"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by Dai Sijie is one of those special books, moving and delicately twisted and full of insights about life under communism. It gives us a glimpse into a frighteningly oppressive world where learning and reading are political crimes punishable by death. The book is a fictionalized account of the author's own experience of surviving Chinese communism and in particular Mao's Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao's grand experiment to reshape the very core of the consciousness of the Chinese people. Between 1966 and 1976, thousands of forbidden books were burned and millions of people were sent to remote villages to be re-educated. The re-education aimed to rid them of "intellectualism."
In early 1971 the 17-year old narrator of the book and his best friend, eighteen-year old Luo are sent to a "village in a lost corner of the mountains" called the Phoenix in the Sky to which there are no roads but only treacherously narrow paths through craggy rocks and precipices. Their crime? "Intellectuals" and children of "enemies of the people." Although they have already lived with fear of denunciations and punishments, the contrasts between city and remote mountain village life are unbelievable. Here words
like Western, intellectual, art, reading and books have even more sinister implications. To the peasants, the violin which the narrator has been allowed to bring along is a suspicious "toy" that has to be burned. But he woos them by playing a song the two boys, thinking quickly in communist political correct terms, call "Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao."
They work hard plowing fields and carrying on their backs buckets of excrement out of the village. Late at night they tell stories by the flame of an oil lamp, stories on which soon the entire village and its headman become hooked. Occasionally the headman sends them down to the tiny town to see a movie so they could retell...