Amy’s Marginalia: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

A friend of mine recommended that I read this little book as part of my blitz through fiction with a Chinese twist.  You can read more about that trend here.

Not having read anything by Balzac before, the book’s title didn’t exactly jump off the shelves at me, but a friend’s recommendation is all I need as an excuse to dive into another book.  Interestingly, at the last writer’s conference I attended, I learned that the number one reason why women purchase books is because of a recommendation. 

The story is set in a time that I knew little about, during the Cultural Revolution in China, specifically in 1971.  The two main characters are bourgeois boys sent to the countryside for “re-education,” which basically means that they were to forget all the city bred culture they knew and replace it with backwoods country ways.  This also meant that all Western elements were banned, especially books.  When the boys come across a cache of forbidden books, including several works by Balzac, their world is expanded, and they are nourished by their worldview and lessons.  The Little Chinese Seamstress is a simple country girl that the boys meet who is also transformed by these Western books and ideas.

Anyone who has read the high school classic Fahrenheit 451 can recognize the horror of a culture without books.  Whereas Bradbury’s book imagines future without books, Dai Sijie’s novel looks back to a time and place where the unthinkable actually happened. 

The boys risk their lives to read these forbidden books.  They devise clever ways of copying the writing, most notably on the inner lining of their clothing.  I’ve read about a thirst for words like this before, and it occurs to me that stories that most closely resemble them are from missionaries who travelled across the Iron Curtain (Brother Andrew’s God Smuggler is the prime example). Today, missionaries in the 10/40 window also face similar obstacles.  Underground churches meticulously copy Bible verses, so the one Bible in the congregation can be shared more effectively. 

Do you ever notice how you only recognize the value of something once it’s taken away from you? If you’re anything like me, you have a bookshelf or two crammed with books, many of which you don’t read.  Most believers probably have several Bibles kicking around their homes. There’s also a public library in your town that you might not have visited in the past year, or 10.

But what if a new government stepped in, one that banned these books and ideas.  Wouldn’t their worth be of greater value to you?  Would you sit up late at night, reading them, searching them for the hidden, secret wisdom that was banned and forbidden?

Sometimes, I wonder if banning books makes people read them more.  For example, in the small town where I grew up, our high school assigned Jane Smiley’s book A Thousand Acres to one of the English classes.  A parent got wind of the assignment and sounded the alarm that there were profanities and some sex scenes.  Would you believe it, the book flew off the shelves in our area?  It was mostly church people buying it to read it, so they could join in denouncing it.  It was sold out everywhere.  But bookstores were quick to catch on, and they restocked quickly.  There’s a copy on my bookshelf too.

I’m not saying that we should ban the Bible. Heaven forbid. But I am saying, maybe we’re a little too comfortable in our freedoms.  Stepping into these stories, where we read about others who don’t have it so easy, who would love to have the access we have, maybe we’d recognize the precious treasure we have available to us any time we want it. 

And we too can be transformed (Romans 12:2).


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. If you enjoyed this book, then I would highly recommend you to take a look at “Return to Middle Kingdom” by Yuan-tsung Chen. A NF historical on the culture of China. War, revolution, politics, intrigue, adventure and romance, this book has everything a reader might want.

    AL: Oooh, another book recommendation! Looks like an interesting one, with a nice review from Amy Tan, someone else I like reading. I’ll have to check that out. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for sharing. Totally agree

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