Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress explores the power of books to transform the lives of their readers. In 1970s China, two young men are sent to the countryside for re-education and stumble across a suitcase of forbidden novels. The youths are deemed ‘intellectuals’ by the Cultural Revolution simply because they both graduated high school; this title is particularly barbed for the boys, since by the time they were able to attend school both maths and science had been wiped from the curriculum, so they were denied the chance to even aspire to become an intellectual. No books (except those either authored or favoured by Mao) are permitted, a ban which applies to Chinese classics and Western literature alike. As a result, other civilisations and China’s own rich past are shrouded in mystery.
Discovering the suitcase of forbidden Western novels (Flaubert, Hugo, Dickens, Dumas) has a profound impact on the lives of the boys:
Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives.
They share the stories with a young girl in the next village, who is so entranced by Balzac’s story-telling that she listens literally open-mouthed. The books they uncover allow not only an insight into the lives of other people, but also allow the boys to understand their own world with greater clarity. They are able to fully appreciate what it means to live in a totalitarian society, where they are forbidden to enjoy the experiences detailed in the novels. In oppressive societies the transformative power of books is perceived as a dangerous force: it opens up the minds of its inhabitants to possibilities and opportunities they would never have considered before. Dai Sijie presents a celebration of the power of books: through reading, we can change the way we see the world.