Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Summary and Analysis of Part III, Chapters 1-3


Chapter 1

The village headman leaves to attend a month-long Communist party conference. Luo and the narrator skip work for his entire absence, reading their new novels. The narrator falls in love with the first volume of Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe, part of a series of novels about the life of a talented composer. The book inspires him to “[take] free individual action against the whole world,” meaning he feels enabled to change the world (114). The narrator loves the book so much that he asks Luo to grant him the copy as an early birthday present. Luo agrees, and inscribes the book to the narrator in beautiful calligraphy. The narrator reciprocates by granting Luo three of his favorite Balzac novels.

Meanwhile, Luo frequently visits the Little Seamstress to read Balzac to her. To reach her, he must traverse a narrow ridge above a steep drop, since a heavy rain has eroded most of the pathway to her village. The journey is particularly frightening to Luo because he is terrified of heights. One day, the narrator accompanies Luo, and is himself frightened by the steep drop. At the other end of the path, he notices a raven with a red beak watching them, and gets a premonition of disaster related to the Little Seamstress.

The next night, the narrator has a nightmare wherein the Little Seamstress falls from the ridge while walking with Luo. The next morning, he begs Luo to warn her, and Luo reluctantly agrees.

Chapter 2

After a month away, the village headman returns to the village, in pain because of a bad tooth. An incompetent town dentist had attempted to extract it, but took out the wrong tooth instead. Desperate, the village headman asks Luo to fill the bad tooth with tin, assuming Luo should know how because of his father's trade. The village headman refuses to accept Luo's protestations of his inexperience, but Luo avoids the assignment by pointing out that the operation requires a drill which they do not have.

The Little Seamstress’s father, the tailor, makes his annual visit to the village. He surprises everyone by asking to lodge with the narrator and Luo; this is a great honor. He explains to the villagers that he chooses them because of their friendship with his daughter, but that night reveals to the boys that he knows of their reputation as storytellers, and would like to hear a story.

The narrator recounts The Count of Monte Cristo as a bedtime story. The tailor loves it, so the narrator stretches it out over nine nights. On the third night, however, the village headman suddenly enters, threatening to bring the narrator to the local Security Office for spreading “reactionary filth” (130). He had been listening from outside.

The threat is significant since the narrator could be tortured by the Security Office. However, the village headman offers them a deal: if Luo will fix his tooth, he will excuse the narrator from the charges.

Chapter 3

Luo and the tailor improvise a drill using a sewing needle and the treadle from the tailor’s machine. Luo tries to drill the headman’s tooth three times, but the man continues to scream and writhe because of the pain. Finally, he agrees to be tied to the bed.

The narrator is chosen to pump the treadle, which provides energy to the needle. As he watches the headman endure the procedure, he thinks about the “miseries of re-education” and slows the needle, thereby prolonging the experience and increasing the pain. He admits that he has "turned into a sadist" (134).


The suspenseful scene with the village headman offers one of the novel's few direct critiques of the Cultural Revolution and re-education. However, Dai once again resists cliché criticisms, instead focusing on how the regime impacts the narrator's psyche. While the narrator acknowledges the backbreaking work that he has to do as part of re-education, the worst effect of the experience is that it turns him into an “out-and-out sadist” (134). Rather than portraying the narrator as a helpless victim, Dai shows how Communist cruelty begets more cruelty. Even those who oppose the regime are ruined by it. The shift is all the more powerful because of the first-person narration. The narrator has to confront his own behavior in the telling of his story, calling himself a sadist, acknowledging how he has changed.

This section also introduces the raven, a symbol that will reappear throughout the rest of the novel. Traditionally, a raven is considered as a symbol of death and misfortune, both in China and in the West. In this novel, the raven is continually linked to the Little Seamstress, and the narrator himself suspects it is an omen of her death. The first-person narration reminds us that the omen is only important because the narrator believes it is - certainly, there were many birds and animals around the mountain, but the narrator only emphasizes the ones that have specific resonance for him.

However, the Seamstress does not die – instead, she breaks up with Luo and moves to the city after having an abortion. What this symbol could mean, then, is that the narrator's childhood innocence dies with the Little Seamstress's escape. The Chinese also consider the raven a symbol of filial piety, which is ironic because the Seamstress’s departure causes her father to disown her. By leaving, she is refusing traditional, Confucian values in favor of a new, potentially modern life.

As the boys immerse themselves in Western literature, the narrator begins to develop his own intellectual philosophy. His beliefs are influenced by and reflected in Jean-Christophe, a series of novels by Romain Rolland about a gifted composer who forges his own way in the world. The volume's emphasis on individualism provides another critique of the Communist government. The narrator must explicitly recognize that the communal values of the Cultural Revolution are mutually exclusive with the expression of individualism. The narrator chooses to devote himself to the latter, even though it is not until life experience with the Little Seamstress that he truly understands the nature and cost of individuality.

The narrator's development of literary and philosophical preferences also shows that he is coming of age. The milestones that Luo faces on his road to maturity are fairly obvious – he loses his virginity, impregnates the Little Seamstress, and must manage the disappointment of her betrayal. The narrator's development is more gradual and nuanced than Luo's. His self-confidence incrementally increases as he develops both a personal philosophy and a style of story-telling. The narrator's personal growth is not marked by his relationships with others, but rather by his intellectual development. His more perceptive nature is beginning to pay dividends.

The narrator has several dream sequences in the novel, but his nightmare about the Seamstress falling to her death is by far the most dramatic. Like the ravens do, the dream foreshadows the end of the Seamstress’s relationship with the boys. By implying that their relationship will end with her death, Dai heightens the novel’s suspense and imbues her pregnancy with a sense of dread. In the end, the Seamstress is separated from the boys not by death but by her own choices – choices which she makes after Luo tries to ‘civilize’ her.