Ursule Mirouet Balzac Little Chinese Seamstress Essays

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (French: Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise) is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Dai Sijie, and published in 2000 in French and in English in 2001. A film based on his novel directed by Dai was released in 2002.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel, written by Dai Sijie, is about two teenage boys during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Luo, described as having "a genius for storytelling",[1] and the unnamed narrator, "a fine musician".[2] They are assigned to re-education through labor and are sent to a mountain called "Phoenix of the Sky" near Tibet to work in the coal mines and with the rice crop, because their doctor parents have been declared enemies of the state by the communist government. The two boys fall in love with the Little Seamstress, the daughter of the local tailor and "the region's reigning beauty". Residents of the small farming village are delighted by the stories the two teenagers retell from classic literature and movies that they have seen. They are even excused from work for a few days to see films at a nearby town and later retell the story to the townspeople, through a process known as "oral cinema".

Luo and the narrator meet Four-Eyes, the son of a poet, who is also being re-educated. Although he is succeeding in re-education, he is also hiding a secret set of foreign novels that are forbidden by Chinese law. The boys convince Four-Eyes to let them borrow the book Ursule Mirouët by Honoré de Balzac. After staying up all night reading the book, Luo gives the book to the narrator and leaves the village in order to tell the story to the Little Seamstress.[3] Luo returns carrying leaves from a tree near where he and the Little Seamstress had had sexual intercourse.

The village headman, who has just had an unsuccessful dental surgery, threatens to arrest Luo and the narrator for harboring forbidden ideas from The Count of Monte Cristo if they don’t agree to find a solution to the headman’s dental problems. The pair find a solution and turn the drill "slowly... to punish him".[4] Later, the headman allows Luo to go home to look after his sick mother. While Luo is gone, the Little Seamstress finds out that she is pregnant, which she confides to the narrator. However, since the revolutionary society does not permit having children out of wedlock, and she and Luo are too young, the narrator must set up a secret abortion for her. Luo comes back to the village three months after this unexpected event.

The Little Seamstress learns about the outside world by reading the foreign books with Luo's help. She eventually leaves the mountain and everything that she has known without saying goodbye, to start a new life in the city. Luo becomes inebriated and incinerates all of the foreign books "in [a] frenzy",[5] ending the novel.


  • Narrator, unnamed teenage boy (Ma)
  • Luo, the narrator's best friend
  • The Little Seamstress, the daughter of a famous local tailor, a rare beauty with no formal education who cannot read well, so Luo and the narrator read to her.
  • The Village Headman, the leader of the village to which the narrator and Luo are sent for re-education, is a 50-year-old "ex-opium farmer turned Communist cadre."[6] One day, he blackmails Luo to fix his teeth in return for not sending the narrator to jail.
  • Four-Eyes, the son of a writer and a poet, must wear thick glasses to compensate for his nearsightedness. He possesses a suitcase full of forbidden "reactionary" Western novels that the Narrator and Luo covet and eventually steal. He is referred to as a character who is accustomed to humiliation. He ends up leaving the mountain when his mother convinces the government to end his re-education early and gets Four-Eyes a job at a newspaper.
  • The Miller is an old man who lives alone and is a repository of local folk songs. The Miller narrates one part of the novel and provides songs to the boys, who then relate them to Four-Eyes. He is one of the characters who chooses not to be involved with the revolution.
  • The Tailor, the father of the Little Seamstress and the only tailor on the mountain, is a rich and popular man. He is old but energetic and widely travelled. At one point in the story, the narrator recounts The Count of Monte Cristo to him while he spends the night with the narrator and Luo. Through this experience, he gains a slight air of sophistication, and the story begins to influence the clothes that he makes.
  • The Gynaecologist, a man around forty, with "grizzled lanky hair [and] sharp features,"[7] performs the Little Seamstress's illegal abortion in return for a book by Balzac.

Major themes[edit]

Power of education and literature[edit]

Critics have noted that the novel deals with the strength of education and literature. Jeff Zaleski of Publishers Weekly said that the novel "emphasize[s] the power of literature to free the mind."[8] Additionally, a New York Times book review by Brooke Allen addresses the themes, such as the "potency of imaginative literature and why it is hated and feared by those who wish to control others."[9] This reviewer addresses the evil and ultimate failure of "any system that fears knowledge and education... and closes the mind to moral and intellectual truth" as well.

