Curriculum Vital

The Education Umbrella Guide to Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

There may appear nothing special in reading the English translation of a novel originally written in French by a Chinese immigrant in Paris. Indeed, as you cross the halfway mark you might deem Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress merely entertaining rather than meaningful. Then you come to the following passage:

Let me tell you about Romain Rolland. Among the books… there was only one by him: volume one of his four-volume masterpiece, Jean-Christophe. The Chinese translation was by Fu Lei, who also did the Balzac translations.

This is fiction, yes, but it’s based in cold reality. The year is 1971. Chairman Mao has ordered all of China’s city youths into the countryside for “re-education.” Decadent urbanites are to learn the value of an honest day’s work in the glorious countryside. Western literature, western philosophy, western music, in fact, anything western is hereby banned. Knowledge of a European language is enough to have one branded as a ‘class enemy’, which is bad news for Fu Lei.

Before Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” sent China into a frenzy of denouncement, Fu Lei was a famous translator and art critic. Born in Shanghai in 1908, he moved to France in 1928 to study art and art theory. In 1949, 17 years after Fu Lei had returned to his homeland, the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, emerged triumphant in the country’s civil war. In 1966, as anti-intellectual fever swept through China, Fu Lei and his wife decided to swallow poison.

Fortunately for the two heroes of our novel, Mao’s goons were too late to prevent Fu Lei from translating many of the major works of 19th century French literature, including Balzac and Romain and also Voltaire. It is the former two that interest Luo and his loyal companion, an unnamed high school friend in whom we see elements of Dai Sijie himself.

Sijie, a filmmaker by trade, underwent “re-education” between 1971 and 1974. Evidently, though, the main lesson he took from his country’s rural hinterland was that it was not a safe place for an artist. One of the lucky “three in a thousand” to be allowed home, Sijie left China for France in 1984, where he has remained since. In 2000, he wrote Balzac et La Petit Tailleuse Chinoise, which was translated by Ina Rilke a year later as Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

The novel begins as Luo and his friend, the narrator, arrive in their forbidding communist paradise armed only with a few clothes and a violin that belongs to the latter. Clearly not a farming tool, the instrument arouses suspicion amongst the simple minded and heavily indoctrinated locals, whose ire only grows when our narrator drops in the words ‘Mozart’ and ‘sonata’. Thinking on his feet, the reluctant Maoist says that he uses the instrument to play a song called Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao. It will not be the last lucky escape for these two young members of China’s dwindling literati.

Even with the violin, things look unremittingly bleak for Luo and his friend. Then one day the duo have a chance encounter with the daughter of the most eminent man in the village, the tailor. The son of a famous dentist, Luo is also a master storyteller, and this faint whiff of high culture is enough to entice the eponymous seamstress. With the violinist as their watchmen, the young couple begin a passionate and furtive affair.

Also resident in the rainy village is another young Maoist in the making, a boy known as Four Eyes, due to his glasses. Struggling with his menial farm tasks one wet afternoon, Four Eyes enlists the help of Luo and his friend. In exchange, the bespectacled youth gives them a ‘treasure beyond price’, a novel. And not just some Maoist tripe, but Ursule Mirouët, by Honoré de Balzac.

From this inspired beginning, our narrator manages to lay his hands on Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe:

I had intended only a brief flirtation, a skim read, but once I had opened the book I couldn’t put it down… Jean-Christophe, with his fierce individualism utterly untainted by malice, was a salutary revelation. Without him I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual. Up until this stolen encounter with Romain Rolland’s hero, my poor educated and re-educated brains had been incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world.

Words to chill any communist’s blood. But even the greatest novel is no protection against natural and man-made forces. As Luo and the Little Seamstress fall deeper in love and Four Eyes grows increasingly agitated, the violin-playing narrator must find a way to save both his friends and the precious pages he values so dearly.

Such devotion to free expression is an homage that Fu Lei would have cherished. I’m sure he would have equally enjoyed translating this wild and wonderful story.

Information and activities

Pre-read questions

  1. Do you know of any books that are banned in the United Kingdom?
  2. Do you know of any books that are banned in other countries?
  3. Why do governments ban certain books?
  4. In Britain, certain books are banned to prisoners. What books or what kind of books do you think are banned?
  5. If you had the power, what books, if any, would you ban?

Important people

Fu Lei – Born in Shanghai in 1908, Fu Lei was a Chinese translator of French novels and an art critic. The quality of his work earned Lei a reputation as one of the foremost Chinese-French translators. During his career he translated the works of Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola and Romain Rolland. In 1966, he and his wife committed suicide after being labelled ‘rightists’ by the ruling communist party of China.

Mao Zedong – Born in Hunan province in south-central China in 1893, Mao Zedong (also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung) was the founder of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of the Communist Party of China.

Chairman Mao, as he is still known in China, was one of the most controversial and influential leaders of the 20th century. During his 27-year rule (1949-1976), China grew from a largely rural country of 550 million people to a modern, industrialised superpower of nearly a billion people. His policies of forced industrialisation (‘The Great Leap Forward’) and cultural homogenisation (‘The ‘Proletarian Cultural Revolution’) resulted in the deaths, by murder, torture or starvation, of more than 40 million people.

Honoré de Balzac – Born in Tours, France in 1799, Honoré de Balzac was a French writer. From 1829 until his death in 1855 he wrote 90 novels and short stories, which he grouped under the title La Comédie humaine (‘The Human Comedy’).

