Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 1-4


Chapter 1

The next day, Luo feels well enough to return home. On the way back to their village, the narrator and Luo see Four-Eyes, their friend who has been assigned to a neighboring village. The clumsy, slender Four-Eyes is working with a water buffalo in the field, and having trouble controlling the beast. The narrator helps him control the buffalo, so Four-Eyes invites him and Luo to stay for dinner.

The narrator and Luo walk to Four-Eyes’s shack, where they wait until their friend finishes his work. While waiting, they notice a heavy leather suitcase with three locks, hidden under his bed. The narrator and Luo suspect that the suitcase contains forbidden books because the boy's parents are both writers. However, Four-Eyes ignores their questions, which the narrator attributes to fear over being reported. The next time they visit him, the suitcase is nowhere to be found.

The narrator and Luo discuss what kind of books might be in the suitcase. The most exciting possibility is that it holds Western literature in Chinese translation, which is exceptionally rare. Neither boy knows much about Western books, although Luo’s aunt read him Don Quixote when he was a boy.

One day, it snows heavily, so the village headman gives the narrator and Luo the day off. They travel through the snow to Four-Eyes, who has recently broken his glasses. His extreme nearsightedness is a problem, especially because he has been tasked with carrying a container of rice twenty kilometers through the slippery, snowy conditions. However, he does not want the villagers to consider him a slacker, since a bad reputation could affect his chances of leaving Phoenix mountain.

The narrator and Luo offer to carry the rice for him if he lends them his books. At first, Four-Eyes angrily denies having any books, but his difficulties convince him he cannot progress alone. He lets the narrator and Luo carry the rice, and when they return, he gives them a slender Balzac novel.

Chapter 2

The novel is Balzac’s Ursule Mirouët, a love story that features many sleepwalking and dream sequences. Luo reads it in one night, and then gives it to the narrator. He is taken not only by the novel, but also by the translation, which he later in life learns was done by Fu Lei, a writer who was forced to translate Western novels when his own work was banned. While the narrator is reading, Luo travels to the Little Seamstress’s house to recount the story for her. He is gone all day.

The narrator grows jealous of Luo’s blooming relationship with the Little Seamstress, but comforts himself by copying passages from the novel into the inside of his jacket.

When Luo returns, he shows the narrator some blood-stained ginkgo leaves, which he has saved in a patch of the girl's shirt. Luo explains that he has slept with the Little Seamstress, who was a virgin, under a ginkgo tree, and saved the blood that dripped down onto the leaves.

Chapter 3

The narrator and Luo return Ursule Mirouët to Four-Eyes, expecting him to offer more books in exchange for more chores. However, despite their best efforts to win his favor, he offers no replacement. Meanwhile, the narrator lends Luo his jacket so that Luo can read the Balzac passages to the Little Seamstress. They enchant her.

The narrator and Luo pay another visit to Four-Eyes, who is boiling his clothes in a pot to rid them of lice. He explains how he was swamped by the vermin. He had recently learned that his mother could arrange him a job with a revolutionary literary journal, provided he could compile a collection of "authentic" mountain folk songs that the journal could then print (46). If he could compile the songs, he could leave the mountain. Unfortunately, his best efforts uncovered no songs he deemed worthy of publication. He had been about to give up when he learned about an elderly miller who lives at a place called Thousand-Meter Cliff. Four-Eyes hiked there and stayed with the man for two days, but accidentally offended him when he declined to taste the man’s favorite drink – salty pebbles mixed with liquor. The man refused to sing for him, so Four-Eyes has given up hope, and gotten lice from the man's house as well.

Sensing his desperation, Luo and the narrator convince Four-Eyes to lend them more books if they can collect some songs from the elderly miller.

Chapter 4

The Little Seamstress prepares uniforms so that the narrator and Luo can impersonate revolutionary officials on their visit to the elderly miller.

They hike to the miller's home, and explain to him that they have come from Beijing to compile folk songs. To make the charade more authentic, the narrator speaks in Mandarin, the nation's official language, instead of in his native dialect of Szechuan. Luo pretends to be his translator.

The miller offers them the pebble drink, which he refers to as ‘jade dumplings.’ Although the boys are disgusted by it, they know to accept it, after which the miller sings them a lewd song about lice and nuns. All the while, the narrator can feel lice crawling all over him as he rests on the man's bed. They all have a jolly time together until Luo accidentally pours the narrator a shot of lamp oil instead of liquor. When the narrator tastes it, he forgets his role and cries out in Szechuan.


Deception and lying play a major role in these chapters. Each character’s response to deception reveals information about his personality. For instance, Four-Eyes feigns interest in mountain songs so that he can get off the mountain. This establishes him as grasping and narrow-minded, an analysis reinforced by his refusal to lend any more books. The other boys could certainly report him at this point if they wanted, so his refusal is motivated by more than fear.

Dai also characterizes the narrator and Luo through their reactions to deception. When they impersonate revolutionary officials, the narrator feels guilty. Luo, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the charade. His natural talent for story-telling lends itself to this type of play-acting. Additionally, it becomes clear that Luo thinks less deeply about certain things than the narrator does. While the narrator considers the moral implications of tricking the miller, Luo is focused solely on obtaining more books. Finally, Dai establishes that the miller is less concerned with such charades - even though the narrator betrays their deceit by crying out in Szechuan, the miller goes on to sing eighteen songs for them (as we learn in the next chapters).

In these chapters, Dai introduces a potential conflict as both protagonists fall for the Little Seamstress. However, he subtly implies that literature helps Luo and the narrator manage the problems that might arise from romantic jealousy. Although the narrator covets the Seamstress, he comforts himself by copying passages from Ursule Mirouët into his jacket. Their shared effort to acquire books, and their mutual affection for reading, unites them.

The first book that the narrator and Luo receive is Ursule Mirouët, a lesser-known novel in Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie humaine. It follows Ursule, a pious and virtuous woman who becomes embroiled in a conflict over an inheritance. Although it is neither Luo nor the narrator’s favorite book, it plays the most important role in the plot. It is the first book they receive from Four-Eyes, and it is also the book that the narrator later offers the gynecologist in exchange for performing the Seamstress's abortion. Further, the Seamstress's situation parallels that of Ursule. Both women are enchanting and virtuous, and their beauty influences the men around them. The connection between the women can certainly be understood as a deliberate parallel crafted not only by Dai, but by the narrator himself. Again, he is telling a very specific story to his unidentified listener, one that aims to capture the feeling of young love and early maturity. Implying connections between the events of his life does not mean he is bending reality, but rather trying to shape an impression.

Much of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is devoted to praising the beauty of classic Western novels. However, Dai shows that low culture can be equally beautiful. The ditty about lice may be simplistic, but the narrator and Luo are moved when they hear the miller perform it. The song –combined with its singer and the quirky surroundings – proves an expression as profound and authentic as reading books is for the narrator.