Friendship and lost innocence[edit]

The major themes of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress include friendship and lost innocence.[10]

Double edged[edit]

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress addresses issues such as how everything appears to have a double-edge.[11]

Cultural superiority[edit]

It has been noted that Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress deals with cultural superiority and balance between varying cultural influences.[9]


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is notable for its size. Publishers Weekly stated that Balzac was a "slim first novel",[8] and Brooke Allen at the New York Times Book Review called the narrative "streamlined".[9]

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is written in a characteristic style. The novel focuses and "accents on a soft center rather than... hard edges", according to Josh Greenfield of Time Europe. A vast majority of the characters in the narrative have "epithets rather than names",[6] adding to the relaxed writing style of the novel.


Cultural Revolution[edit]

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set during the time known as the Cultural Revolution in China. This historical event helped to supply the framework for many of the conflicts faced in the novel. The Revolution of Chairman Mao Zedong "began in 1966 and continued until the dictator's death ten years later". The Cultural Revolution in China was "intended to stamp out the educated class and . . . old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits".[9] In order to do this, "hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals [were sent] to peasant villages for re-education",[8] and within the years of "1968-1975, some twelve million youths were ‘rusticated’."[9]

Dai Sijie's past[edit]

Dai Sijie's own experiences during this time period helped to produce the novel. Dai himself was re-educated, and "spent the years between 1971 and 1974 in the mountains of Sichuan Province".[9] He emigrated to France in 1984.[11]

Publication history[edit]

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress has been translated from the original French. The novel was first published in France in the French language"[3] in 2000, and since then, rights of the book have been sold in nineteen countries.[8] However, the novel has not been translated to Chinese because of statements that Dai has "blackened the characters of the peasants and treated them like idiots", and that the changes that the characters go through should be "the result of reading a Chinese book".[12] The English translation of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Ina Rilke is published by the company Knopf[6] and has been praised for its clarity.”[8]


The book received reviews related to "warmth and humor."[8] It has been stated as well that the novel "abound[s] in gentle humor, warm bonhomie and appealing charm"[6] in Time Europe.

The novell has likewise been seen as an emotional tale. Jeff Zaleski has reviewed Balzac as a "moving, [and] often wrenching short novel".[8] Dai Sijie has been praised as a "captivating, amazing, storyteller" whose writing here is "seductive and unaffected".[10] In a San Jose Mercury News article, the novel is described as one that will resonate with the reader.[11]

Topics covered in the book–to do with the Cultural Revolution–have been elaborated on and reviewed. Dai Sijie, as "an entertaining recorder of China's ‘ten lost years’," addresses the Cultural Revolution. It is seen by some as "a wonderfully human tale" and relatable.[8] The ending of the novel has received some positive attention. The ending has a "smart surprising bite" says a Library Journal article.[3] In Publishers Weekly, the conclusion is described as "unexpected, droll, and poignant".[8] The story itself is seen as unprecedented, "not another grim... tale of forced labor."[6] Also popular, it has been described as a "cult novel."[12] and was a bestseller in France in the year 2000.”[8] However, there have been negative reviews. Brooke Allen of The New York Times Book Review states that the novel is "worthwhile, but unsatisfactory" and that the epithets for most of the characters "work against the material's power."[9] In addition, the novel has received complaints from Chinese government officials in its portrayal of the Cultural Revolution.[12]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The book is the winner of several literary awards. The novel won five French literary prizes.[3] and was a best seller in 2000.”[8]


Dai Sijie directed and adapted his novel into a film, released in 2003, starring Zhou Xun, Liu Ye and Chen Kun.[13]

Interviews and reading guides[edit]

Articles and Book Reviews[edit]

  • Allen, Brooke. "A Suitcase Education."New York Times Book Review, 9/16/2001, p 24.
  • Bloom, Michelle E. "Contemporary Franco-Chinese Cinema: Translation, Citation and Imitation in Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is it There?" Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 22:311–325, 2005. doi:10.1080/10509200590475797
  • Chevaillier, Flore. "Commercialism and Cultural Misreading in Dai Sijie's Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise." Forum for Modern Language Studies, 2011 Jan; 47 (1): 60-74. doi:10.1093/fmls/cqq074
  • Coltvet, Ben McDonald. Review in Christian Century, 1/2/2002, Vol. 119 Issue 1, p 37. Abstract available at http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2011-05/balzac-and-little-chinese-seamstress-dai-sijie
  • McCall, Ian. "French Literature And Film In The USSR And Mao's China: Intertexts In Makine's Au Temps Du Fleuve Amour And Dai Sijie's Balzac Et La Petite Tailleuse Chinoise." Romance Studies, Vol. 24 (2), July 2006. doi:10.1179/174581506x120118
  • Riding, Alan. "Artistic Odyssey: Film to Fiction to Film." New York Times, 7/27/2005, p 1.
  • Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. "In the Beginning Was the Book." New Leader, Sep/October 2001, Vol. 84 Issue 5, p. 23.
  • Silvester, Rosalind. "Genre and Image in Francophone Chinese Works". Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 367–375. doi:10.1080/17409290601040346
  • Watts, Andrew. "Mao's China in the Mirror: Reversing the Exotic in Dai Sijie's Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse chinoise." Romance Studies, 2011 Jan; 29 (1): 27-39. doi:10.1179/174581511X12899934053284
  • Wiegand, David. "Painful Truths: Revolution-era Fable Explores the Consequences of Knowledge", San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, October 28, 2001.


