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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 2 February 2002
This book is a gem, set during the dark days of China's Cultural Revolution, in which novels, particularly novels from the non-communist world, were banned. Two young men from 'bourgeois' families are sent to the remote mountains of Szechuan for a political 're-education' which takes the form of sharing the back-breaking and frequently dangerous work of the peasants. During their stay on Phoenix Mountain the young men's 're-education' takes on another form as they discover an illicit cache of European classic novels, including the works of Balzac and Flaubert. Through the pages of these novels they are able to enter a world of sensuality and sensitivity far removed from the harshness of Mao's China. They use the stories learned from Balzac to win the attention of the book's most delightful character, the Little Seamstress herself, a wild and beautiful mountain flower. The effect on the Little Seamstress of the French stories, the way she too is re-educated, generates one of the most important and poignant strands of this novel's plot. There are many moments of humour in Sijie's book - for instance, when the character Four-Eyes attempts to turn a bawdy folk-song into Maoist propaganda. There are moments too of stunning beauty, as in Sijie's description of the Little Seamstress swimming in the mountain pool, and moments towards the end of the novel of intense pathos. Despite the book's short length, Sijie manages to achieve a narrative of great emotional power as he celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tyranny: Mao's great ideological apparatus is no match for the capacity of young men to fool around, cheat authority, and pursue friendship and love - and Sijie shows that no grey life-denying dogma can ever repress the great tide of life that surges through every appearance in this beautiful novel of the Little Seamstress herself.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This would have been a pleasant enough read but it was the humour embodied in the story that raised it to a 5 star book. At only 172 pages, it was a delight; I don't often say this but I'd have loved it to have been twice as long.

Luo and his friend, the narrator, are teenagers in 1971 when they are sent to a remote Szechuan village for 're-education'. From the moment they arrive with a violin which they rescue from its fate of burning by announcing that one of the songs it plays is "Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao" it was obvious that this was not your usual cultural Chinese fiction. The boys are expected to perform the most mundane and unpleasant tasks but their upbeat attitude carries them through and provides the reader with an insight into this aspect of the Chinese cultural revolution without the usual misery.
Luo's ability to tell wonderful stories results in their being sent on regular two day trecks to a neighbouring town just to watch cinema and report back. His versions of the films are a resounding success in the village.
It is while on one of these trips that they meet The Chinese Seamstress and both fall madly in love. They also meet Four-Eyes, owner of an illicit collection of banned books - and they will stop at nothing to get their hands on these.

The author was, himself, sent for 're-education' in the 1970s and this knowledge adds real authenticity to the narrative.
There's a lot packed into this short novel, don't miss it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 10 June 2009
It is the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and 2 teenage boys, our narrator and Luo, are sent to the countryside to be re-educated, their parents having been denounced as "enemies of the people". The novel recounts a portion of the 2 boys' life in the village on Phoenix Mountain, where they meet the eponymous seamstress and are instantly besotted; and also Four-Eyes, a cowardly bespectacled boy who is the unlikely keeper of the old suitcase full of (mostly French) literature.

The power of storytelling fuels the novel, from Luo's improvised lies, and the boys' sanctioned monthly movie re-enactments, to the narrator's late night re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo. Stories provide escapism, entertainment and enlightenment; it is literature that allows them both to forget the drudgery and darkness of their predicament. For Luo they are a means to an end, a way to cultivate and civilise the seamstress, and for our narrator, they are an education, and when he dips into Rolland's Jean-Christophe, the revelations come thick and fast: "Without him [Jean-Christophe] I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual."

