Prose Study: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

FROM THE PRL / Translated work (FRench) / C20TH / Europe/ASIA / china/France

“A novel about the power of art to enlarge our imaginations, no matter what the circumstances.”

from The Washington Post Review by Michael Dirda, 2001
In 2002, Dai Sijie adapted his own semi-autobiographical novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress for film. Although the film was a joint French-Chinese production (Dai originally wrote in French; the French title is Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) the characters speak in authentic Sichuan dialect throughout.


The narrator, then 17, and his best friend Luo, who is 18, are sent to the Phoenix of the Sky mountain where the two urban youths are to be re-educated by poor village-dwelling peasants. They arrive streaked with mud from their journey, and immediately the villagers seize all their possessions, including a violin that they believe to be a toy. Then Luo smoothly breaks in with an offer to play a sonata called, ‘Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.’ The village headman smiles. So begins the story of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

The two boys settle into their hard life on the mountain, digging coal and carrying buckets of slop up to the rice fields. Their experience is made slightly easier when the headman discovers Luo’s flair for storytelling. He starts sending them to a neighbouring village to watch the public showing of a weekly movie, which they can then ‘recite’ for his story-starved village. On one of these trips, the young men encounter the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. Luo falls in love – and so, in silence, does the narrator.

Dai Sijie’s own experience of being sent to live among peasants during the Cultural Revolution was the inspiration for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which is semi-autobiographical. After returning home, he taught at a school in Chengdu before receiving a scholarship to study film in France. He left China in 1984. He directed several films before turning to writing. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was his first novel, winning several French literary awards and being adapted into a film by Dai himself. The story has been translated into 25 languages.

IB Student Learner Profile: Knowledgable

We develop and use conceptual understanding, exploring knowledge across a range of disciplines. We engage with issues and ideas that have local and global significance.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set during the Cultural Revolution in China, years when Mao Zedong’s policies uprooted the old-standing order and tradition of the country and sought to fashion a new, modern nation. One of his keystone policies was to send urban youth, who he dubbed ‘young intellectuals’ to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasantry. But, as the narrator ruefully observes, because Mao had long since closed schools, the boys education was itself rudimentary. As part of your research into this text, you’ll learn about Mao’s ‘Up to the Mountain, Down to the Countryside’ movement, and have the chance to reflect on the crucial role education plays in a person’s life.

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Transformation

In many ways, transformation is the central theme of Dai Sijie’s novel. The context of the story is Mao Zedong’s attempt to transform an entire country through the policies of his Cultural Revolution whereby the narrator and his friend Luo are ‘sent down’ to the countryside in order to be re-educated by peasant villagers. However, Sijie reveals that education is always a two-way process, and the boys are destined to leave their own imprint on this hidden corner of China.

But the novel is also a story of personal transformation in the lives of Luo, the narrator and the Little Seamstress they both fall in love with. On discovering a cache of censored books, the narrator’s eyes are opened to a world where people live differently and he experiences his own kind of transformation. And when Luo decides to conduct his own experiment in re-education on the Little Seamstress, the outcome is something that none of them could have expected. As you read this novel, keep track of all the ways people try to transform others – and are in turn themselves transformed.

Part 1: Up to the Mountains, Down to the Countryside

‘In 1971 there was little to distinguish us two… from the other hundred-odd ‘young intellectuals’ who were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky.’

Page 11

The story of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress opens as the narrator (who remains unnamed) and his best friend Luo arrive at the Phoenix of the Sky village in the Chinese province of Sichuan near the border with Tibet. The year is 1971 and Mao Zedong, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, is conducting a policy of ‘re-education’ whereby young men of middle-class families are sent to the countryside to learn from poor peasants how to be model citizens. The two boys are tasked with menial and back-breaking work, such as coal mining and carrying buckets of faeces up the mountain to fertilize the rice fields.

One day, the boys meet the ‘princess’ of the mountain who is the Chinese seamstress of the novel’s title. They visit the tailor’s house to have the length of Luo’s trousers adjusted and it is clear that Luo feels attraction to the seamstress, who is the tailor’s daughter. However, Luo insists that the Little Seamstress is not cultured or educated enough for him and the two boys return to their lives. Six weeks later, Luo contracts malaria while working in the mine; hearing of his illness the Little Seamstress writes him a letter and they arrange to meet.


