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132 of 140 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a little gem!
Aah, this is a real find. Here's a lovely story with haunting images that will stay with you. It's a story of oppression reminiscent of "Fahrenheit 451" but it also has some harrowing adventure. It is at once charming and startling as we are plunged into the horror of Mao's "re-education" plan for China. It's a love story, yes, but it's mostly about...
Published on September 11, 2001 by MLPlayfair

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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Love the cover
Saw the cover of this book online a while ago and finally just read it based on how beautiful the cover is. The book is entertaining but if you really want to know the real story you should look on Amazon for "The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices" by Xinran Xue. This book will make "Balzac and ........" look like a Disney cartoon in comparison! It is one of the most...
Published on October 28, 2004 by Rona S. Dacoscos


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132 of 140 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a little gem!, September 11, 2001
By 
Aah, this is a real find. Here's a lovely story with haunting images that will stay with you. It's a story of oppression reminiscent of "Fahrenheit 451" but it also has some harrowing adventure. It is at once charming and startling as we are plunged into the horror of Mao's "re-education" plan for China. It's a love story, yes, but it's mostly about the love of words, the insatiable thirst for stories, entertainment, and escape of any kind, the enormous revolution your life can undertake when introduced to new ideas, old wisdom, and beautiful language. It's especially delightful for those of us who love Asian literature. This translation from the French is a bit awkward in places, but it still manages to transcend language barriers and relate the magic the author intended. Frankly, I was drawn to the book because the cover is so beautiful, and I love the small size. As a former designer of publications, I immediately appreciated the beauty of the package, including the truly lovely typeface. It's a complete experience. And nothing in the book is overdone. It's like dessert for the soul.
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cultural revolution, in miniature, January 24, 2003
This review is from: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel (Paperback)
"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" does exactly what this type of book should do. It offers us a brief window into a part of the world, and a style of life, of which we will never be able to encounter first hand. It allows to walk a few steps in the shoes of a different kind of citizen of life, and thus empathize with their experience. It also provides a moving allegory for the power of fiction, and lets us appreciate something that is so readily available to us, yet so rare for others. The escape of fiction allows for dreams, and is a powerful force.
Being almost ignorant of the Chinese cultural re-education system, this book was educational historically as well. I had known of it in theory, but not details such as the banning of all books other than those written by Mao, or the process behind re-education. I do want to learn more about this chapter in history, of which the world is still feeling the repercussions.
The book itself is gentle, with moving imagery and a quiet sense of humor. The characters in it do not rage against the political machine, but instead make do with what life has forced upon them. There is love, of course, because humans will love in the most desperate of circumstances. To highlight the playfulness of the book, my favorite scene is when the tailor, influenced by the hearing of Count of Monte Cristo, begins to dress the village in fanciful pirate clothes and nautical emblems.
Charming all the way through, and small enough to be a quick read.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More subtle than it seems, April 26, 2002
Lovely book. Except for two brief shifts in narrative viewpoint, the story is told in a very simple, almost naive way. But that simplicity hides great richness.
The story is about the power of dreams, imagination, fables, and the dangers they bring. The Cultural Revolution had forced two teenagers, the narrator and his friend, to relocate to a tiny mountainside village. And though these two young men are hardly shining lamps of erudition and culture, they manage to excite the imagination of their neighbors. Their violin (poorly played) charms the headmaster into accepting them into the village. The headmaster becomes enthralled, almost hypnotized with a clock with a rooster on the face, and its hold over him helps the two boys cope with farmwork. When the headmaster discovers the two can retell movies skillfully, they are sent to the larger village down th mountain expressly to watch films and retell them when they return. These things help them endure the rigors of Mao's reeducation. The story creates for them a kind of tiny paradise.
When they find (steal) a chest full of forbidden western classics, they are ecstatic. The stories are themselves dangerous, in Mao's paranoid, anti-intellectual, anti-western culture, where everyone was an informer and the crimes were not defined. But the stories are also dangerous for their exploration of the passions, for their power to excite the imagination, for their sheer craft and knowledge of the human heart. The narrator's friend begins to use Balzac's stories to woo a lovely seamstress.