Da Sijie is a careful writer; his prose is detailed and descriptive; at times humorous; at times graphically realistic, such as the improvised dentistry with a sewing machine, and the attack of lice in the old miller's cave. He's also heavily ironic throughout, and never more so than with the central theme, which might be said to be the re-education of the little Chinese seamstress. I'm not convinced by the chapters narrated by other characters, which seem to be randomly thrown into the novel, but otherwise I think this is an endearing story neatly told.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress won't teach you much about either Balzac or sewing, is readable in an afternoon, and is more a fable than a novel, but if you're not deterred by the seeming simplicity this suggests, you might just appreciate this as a little gem.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Two city youth are sent to a distant mountain to be "re-educated" by the peasants during China's Cultural Revolution, but the discovery of a small cache of western books changes both their lives and the life of a young seamstress they befriend in a neighboring village. This slim volume tells a rich and warm story although set during one of the bleakest and most turbulent historical periods. The author himself was a "youth sent for re-education" during the Cultural Revolution, and his description of the smells and textures of rural China and its villagers and beaurocrats are exquisite, but then so is his wonderful tale of the magic of good literature.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 28 December 2007
Wonderful writing, beautiful passion amidst hardship and cultural extremes. This was a fabulous little read - not a 'big' book by any means. The perfect bedtime reading with just enough of absolutely everything to mould it into one of my favourite books of 2007. I'd hate to have missed out on this one.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 16 February 2010
I admit that I groaned when this book was selected for our book group. But I was more than surprised by this perfect example of the writing craft. Given the massive translation, this beautiful book uses symbolism and contrasts to tell its moving story. It is about hope and intellectual freedom overcoming rigid communist ideology. It was uplifting, full of suspense and at the same time tragic and revealing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 29 March 2012
What could be a grim tale of two youths sent for re-education in Mao's China to a remote area on top of a mountain, enduring harsh conditions and dangerous and backbreaking toil, is instead at least in part a tale of enchantment. Luo and his friend the narrator of this story, because of their bourgeois background have been denounced as intellectuals and must make their life as bearable as they can in the small impoverished world of Phoenix mountain. Gradually things begin to look better, particularly when they discover a suitcase full of 19th Century novels and the young daughter of the local tailor. Clear and vividly written, an amazingly imaginative world is presented here.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 July 2011
Enjoyed every minute of this tale of two boys struggling through their re-education period in communist China. I appreciated that their adventures were presented as a sort of "Huckleberry Finn" story, with various episodes, rather than a political piece. My sensation was that boys will be boys.
They got into all sorts of tricky situations, and got themselves out of them, all part of growing up in spite of their restrictive environment. The last two chapters were a bit disconnected with the rest, but not disturbingly so. I enjoyed the writing style as well, the descriptions of the various characters were very well detailed. The ending left me a bit up in the air, wondering about their futures, but also trying to understand if this was a message. All in all, I would recommend it and I would re-read it.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 December 2002
Set in the midst of China's Cultural Revolution in 1971, this debut from Sijie (who himself was sent to be reeducated from '71-'74) tells the story of two urban teenage boys who are sent to reeducation camp and the beautiful peasant seamstress they meet and become enamored of. Through a series of semi-adventures the boys end up with a secret cache of translated popular French novels (Balzac, Dumas, et al). As corrupting pieces of bourgeois culture they are dangerous totems to posses. However as tools to engineer mental escape from the mind-numbing rigors of manual labor, they are worth their weight in gold to the boys.
One of the boys comes up with the notion that reading these sophisticated and thrilling stories to the seamstress will help improve and transform her beyond her humble roots. And it does, though not in the way that they (or the reader) may expect. On its surface it's a simple tale told in elegant and simple prose. If that were all there were to it, I'd dismiss it as so much fluff, however... there is too much symbolism involved to leave it at that. From the boy's assigned task of hauling pails of excrement up a hill, to the seamstresses encounter with a snake, there are many many indications of another level of meaning.
One could make a good case that the one boy symbolizes China's late '90s headlong rush into embracing Western values, and the other boy is his complicit accomplice. Together they use their gift of gab to fill the uneducated peasant girl's head with visions of a world beyond her imagining, via the stories they tell based on the French novels. The one boy plays a game with her of tossing his glittering keychain (symbolic of the riches waiting back in the city) into the water, where she dives for it, scarring her hand in one attempt. But she doesn't learn her lesson, as the boy and temptation lead her to further suffering (she has an abortion). Finally, she is transformed and exhibits the true selfishness necessary to get ahead in the newly urbanizing China. That's just off the top of my head, but I think there's definitely something there, otherwise it's just a cute little story.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 17 October 2004
The story of two students forced to work as manual labourers during the cultural revolution gives a fascinating insight into the chinese way of life during that period.The story runs along at a brisk pace until two thirds of the way through when it seems to jump several months at once. It's as though the publishers demanded the story be finished and so it was a rush job to tie up all the loose ends and finish on time. Having said that I still thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for something slightly unusual.`
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