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is an example of scar literature, a Chinese literary movement that developed after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. The first ever piece of scar literature was a short story called ‘The Wound’ (伤痕)by Lu Xinhua. Many stories in this literary movement are autobiographical and recall the experiences of intellectuals who were ‘sent down’ to the countryside during the years of the Cultural Revolution.

Learner Portfolio: The Cultural Revolution

Conduct wider reading and research into Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and the policy of ‘re-education’. You might like to begin with the Wider Reading posted in this section. Create a fact file that you can share with others and store in your Learner Portfolio. Include in your fact file:

  • Key dates, places and times;
  • Important figures, such as Chairman Mao Zedong;
  • Aims of the Cultural Revolution;
  • Key policies;
  • The Red Guard;
  • The ‘Up to the Mountain and Down to the Countryside’ movement;
  • Consequences of the Cultural Revolution;
  • Any other information you find that is relevant or interesting.

Part 2: Four-Eyes

‘Four-Eyes had a secret suitcase which he kept carefully hidden.’

Page 41

Part 2 of the novel focuses on the narrator and Luo’s new friend Four-Eyes, who gets his name from the glasses he wears. Four-Eyes possesses a secret cache of censored books and Luo bargains with him to lend them a book in return for helping him finish his field-work. Four-Eyes gives them a copy of Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet which Luo gives the narrator when he’s done. While the narrator reads the book, Luo meets the Little Seamstress and they make love together under a gingko tree.

Later, Four-Eyes brags of an opportunity to leave the mountain by collecting stories and songs of the region for a literary journal. But, try as he might, he could not get a local miller, denizen of the mountain, to tell him any songs. Luo makes another bargain with Four-Eyes; more books in return for the songs. Four-Eyes agrees and Luo and the narrator disguise themselves as soldiers and visit the miller.


As an only child, Dai Sijie would have been excused from Mao’s relocation policy (his parents were medical professionals working in Chengdu, Sichuan’s largest city). However, Dai voluntarily relocated to a small village in Sichuan because he believed in the propagated visions of rural rigour and training. His experiences inspired him to write Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which is a semi-autobiographical work. He returned home in 1974 and emigrated to France 10 years later.

Learner Portfolio: Practice for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress; as this is a novel the literary form is ‘prose’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

Part 3.1: A Sore Tooth

‘…once you had read it, neither your own life or the world you lived in would ever look the same.’

Page 103

The boys encounter a stroke of good fortune: the village headman leaves for a party conference so they have a month of lax supervision. They spend the entire month reading all the books from Four-Eyes’ secret suitcase. The narrator is most impressed by Jean-Christophe, a novel by Romain Rollande. Luo spends his days reading to the Little Seamstress. For a month their lives are almost idyllic, the only excitement they experience is a storm that ravages the path between their village and the Little Seamstress’ house.

A few days later, the tailor arrives in the village. Despite offers from other villagers, he decides to stay with Luo and the narrator. Before bed on the first night, he asks for a story and the narrator begins to recite The Count of Monte Cristo. The tailor is hooked, and the storytelling continues every night for nine nights. One night, however, the headman bursts in and catches them. He is angered and accuses the boys of spreading reactionary trash. He uses this accusation as leverage over the boys; if Luo agrees to give him dental treatment, he won’t report the narrator to the Public Security Bureau.


Although the narrator remains unnamed in the novel, it is possible to infer what he is called. On page 103 he describes the three Chinese characters constituting his name: the first is a galloping horse (马); the second a glittering sword (剑 ); the third is a bell (铃). Therefore, the narrator’s name is probably Ma Jianling.

Learner Portfolio: Rites of Passage

Liminal space is an in-between space. It is the space when you are ‘on the verge’ of something new: you are between ‘what was’ and ‘what will be’. You are waiting and not knowing about what will come.