Émile Zola – Born in Paris in 1840, Émile Zola was a French writer and journalist known as much for his novels as for his investigative journalism, most notably in the latter case in the Dreyfus affair of the late 1890s, in which a Jewish captain of the French army was first imprisoned for and later (thanks in part to Zola) acquitted of treason.

Romain Rolland – Born in Clamecy, France in 1866, Romain Rolland was a French writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. A historian and pacifist, Rolland is best known for his 10-volume novel Jean-Christophe, published in the bimonthly French literary magazine Cahiers de la Quinzaine between 1904 and 1912.

'The Proletarian Cultural Revolution'Mao

Launched by Chairman Mao (right, in a portrait in Tiananmen Square, Beijing) in May 1966, the Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an attempt to rid China and the ruling Communist Party of capitalist and bourgeois elements and to preserve China’s communist ideology. The ‘revolution’ involved mass arrests, imprisonment, torture, property seizures, destruction of ancient artefacts and the repression of all western literature.

The period also featured a policy called the ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement’, in which city and urban youths were sent to the mountains or countryside to learn from the farmers and develop a communist mentality.

The Proletarian Cultural Revolution was part of the great ideological conflict of the second half of the 20th century known as the Cold War. In broad terms, the Cold War was a global struggle between the economic systems of capitalism and communism and the two dominant states who practised these systems, respectively the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The USSR was the original communist state. Founded in 1917, it became a global superpower when it defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. In 1949, it became the second country, after the United States, to develop atomic weaponry. The country’s leader, Joseph Stalin, was even more murderous and megalomaniacal than Mao.

In his book Animal Farm, George Orwell uses animal metaphors to tell the story of Stalin’s rise to power. From the early 1930s until his death in 1953, Stalin authorised the execution, torture or imprisonment of many millions of Soviet citizens in a campaign dubbed the Great Purge. At the same time, he fostered a personality cult so omnipotent that he was regarded by many of his people as something close to a god.

Mao’s Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an obvious imitation of the Great Purge, as well as Mao’s attempt to make China the preeminent communist state and himself the supreme leader of communist ideology.

Glossary of important terms

Bourgeoisie

Noun [singular or plural]
(In Marxist contexts) The capitalists who own most of the wealth and control the means of production.

Capitalism

Noun [uncountable]
An economic and political system in which private owners and not the state control a country's trade and industry with the goal of making a profit in a market economy.

Communism

Noun [uncountable]
The theory of social organisation in which the state or community owns all property, individuals contribute and receive according to their ability and needs and the means of production are held "in common" for the benefit of everyone in society.

Communist Manifesto, The

A short book by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1848. In it, Marx and Engels explain their view of history, the problems of capitalism and why communism is the only system that can bring equality to the citizens of Europe. The Manifesto explains that the bourgeoisie's main goal in exploiting the proletariat is maintaining private property. In the second chapter Marx and Engels include a list of demands, one of which is the abolition of private property.

The Communist Manifesto is regarded as one of the most influential political documents in history. It inspired the men who launched the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, leading to the creation of the communist USSR, which in turn led to communist revolutions elsewhere in the world throughout the 20th century, notably in China, Cuba and Vietnam.

Comrade

Noun
A fellow socialist or communist, used as a form of address — "Forgive me, Comrade."
A title — "Comrade Romanov, how are you?"

Fascism

Noun [uncountable]
An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government, in which one national or ethnic group is considered superior. Fascism was first used to describe the regime of Benito Mussolini (1922-43). The governments of General Franco in Spain and Adolf Hitler in Germany were also fascist.

Marxism

Noun [uncountable]
The political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which were developed by their followers into communism. The central theories of Marxism are that economic factors bring about social change and all human history is a history of class struggles.

Marx defined every era of human history in terms of control of the means of production. In a capitalist society, he argued, the bourgeois class controls the means of production and workers sell their labour without any control over what they produce. Marxism predicts that the working classes will overthrow the capitalist system and establish a communist society.

Proletariat

Noun [uncountable]
Working-class people regarded collectively, often used in reference to Marxism.

Proletariat comes from the Latin word 'proles', meaning offspring. In Ancient Rome, this term was used to describe people who had no wealth and only served the state by having babies.

Republic

Noun [countable]
A state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives, an which has an elected or nominated president rather than a monarch

Examples: The Republic of France, The United States of America, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Socialism

Noun [uncountable]
A political and economic theory of social organisation in which the community owns and regulates the means of production, distribution and exchange. In Marxist theory, the socialist state is a kind of transition state between capitalism and communism.

Socialism is a broad term and concept, and often a controversial one. Following World War II, socialist states emerged in Europe, North America and elsewhere. In Britain, for example, the Labour party is, in theory, a socialist party. That is, its priority is the working class. The National Health Service (NHS) is one of the most famous socialist initiatives in British and European history.

Soviet

Noun [singular]
An elected local, district or national council in the former Soviet Union (USSR)

Adjective
Of or concerning the Soviet Union

Origin: from the Russian word sovet, meaning 'council.'  

USSR, The

Noun [singular, proper]
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, often shortened to 'the Soviet Union', the USSR was formed in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution and disintegrated in 1991. This huge country was the world's first communist state. It was comprised of 15 republics: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

USSR map

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