In the very briefest, most evocative possible way, Dai shows how the books bring hints of conflict and danger into this little village. The narrator finds he is jealous of his friend and the seamstress. More disturbingly, he finds he thinks of things as his and mine, where before he never thought to distinguish.
Contrary to another reviewer, I find the story doesn't patronize or belittle the seamstress at all. In fact, that is one of the key ironies of the book, that the boy had tried to win her heart, and then make her a sophisticate, with Balzac, and had in fact succeeded. But the stories are the very thing that drive her away to make her own life in the city. They freed her, in fact.
Contrary to a reviewer below, the story feels Chinese to me. It has that exuberant, slightly coarse humor and that feeling of localness, like everything is taking place in a minature landscape: mountain, fields, a town (the big one) that consists of two buildings.
Dai himself endured "re-education," and it must have been a horrific experience. That he can write such a sunny, yet subtle and resonant work about the period is another proof of the power of literature and the imagination.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite as great as billed, but well worth reading, September 3, 2003
By 
James Sadler (Plano, TX United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel (Paperback)
I first head of this book when it was initially translated into English. Actually, what I heard was
an extended discussion of the cover, by which a number of people were apparently fascinated. Moreover, everyone who read seemed to rave about it. My curiously led me to pick up a copy
soon after it came out.
While I enjoyed this book, I did not find it to be quite the experience others did. It is a very good book, but, perhaps because it is more of a novella than a novel, I found myself wanting more information. On the other hand, that may speak well for the book, shouldn't a good author always leave you begging for more?
The book tells the tale of two young friends who are exiled to a remote mountain village for re-education during China's Cultural Revolution. There they come in contact with the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden cache of Western novels (yes, including works by Balzac) which have been translated into Chinese. Both become enamored with the seamstress as they secretly read the banned works, and find some respite from their status as laborers in both reading and in performing oral movies for villagers.
Throughout the tale, we are drawn into the lives of the two friends, although I never really connected with the characters or felt empathy with either of them. I was sympathetic to their situation, but I never really identified with them as I generally do with characters in a novel. But trust me, this is only a minor criticism and, based on other reviews, I am very much in the minority in feeling as I did. Moreover, I guess I was somewhat disappointed that the book did not move me as deeply as I thought it would after hearing about it. Maybe its just a classic case of too much build-up and anticipation prior to reading it; there was no way it could live up to its billing.
Whether this book will reach the classic status that so many seem to believe it will, only time will tell. It has fable-like qualities, but somehow I don't see it eventually finding status as a fable. It is an excellent read and do highly recommend it.
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57 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gemlike Novel for People Who Love Books, January 29, 2003
By 
This review is from: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel (Paperback)
You've probably heard by now what this book is about: It is a story of how two young Chinese city dwellers discover a hoard of great European novels (in Chinese translation, of course) in a remote mountain hamlet during the troublous Cultural Revolution. This was at a time that the ONLY acceptable reading material was Mao's Little Red Book and other suchlike politico-economic tracts.
To understand why I love this book, you have to understand that I went to France primarily to see Honore de Balzac's house on the rue Raynouard and his tomb at the Pere Lachaise cemetery -- both in Paris. When I first read OLD GORIOT years ago, I felt as if my eyes were opened for this first time. LOST ILLUSIONS, COUSIN BETTE, URSULE MIROUET and the others merely reinforced this love.
Likewise, it was the Waverley Novels of Sir Walter Scott that impelled me to first go to Scotland, and to keep returning. And it was the NJALS SAGA and GRETTIR'S SAGA that took me to Iceland in 2001.
The point I am trying to make is that the great stories are capable of enriching your life and casting away your blinders more effectively than anything else I can imagine. Balzac, Bronte, Cervantes, Hugo, Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy -- these are names to conjure with. I can think of no better way to bring enchantment and meaning to life than a course of the classics, undertaken with the same sense of awe and wonderment as the narrator, his friend Luo, and the little Chinese seamstress felt in their mountain fastness. Try it sometime.
The only comparison I can think of is Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451, and -- even more -- Francois Truffaut's film of the same name, with its long tracks and pans across the covers of scores of Truffaut's favorite books as if it were us looking for the last time upon something that was loved, but about to be destroyed forever. Sadly, it's not unimaginable that a day will dawn on which, only in remote areas far from the nightmarish cities, will people of the future will look with wild surmise on the few literary treasures they can find in the dustbin of our civilization.