  1. ^Sijie, p. 19
  2. ^Sijie, p. 5
  3. ^ abcdPearl, Nancy. "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (book)". Library Journal. Media Source, Inc. 127 (2): 164. Retrieved 15 March 2012. (subscription required)
  4. ^Sijie, p.134
  5. ^Sijie, p. 178
  6. ^ abcdeGreenfeld, Josh (11 March 2002). "A Twist on Balzac". Time Europe. 159 (10): 55. Retrieved 15 March 2012. 
  7. ^Sijie, p. 164
  8. ^ abcdefghijkZaleski, Jeff (27 August 2001). "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (book review)". Publishers Weekly. PWxyz LLC. 248 (35): 51. Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  9. ^ abcdefgAllen, Brooke (16 September 2001). "A Suitcase Education". New York Times Book Review. New York Times: 24. Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  10. ^ abAllardice, Lisa (15 April 2002). "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Book)". New Statesman. New Statesman Ltd. 131 (4583): 56. Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  11. ^ abc"'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' by Dai Sijie". San Jose Mercury News. San Jose, Calif. 24 October 2001. Retrieved 15 March 2012. (subscription required)
  12. ^ abcSorensen, Rosemary (29 May 2003). "Delightfully Delicate". The Daily Telegraph. Sydney. Retrieved 15 March 2012. (subscription required)
  13. ^"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2002)". IMDB. Amazon. 

(1) At the bottom of page 46, there is a description of Four-Eyes working in a rice paddy with a water buffalo. Here is a picture of the kind of work he was doing:


(2) At the bottom of page 50, the two young men wonder about the books that Four-Eyes is hiding. Here are advertisements at the online bookstore Amazon.com for some of the Chinese books that they think Four-Eyes might have. They are famous works of Chinese literature that people were not allowed to own or read during the Cultural Revolution:

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Dream of the Red Chamber

Jin Ping Mei: Chinese Version and English Translation

Another work that is mentioned, The Words of the Five Ancients, the teacher can’t find out very much about. Maybe someone in this class knows what the author is talking about here.

They also think Four-Eyes might be hiding books about famous traditional Chinese artists:

Shu Da


Dong Qichang

(3) On pages 50-51: Albania is European country, north of Greece. At the time this novel takes place, it was Mao’s only Communist ally in Europe.

The narrator mentions that the only European literature available in China at that time was the work of Albanian leader Enver Hoxha.

(4) On page 51, Luo tells about his aunt having owned a Chinese translation of a book called Don Quixote. This Spanish novel, written by Cervantes in the early 1600’s, is one of the very great works of European literature. Here is a short version of the famous story, made into a cartoon for children.

Here is complete movie based on the story:

(5) On page 53, the narrator says that Four-Eyes without his glasses had “the dull, dazed look of a Pekingese dog.” Pekingese are small Chinese lap-dogs. Here is a picture:


(6) The book that Four-Eyes gives his friends is Ursule Mirouet. It actually one of Balzac’s less famous works.  The heroine is an innocent young woman who inherits a lot of money from a relative, and the plots of others to get the money instead. You can read more about it here:


The story does not, in fact have any obvious connection with the lives of the characters in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress; Dai Sijie perhaps means to say that almost any novel would have had a powerful impact on the imaginations of these young people, given how little mental excitement their surroundings provided.

(7) On page 58, the narrator copies out a favorite passage from the novel, in which the heroine Ursule somnamblates. This means to see true events in dreams.

(8) At the top of page 60, Luo tells the narrator that he and the Little Seamstress have made love standing against a gingko tree. This is a tree that lives to great age, and has medicinal uses.

(9) Here is a Mao badge like the one Luo is wearing near the bottom of page 66.

(10) Here is an old-fashioned mill wheel like the one at the mill that the young men visit in order to collect traditional songs from the miller.

(10) In the middle of page 70, the miller brings a calabash filled with liquor.

(11) At the top of page 79, Four-Eyes re-writes the miller’s vulgar little song so that words sound like a good Communist song. He describes the lice as “bourgeois” (see the notes for Part 1) who will be described by the proletariat, which is a word that Communists use for the working people who should control the government.

(12) On page 99, there is a list of the famous Western authors whose books are found in the suitcase. They include–

Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables:

Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment:

Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights:

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