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The story that he told is also Chinese, one based on his experience from 1971 to 1974 when he and three other teenage boys from professional urban families were sent for political "re-education" to a remote peasant village as part of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

In the novel and the movie, there are just two boys, Ma and Luo, both 17, who find themselves carrying human waste to nearby fields under the watchful eye of the village chief. For the peasants, though, the arrival of these city boys was just as strange: one played something called a violin, the other had an alarm clock, both could read and write.

The story takes off when the boys meet "the little seamstress" (played by Xun Zhou in the movie), who helps her grandfather, a local tailor. Both Ma (Ye Liu) and Luo (Kun Chen) fall for her. She loves the attention, but is even more thrilled when the boys find some Chinese translations of Western classics and read the likes of Balzac, Flaubert and Dumas to her. In her mind, she has found the key to freedom.

It was precisely here that Mr. Dai ran up against problems. Chinese authorities banned the book, and then, having allowed him to make the film in China, they also banned the movie. "It wasn't that I touched the Cultural Revolution," Mr. Dai said over lunch in this town west of Paris near studios where he is editing his new movie. "They did not accept that Western literature could change a Chinese girl. I explained that classical literature is a universal heritage, but to no avail."

For Mr. Dai that is the point of the story. It is semi-autobiographical in that he took some liberties by inventing a couple of scenes - as when Luo, a dentist's son, extracts the village chief's rotten tooth - and fusing the experiences of two young women. But, he noted, there was a "little seamstress" whose life was changed by her exposure to Balzac. "My aim was to pay homage to literature," he added.
    -PROFILE : Artistic Odyssey: Film to Fiction to Film (ALAN RIDING, 7/27/05, NY Times)


This is a slender but rich fable about two young friends sent to a rural village as part of a Chinese re-education program, their relationship with the pretty seamstress of the title, and how all their minds are set free by a cache of great Western novels that they manage to obtain. It's semi-autobiographical and the portrayal of the insanity of Maoist China is as devastating as the author's love of literature is moving. But the best aspect of the book is little remarked in the reviews--it is that the liberation that writers like Balzac, Flaubert, Romain Rolland and company bring to these three is a two-edged sword, for these are authors who celebrate an exaggerated and anti-social individualism and their influence drives the characters not just to a healthy and life-affirming recognition of the human spirit but to a set of selfish and hollow personal tragedies. The lesson, which folks understandably don't want to hear, is that the answer to the disorder of Chinese Communism does not lie in France.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

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Asian Literature
Dai Sijie Links:

    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
    -PROFILE : Artistic Odyssey: Film to Fiction to Film (ALAN RIDING, 7/27/05, NY Times)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
    -AUDIO: Readers' Review: Dai Sijie's "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" (Diane Rehm Show, 4/16/03, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Translated by Ina Rilke (Brooke Allen, NY Times Book Review))
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Lisa Darnell, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Ruth Padel, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (David Wiegand, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Christine Loh, Asian Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (SONIA GOMEZ, The Stranger)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Michael E. Daniel , News Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Clare Lochary, The Hoya)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (
    -REVIEW: of Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch by Dai Sijie (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch (CHRISTOPHER ATAMIAN, NY Times Book Review)

FILM:
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Dai Sijie (Imdb.com)
    -INFO: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Xiao cai feng) (Imdb.com)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Imdb.com)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (MetaCritic)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (James Berardinelli, Reel Views)
    -REVIEW: of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (A.O. Scott, NY Times)

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