Read Dai Sijie, and then read Balzac. You have to start somewhere. Why not right on top of the mountain named, appropriately, the Phoenix of the Sky?
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A surprisingly charming coming of age story, October 5, 2002
"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" is a sweet, short and whimsical little coming of age story. That it happens to be set during China's Cultural Revolution and revolves around sent-down educated youth is incidental, which is a refreshing change.
One of the editorial reviews labels this a "moving, often wrenching novel"; that it is neither is what makes it so appealing. Dai Sijie's lovely novel is a departure from most the "scar literature" about the Cultural Revolution in so many refreshing ways. The genre is saturated by epic-length wallow fests, equal parts suffering, self-importance and appeal-to-Western-readers exotica. "Balzac" is simple, unpretentious, strait-forward and humorous. The tragic overtones of the time are mentioned passingly and straightforwardly, as through the eyes of a youth more concerned with his own affairs than of the nation convulsing around him. Yet its tragedy is so much more moving with such a sparing brush than those that linger morbidly to flesh out all the gory details.
The story is told through the eyes of a sent-down youth and his bosom buddy Luo. They are typical teenagers, at once cocky and nervous, at first thrown in over their heads in the small village they are assigned to, but soon figuring things out well enough to manipulate the system, and usually get away with it. Much humor is made through the village headman's infatuation with Luo's alarm clock, the first such thing to ever be seen in the town, and how they use the villages blind trust in its accuracy to steal extra hours of morning sleep.
The central characters are not paragons of virtue, and often downright unsympathetic, which makes the plot the more engaging and realistic. With teenage boy duplicity, they both vie to seduce the prettiest girl in the village, the seamstress of the title. Luo's talent for storytelling had won them the task of going to town to see movies and then come back and reenact them for the rest of the village, and first courts the seamstress with his movie tales.
After a friend of theirs, another sent-down youth and the child of writers, grudgingly loans them a Balzac book, Luo discovers that French romanticism gets him further with the girl than Korean Communist propaganda. After much plotting, they steal their friend's secret suitcase of banned Western novels, leading to the book's central conflict: Luo's forbidden affair with the seamstress, and the trio's forbidden love affair with literature.
In the average Cultural Revolution tale, these love affairs would end disastrously. Perhaps playfully alluding to the cliches of the genre, Dai foreshadows such a romantically tragic ending. What happens instead hilariously cements the book as a solidly realistic and cynical portrait of China and of human nature.
It's interesting to note the disparity between the emigrant Chinese writers who went to France and who went to Anglophone countries. While most of the latter, apart from a few notable exceptions, are horrendous writers, those who migrated to France, such as Gao Xingjian and Dai, have honed an elegant literary fusion. This harks back to the 1920s and '30s, when most of the best Chinese writers and artists studied in France. I don't know much about France, but it always does good things to the Chinese.
"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" is also a physical pleasure to read, with its flowing old typeface, small size and the elegant cover that lured me in despite my dislike of its genre.
In absolute terms, "Balzac" only deserves four stars, but compared to the other books in its genre, which get so many undeserved raves from naive readers who wouldn't know China from Cochinchina, it is definitely a gem.
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42 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The title says it all., December 1, 2001
Whenever a novel wins multiple French prizes, it usually exhibits two notable traits: first, its celebration of France's glorious past (in this case, its 19th century romantic authors, especially Balzac) and second, its condescension to the female characters (in this case, an unnamed "little Chinese seamstress"). This is not to say it is not a good book--it is! But the main characters' expressed desire to "civilize" and ultimately "transform" the little seamstress may be a difficult cultural pill for independent American women to swallow, much less empathize with.

Set during China's Cultural Revolution, the two main characters, city-dwelling young men of 17 and 18, have been sent to the countryside for re-education, which in this case means hauling excrement down from a mountain ironically named "The Phoenix of the Sky." Luo, the friend of the narrator, is a good storyteller, and the village headman eventually sends the two young men repeatedly to the nearest small city, a four-day round trip on foot, to view a movie and then return and "tell it" to the village. In a neighboring village, they meet the beautiful young seamstress, "the princess of Phoenix mountain," whom Luo wishes to improve and with whom he fancies himself in love. When the men obtain access to a hidden cache of forbidden romantic novels, mostly French, they devour them, using them to "educate" the seamstress and entertain the villagers.

