Mozart allows Luo and the narrator to find common ground with the villagers – even with the grumpy village headman, with whom they seem to have nothing in common, yet who has direct power over them.
They further ingratiate themselves with the villagers through their affinity for stories. Peasant work for city youth was demanding and often damaging, because of diseases and strenuous labor which they were not raised to do. Because the boys understand and can relate stories, they are granted a reprieve from this demanding labor. Dai makes clear in these opening chapters that art can indeed change lives, both for those who make it and those who hear it.
In only a few pages, Dai deftly establishes the novel’s humanist, apolitical worldview. Although he strongly criticizes the human-rights abuses of the Cultural Revolution, Dai portrays even the most ruthless characters with sensitivity. In the novel, the village headman is the main enforcer of Communist law and ideology. Later on, Dai will realistically portray his cruel abuses of power. However, the headman is able to appreciate music just like the rest of the villagers, and is part of the gently comic scene where Luo lies about the title of a Mozart sonata. Finally, the childish affection which even the village headman shows the alarm clock suggests that individuals are often swept up into the political headwinds, that their personalities are subsumed before ideology.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress alternates between several very different tones. From the first pages, the nostalgic, wistful air is unmistakable. The first person narration in past tense suggests that the narrator is telling a story of both great pain and yet great nostalgia. However, this wistful tone is matched by some scenes, like those recounting the punishment of Luo's father or the boys' depression, that are extremely dark. In contrast, there are comic moments, such as those detailing the culture clash between the boys and villagers. As Dai explained in an interview with The New York Times, “China today has far more grotesque situations than the one I describe. I only focus on the comic” (Riding). To some extent, this emphasizes the way a teenager might see the world. However, it also fits with his humanist perspective - every moment has the potential to be tragic or comic.
The appreciation of art over the condemnation of politics can also be understood as linked to the novel's first-person narration. The narrator is an active narrator, often suggesting the existence of an audience, and taking time to explain the Cultural Revolution in an informative but personal way. His story is deliberately limited to the events of the time in which he and Luo knew the Little Chinese Seamstress, rather than to the larger period of their re-education. As will be clear in later sections, he deliberately limits his focus in order to tell a specific story, one about art and love more than about politics.
And indeed, the first chapters characterize the narrator and Luo quite economically. From the beginning, Dai emphasizes only the traits that will play the biggest role in the plot. In the first scene, Luo’s creative lie foreshadows his impressive story-telling abilities. Likewise, the flashback in which Luo punches the narrator in the face subtly establishes that the narrator is the submissive partner in the friendship. This dynamic will become more apparent later in the novel, when both boys fall in love with the Seamstress, but Luo makes the first move to become her boyfriend. In fact, the entire novel is quite economically told, focusing on a rather small story against the enormous landscape of the Cultural Revolution. The novel ends without even revealing how the boys leave re-education, suggesting that the narrator only wishes to tell us a particular story, more about the power of art and the pains of love than about the politics of China.
Although Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is fiction, it is based on Dai’s life experiences. At seventeen, Dai was sent to a mountain similar to Phoenix of the Sky, where he was re-educated from 1971 to 1974. When he directed a film adaptation of the novel, Dai tried to shoot the movie at the same mountain where he was re-educated, although practical considerations ultimately prevented this. Like the narrator and Luo, Dai was enchanted by Western culture as a young man. During his re-education, he found a suitcase full of books, although they were works by Freud rather than classic novels (Shang).