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Literature / Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a novel written in 2000 by Dai Sijie, which he adapted himself to movie format in 2002.

In 1971, Luo and Ma, two college students, are sent for ideological reeducation to Phoenix Mountain, a remote part of rural Sichuan. There they are required to perform manual labor until such time as the authorities decide. One day they meet the Little Seamstress, the granddaughter of the local tailor, and decide to awaken her to the beauty of literature. They give her books by various "forbidden" authors, among whom is Honoré de Balzac.

At first their relationship is strictly platonic, but Luo and the Little Seamstress become intimate, to the silent resentment of Ma who was also developing romantic feelings for the young woman. When she turns out to be pregnant, it is Ma who arranges for her to have a discreet abortion.

The village folks learn to appreciate the two students' storytelling skills. They charge them with going to neighboring towns when a movie is playing, and then retell it to them. With the help of the Little Seamstress, they turn the retellings into quasi-performance art.

Eventually, they are successful in making the Little Seamstress curious about high culture. What they didn't expect is that she acts out on that curiosity by leaving the village and moving off to the city.

In the film adaptation, we see how Luo and Ma turned out. They were finally allowed to resume their studies, graduate from university, and have successful professional lives. Ma became an internationally famous violin player. Decades later, he returned to the village where he and Luo had met the Little Seamstress, just as it was about to be flooded by the reservoir of a dam.

Contains examples of:

  • Artistic License – Traditional Christianity mixed with Christianity is Catholic: The Protestant Pastor who was sweeping the streets was found with a Bible written in Latin.
  • Culture Police: This story is set during the Cultural Revolution, so the prohibitions against various types of literature drive much of the plot. The only books allowed are the technical and scientific ones, or those redacted by foreign Maoists such as Hoxha.
    • Four-Eyes puts his novels and forbidden literature under state-approved books to hide them from the Cultural Police. When Luo and Ma ask him about the forbidden books, he claims he threw them away.
    • In the beginning, the villagers want to destroy Ma's violin because they think it's a toy for entertaining bourgeois kids. Luo manages to convince them by claiming that the Mozart sonatas Ma knows are about Mao.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Luo and Ma never see the Little Seamstress again.
  • Blind Without 'Em: When Four-Eyes briefly loses his glasses, he mostly stumbles around the place, squinting and screaming angrily at the oxen. It's only through Luo and Ma's help that he's able to get his glasses back.
  • Book Burning: Ma burns all the books after the departure of Little Seamstress
  • Did Not Get the Girl: The Little Seamstress runs off to the city alone, without getting with either Luo or Ma. The two try to find her years later but are unsuccessful.
  • Distant Finale: The film adaptation adds to the original story an extra part taking place 30 years later. Ma is a successful violinist in France. Ma learns the area where he was re-educated is being flooded and tries in vain to reunite with the Little Seamstress, whose whereabouts are still unknown. He meets up with Luo, who stayed in China and had a great career as a dentist and eventually secured a tenured position. Luo reveals he tried to find the Little Seamstress too, and he doesn't know much either, besides that she might be in Hong Kong. They catch up on what's happened to the village through a local news program. The village chief has mellowed with age and still has the alarm clock; it's still 20 minutes ahead too, and when the TV reporter points this out, he accepts with this humility. The old miller is still playing his riddle folk song, and the other villagers have fond memories of Luo and Ma's time there.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Everyone calls her the Little Seamstress.
    • Also Four-Eyes, theChief, the old Miller and others.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Luo manages to impregnate the Little Seamstress, much to her dismay, because they'll be in deep trouble if anyone else in the village finds out about it. She actually would like to have an abortion, but the Chinese government fully believes in this trope and prohibits abortions (in the film, they only allow them if the woman has a marriage certificate, and she's too young to marry.)
  • Life Imitates Art: In-Universe, after being read The Count of Monte Cristo, the old tailor starts designing clothes with anchors and French motifs in them.
  • Love Triangle: Luo is in love with the Little Seamstress. Ma is fond of her as well, though to a much lesser extent. The Little Seamstress picks neither, going off on her own instead.
  • Outdoor Bath Peeping: When Luo and Ma first see the Little Seamstress, she's bathing in a stream with other young women.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: When you're being reeducated in Maoist China, every official you meet will be one of those.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: It is normally forbidden to slaughter an ox, except in cases where the animal is gravely wounded; Four-Eyes's mother pays the Chief so that an ox "accidentally" fell and get gravely hurt, requiring his killing and making its meat available for the farewell banquet.
  • Two-Person Pool Party: The old miller observes Luo and The Little Seamstress having one in the book.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "The secret part of his body was shrunken and sleeping".