Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Themes

Knowledge (Academic and Practical)

Obviously, one of the novel's primary purposes is the celebration of reading, and the life experience that stories and education can impart. However, Dai also explores the equal value of practical knowledge. The main factors that differentiate Luo and the narrator from the villagers are their academic learning and their knowledge of city life. When they first arrive in the village, the boys believe themselves superior to the villagers because they know more about life away from the mountain. However, as they spend more time in the countryside they realize that the villagers have different knowledge and skills that are just as useful – if not more so – than Luo and the narrator's book learning. For example, the Seamstress devises an herbal poultice that helps cure Luo's malaria, and she later proposes the theft of the suitcase. Similarly, the tailor's beautiful sewing is just as legitimate an art form as the narrator's violin-playing is. Dai affirms literature's potential to enrich, but he also pays homage to the villagers' more practical skill sets.


Throughout their time in the countryside, the narrator and Luo mature both intellectually and emotionally. Four-Eyes's books awaken them to the beauty of Western literature, while the ideas of the novels inform their budding personal philosophies. Through reading, the narrator comes to know himself, and arguably develops the courage he later shows in helping the Seamstress procure an abortion. Their relationships with the Seamstress also inspire emotional maturity. Luo has his first romantic relationship with her, and experiences emotional trauma when she leaves at the end of the book. The narrator, on the other hand, learns about how to treat others by watching Luo's mistakes. Arguably, Dai means to tell a story foremost about maturity, evidenced by the fact that the novel ends immediately after their days of innocence with the Seamstress come to an end.

The beauty of story-telling

Much of the novel is devoted to demonstrating the way that books can enrich the minds of those who read them. The narrator develops a personal philosophy because of what he reads, and the Little Chinese Seamstress gains the courage to change her life from Balzac's work. However, Dai also pays homage to the art of story-telling in any form. Even when they are recounting the maudlin propaganda story of The Little Flower-Seller, Luo and the narrator enrich the lives of their audience through their entertaining performances. Likewise, the narrator gets pleasure from adding his own embellishments to the novels he reads aloud to the Little Seamstress. Dai shows that the art of telling stories is as legitimate as the art of writing them – especially in a community where many are illiterate and hence desperate for that kind of stimulus.

The West

Though none of the characters has ever traveled from China, the allure of the Western Hemisphere looms large in their lives. The novels in Four-Eyes's suitcase are mostly nineteenth-century Western classics, which appeal to the boys for more than a forbidden nature. It is also the allure of a different, more libertarian, culture. The narrator acknowledges these distinctions when he worries that the tailor will be overwhelmed by the foreign names and places in The Count of Monte Cristo. However, Dai suggests that the ideas and emotions of Western literature can easily be applied to life anywhere, including totalitarian China. This suggestion of individual freedom is what makes such work so frightening to the Chinese authorities. Although this novel is dedicated to appreciating culture in all its forms, it also demonstrates that empathy and curiosity can transcend cultural differences, and suggests that the power of an individual to explore himself is timeless.


Though Western novels provide its main thematic thrust, the story also explores the way that both high and low culture can enrich us. When the narrator and Luo first arrive in the village, they mostly value high culture, like violin music and novels. However, their adventures reveal the richness and complexity of mountain culture as well. For instance, they are moved by the elderly miller's lewd songs, and affected by the festivities of Four-Eyes's farewell banquet. One of the most important lessons that the narrator and Luo learn is that high and low culture complement each other, and that both can enrich the human soul. The important lesson is that an individual should learn to express himself; the means through which he does so is less important.


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress revolves around the narrator and Luo's 're-education, their forced sojourn to the mountain to internalize proletarian values. However, the novel also features other types of re-education. The narrator and Luo's reading qualifies as a type of education; for instance, the values the narrator picks up from Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe seem to replace the nascent Communist values that he had previously been taught. Luo's attempts to 'civilize' the Little Seamstress are another type of re-education. Just as the Communist authorities are trying to indoctrinate the narrator and Luo into a particular lifestyle and set of beliefs, Luo is trying to change the Seamstress's values and behavior to make her more like women from the city. Of course, his strategy is too successful - the Seamstress does everything Luo tells her to, completing her transformation by abandoning him. Overall, the novel suggests that humans are constantly learning about themselves, changing their lives and outlooks as they embody new perspectives.


Despite the hardship of mountain life, the narrator and Luo take solace in beauty, which is expressed in many different ways. The novel primarily concerns itself with the beauty of literature and story-telling, but other beautiful things – like music, nature, and women – have similar transcendent effects. One of the worst parts of the Cultural Revolution, Dai suggests, was that it deprived the Chinese people of art, which could have helped heal the era's trauma. The Seamstress drives home this theme when she notes at the end of the novel that a woman's beauty is priceless and powerful. She has derived this lesson from Balzac's novels, and plans to exploit her own beauty to advance herself in the city. Only by appreciating beauty, Dai suggests, can we appreciate our own potential.