Hannibal Free Public Library

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Dai Siije

July 25, 2011

In 1971, as Mao's Cultural Revolution sweeps over China , two teenage boys are sent to live on the remote and unforgiving mountain known as Phoenix in the Sky. Even though the knowledge the narrator and his best friend Luo had acquired in middle school was "precisely nil," they are nevertheless considered dangerous intellectuals and forced to spend their days carrying buckets of excrement up and down the mountain to fertilize the fields. When they bargain their way into obtaining a forbidden Balzac novel from their friend Four Eyes, a new and dizzyingly vast world opens up to them.  Luo and the narrator plot to steal Four Eyes' suitcase full of books both for their own pleasure and to transform the seamstress from a simple peasant into a sophisticated woman.

Discussion Questions:

1. What does Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress reveal about the nature and purpose of China 's Cultural Revolution and the suffering it caused? In what ways does the novel offer a more intimate portrait of what life was like under Chairman Mao than a strictly historical account could?

2. Why have the narrator's and Luo's parents been named “enemies of the people?” What were their crimes? How does this classification affect the fate of the two boys? Why did China want to reeducate people like the narrator and Luo?

3. Early in the novel, the narrator says, "The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories…" [p. 18]. Is he right about the marginal status of the storyteller in the modern world? In what ways is this novel an argument for the importance of storytelling?

4. When the narrator first reads Ursule Mirouet, he is transformed by Balzac's story.  What is it that enables him to identify so strongly with characters and situations he has never experienced? What does his experience suggest about the power of literature? In what ways does Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress exert a similar power on its readers?

5. What is the ironic result of Luo’s success in making the Little Seamstress more sophisticated? What does the novel suggest about attempting to change others according to one's own beliefs or desires?

6. In what ways does China under Chairman Mao, as represented in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban, or other cultures that strive to keep the modern world from undermining traditional or religious values?

7. Why does Four Eyes object to the authentic mountain songs Luo and the narrator bring back from the old miller? How does he alter them to make them politically correct? What ironies are involved in the effort to make peasant culture conform to communist ideals?

8. When Luo later burns Four Eyes' novels, it is the characters, rather than the books, that seem to go up in flames. Why does he regard these books as being so alive?

9. When the tailor and the Little Seamstress come to stay at the house on stilts, the narrator observes, "It would evidently take more than a political regime, more than dire poverty to stop a woman from wanting to be well dressed: it was a desire as old as the world, as old as the desire for children." [p. 122] Do you agree with this statement? Are such desires inspired by cultural pressures or inherent in human nature? What does this passage suggest about a political system's ability to shape and control a people's basic wishes?

10. When Luo suffers a bout of malaria, the narrator is called upon to tell a story: "I embarked on the strangest performance of my life. In that remote village tucked into a cleft in the mountain where my friend had fallen into a sort of stupor, I sat in the flickering light of an oil lamp and related the North Korean film for the benefit of a pretty girl and four ancient sorceresses" [p. 39]. Why are the rural Chinese so fascinated by film, or the stories they tell? What does this scene suggest about the convergence—and compatibility or incompatibility—of ancient and modern ways of life?

Adapted from:  http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/balzac_and_the_seamstress1.asp