Use this ‘rites of passage’ diagram in class to help you understand the growth of a character in a coming-of-age story.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is, at heart, a coming of age story. Luo, the narrator and the Little Seamstress engage in the testing of boundaries and discovering the truth of the world that marks this kind of literary adventure. However, the oppressive nature of the government and the fact that their entire futures are also on the line, makes this process considerably more high stakes. Not knowing if their time in the village will ever have an end, the boys find themselves trapped in a kind of limbo, or ‘liminal state’.

Briefly conduct research into the concept of ‘liminality’ then write a piece for your Learner Portfolio in which you explain how the Phoenix of the Sky village and mountain functions as a ‘liminal space’ in the boys’ coming of age story. If you prefer to design an image of the mountain and village, make sure you accompany your image with notes and quotations that explain the mountain’s role as a liminal space for the boys’ transformation.

Part 3.2: Leaving the Mountain

‘A woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.’

Page 172

Luo gets some bad news from home. His mother is sick and he is granted one month’s compassionate leave to return home. While he is away, the narrator takes care of the Little Seamstress, devoting himself to cleaning for her and reading to her in Luo’s place. Then one day, she confides in him a secret – and he must act to avert a disaster for her and for Luo.

By reading to her stories by Balzac, Luo dreamed of transforming the Little Seamstress from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover. By the end of the novel it is clear he succeeded beyond his expectations – yet the result is not what he might have hoped for. As our time on Phoenix of the Sky mountain comes to an end, an unexpected departure guarantees the tale of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress will linger long in the mind.


One of the novelists in Four-Eyes’ suitcase in Gustav Flaubert, who wrote Madame Bovary. The titular heroine, Madame Bovary, feels stuck inside her unhappy marriage and a repetetive everyday routine. She is restricted by society and would do anything to escape. She dreams of fleeing her old life and finding a new one that’s more exciting. Perhaps Dai Sijie alludes to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in order to foreshadow the ending of his own story?

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 literary literary compare and contrast skills).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. Discuss the significance of urban and/or rural settings in works of literature you have studied.
  2. In literary works you have studied, discuss the presentation of authority.
  3. Friendship marks a life more deeply than romantic love. Consider this idea with reference to literary works you have studied.
  4. “Coming of age stories” are ones which present the psychological, moral and social shaping of a character. Discuss how characters develop in works you have studied.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Dai Sijie’s novel is partly autobiographical and reveals much about his life and experiences during the years of Cultural Revolution in China. Nevertheless, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is still a work of literary fiction, and should be approached as such. Avoid the temptation to conduct a biographical study of authenticity when choosing literary works for your HL Essay. Instead, find a line of literary inquiry that can focus your investigation. Questions you might like to ask include, but are not limited to:

  • In what ways are stories and storytelling central concerns in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.
  • Investigate the idea of balance and imbalance in the relationship between Luo and the narrator of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie.
  • What is the importance of setting in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie?
  • Discuss the role of books and literature in Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
  • What is the contribution of Four-Eyes’ character to the themes and concerns of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie?
  • Investigate the presentation of villagers and peasants in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
  • To what extent does Dai Sijie suggest that education is a two-way process in his novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course), students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress could make a good text to talk about in your oral assessment. The themes of transformation, education, and the power of literature would make excellent starting points from which to develop a Global Issue. Once you have finished reading and discussing the novel, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

Much of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress concerns the theme of education and re-education. The story takes place during China’s ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’ movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which sought to ‘re-educate’ young intellectuals by sending them to rural areas to work and learn from the peasants. However, the students are denied access to works of literature and the kind of enlightenment provided by reading books. When they discover a case of illicit books, they are able to commence their own transformations – and provide a kind of ‘re-education’ for the Little Seamstress too.

While the narrator insists that Luo is and always will be his best friend, the novel unpicks the theme of friendship and loyalty in surprising ways. For starters, Luo certainly doesn’t seem to think their relationship is equal. Then you’ve got the boys’ ‘friendship’ with Four-Eyes which seems to be wholly transactional. Finally, there’s the way the narrator responds to the Little Seamstress leaving – instead of thinking of her as a friend, he feels that she owed him because of the way he helped her earlier in the story.


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