Fascinating for its views of Chinese rural life and intriguing for its lovely descriptions of the natural world, its simple style, and its ability to show the universality of emotions-- jealousy, fear, sympathy, self-protection, quirky humor, and passion--this is a very well-written and entertaining novella, too short to allow for significant development of character and theme. Its symbolism will be familiar to most readers--a snake, keys, a narrow walkway between deep gorges, fearless plunges into the water, etc.--and its ending is inevitable. A simple story, simply told. Mary Whipple
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Written!!, December 3, 2002
By 
Vivek Tejuja "vivekian" (mumbai, maharashtra, india) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Bought this book at a whim and did not wish to read it for a long long time, till I picked it up and then could not stop until I had reached the very last page.
Sijie's first novel or rather novella (considering it is only something like 184 pages long) begins with the Chinese Revolution headed by General Mao and the concept of "re-education" - as a result of which two teenagers are transported to an ancient village away from civilization.
No one being re-educated is permitted to read any books excepting the little book of sayings written by Chairman Mao. It is when, through a series of events, they obtain a book written by Balzac (the reading of which is now a crime) that suddenly the world of literature and of ideas abruptly opens to them. They are so hungry for more that all they can do is dream (and scheme) about getting other such books. They later meet the third primary character in this book, the very beautiful young seamstress, and, by relating to her the words of Balzac, produce in her too the desire for more such words and thoughts. She is as hungry for new stories and ideas as are the two boys.
Luo, now in love with the girl, wants to obtain more books for her, not only to please her but also to raise her up from her lack of education to become something other than the peasant girl she is (albeit a beautiful one). In that desire to "re-educate" the girl he loves resides their ultimate future.
This is a wonderful story about relationships and love, about the buoyancy of youthful souls thrown into the cold and potentially drowning waters of very trying circumstances, and, lastly, about the need for those things in our lives that stir our imaginations to life and so generate fresh desires and new dreams within us. It is the stirring of human imagination that ultimately changes the world.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A delightful, thoughtful read, October 29, 2004
By 
Kaye Barlow (Vancouver Island, Canada) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel (Paperback)
This is a delightful tale about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of literature. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, two young men, friends, have been exiled to the hills of an impoverished village for "re-education". Both their fathers are professional medical men. Even in the midst of back-breaking, mind-numbing labour, the two heroes of this tale grow and revel in the story telling art. They discover a trove of novels and share them with members of the village, as well as the little Chinese seamstress of the story. The Cultural Revolution in China is convincingly portrayed. I understand that the author was also re-educated during seventies.

The only drawback to my complete enjoyment of this book was that for some reason I could not really identify with either boy, particularly Luo. Normally with a book of this length and this well-written, I would read it in one sitting. I found that I could lay it aside and get into another book, then come back to it. This is a minor caveat, though. Their story is very real and their art of story-telling and their enjoyment of the novels are palpable. The ending is delightful and surprising.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Honest, Thought-Provoking Tale of Another Time and Place, June 20, 2003
By 
This review is from: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel (Paperback)
I have to admit I put off reading this book because I thought it would be too "heavy," but I found it to be a page-turner with real emotion and humor. It transports you to a completely different time -- China at the time of the "Cultural Revolution" where "intellectuals" were sent out to live with peasants to be "re-educated" -- and place -- the misty mountaintops near Tibet.
But the story is one that touches the humanity in us all...the close friendship that develops between the narrator and his friend, Luo (both teenage boys); a first love (with the "Little Chinese Seamstress,"; jealousy, hardship, solidarity, you name it.
It made me realize how special it is to have literature at our disposal...when you read how eager the boys were to get at Western literature, and revered it, when it was officially forbidden. And the ending makes one think, too, though I think most will find it unexpected.
A sweet, honest, timeless story, that should touch any reader.
- Julia Wilkinson, My Life at AOL
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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel by Ina Rilke (Paperback - October 29, 2002)
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