Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

The world is not full of angles or devils, but ordinary souls that are pushed by a minority of angles and devils and thus struggling in between.

I didn’t have high expectation when I started this book.  More than a couple of decades ago, when people in China and people from other countries did not meet a lot, the Cultural Revolution was the top topic to pick when they had to socialize with each other.  Preparing a short speech and some little-known facts about the Cultural Revolution, obtaining some sincere nodding and empathy, it might become a beginning of a conversation or even a friendship.  That’s why I was kind of turned off when knowing this book was about the Cultural Revolution.  I thought it’s another work to use it as a big gimmick to attract attentions.

But, I was entirely wrong.  This book turned out to be a giant pleasant surprise to me.  The surprise was – it wasn’t written to reveal the ugly truth of Cultural Revolution; to denounce its cruelness or ridiculousness.  It’s about the real world at that time under that circumstances.  I bet I was not the only reader that was surprised by this.  Only to some of the readers, the surprise was not that pleasant.

Ironically, it is the real world.  The world we are living in.  It is not full of angles or devils, but ordinary souls that are pushed by a minority of angles and devils and thus struggling in between.

(Spoilers starting now…)

The story is about “I” and “my best friend Luo”, who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution to be re-educated, and both fell in love at the first sight with a beautiful countryside girl – a daughter of a tailor who was favored and almost idolized by all the nearby villagers.  She was pure, pretty, untamed and had a thirst of the intellectual side of the world.  Though “I” decided to hide the feelings towards the little seamstress, Luo immediately came forward to flirt with her and announced his desire to win her over.  But before that, he also stated that he needed to train her, to educate her, or in his own words, to “civilize” her.  Just then, their friend “four-eyes” and his mysterious suitcase, which was full of famous western fictions including Balzac’s, became perfect arms to fulfill Luo’s intention.  Luo’s mission ended up to be a huge success and something he and the little seamstress both deeply shared and enjoyed.  Until the “civilized” little Chinese seamstress left him, left them, left the village, off to the city, with no mercy, only her last words:

“A woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” – One thing she had learnt from Balzac.

The numbers of paradoxes laying within made it a great book.

Till this day or in the foreseeable future, no one would say Cultural Revolution was an understandable event.  On the contrary, it would be always infamous of its national absurdity and wrongful violence – Books were banned; people with higher educations were sent to do heavy-load work and be re-educated by the people who couldn’t read; intellectuals who voiced their ideas were prisoned and even killed…   The author was not an exception.  The absurdity was vividly shown from the first page.  But, there entered “our” another friend – “four-eyes” – a person whose story I particularly felt interesting.  “Four-eyes” was a typical Chinese intellectual at the time who read and wrote well but had no strength to do a peasant’s work.  When the glasses he relied on were broken into pieces by a swing of a buffalo’s tail, he lost even the ability to see and almost died.  He was miserable because he was always helpless and “we” were his only friend.  But it was discovered that there was a reason.  His cowardice deserved no respect.  He was so eager to leave the village that he lost his morality.  Later he re-wrote the local songs with lyrics that praised the government to get out of there.  Before he left, he revealed to his mother that the only reason he made friends with “us” was because “we” were the friends with benefits.  His mom paid the villagers to set up a ritual to kill the buffalo that broke his glasses, have his blood drank, his meat chopped of and stewed, and his very tail that made the swing cut off and saved in their suitcase as a souvenir of victorious battle of revenge.  That was “four-eyes”, – funnily a person sounded sly to me when his mom argued his two only friends were “too sly” for him – exactly a person who was raised up in a highly educated family; who read more than a suitcase of well-known books that should have nourished his mind, crafted his soul; who was one of the intellectuals that was mistreated and wrongfully “sentenced” to be re-educated.  Now you tell me if he needed to be re-educated or not?  Unfortunately, no one would know how much re-education would save a soul like that.

As for the romance between Luo and the little seamstress, if you think it was added to satisfy the readers with a slightly erotic taste, you are terribly wrong.  When the Cultural Revolution was finished, a lot of the re-educated students or intellectuals left the countryside as quickly as they could, among who a lot had romantic relationships with local girls or boys.  No one could ever separate the true loves from pure physical relationships in those affairs.  But the aftermath was, tons of children were left without their fathers, mothers, or both parents.  They might have grown up, accompanied by the stories re-told by their mothers everyday – that their fathers were someone intelligent in a big city, someone their mothers used to love or worship, someone who they wouldn’t be able to ever see again, but still worth their every bit of worship for the rest of their lives.  In this or any lengthy tragedy in the history, no one among the regulars was really the winner, or the loser.

The biggest twist of the book, was the ending, that I adored the most.  In that notorious Cultural Revolution, enormous small disgusting people were hyper to find their outlets to become somebody that could be with “values” and “powers”.   They burned books; plundered and destroyed others’ valuables; beat, tortured and killed others.  They would be trash and the infamous in any society but the Cultural Revolution had provided them the perfect soil and water to make them emerge and expend faster and bigger than ever.  Not mentioning countless historical valuables from old China were definitely to be ruined, books from the Western were not allowed to exist with a single chance.  Because they were the horrible thinking from the evil bourgeois.  They would find any way they could root before they attacked our proletarians’ minds, decayed our proletarians’ souls.  In this book, that suitcase of the books including Balzac’s was certainly in the list.  When we look at it today, and when we read the most part of this book, we clearly see what a huge and terrible crime forbidding these books was.  But then we reached the end of this story, where the little seamstress left with her last words, or to be exact, where Luo repeated her last words: “She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price.”  This little seamstress, who used to be so pure and innocent: Despite of being admired and chased by all the bachelors in all the nearby villages, she remained a virgin till she met her love.  She risked her own life to save something meaningful to her lover.  She went through an abortion alone without telling him.  All these were originated by her untamed nature, were reinforced by the strength she gained from those at-the-time forbidden books, and finally reformed into a new, civilized and changed little seamstress.  Then all of a sudden, she took an extra step forward.  She realized she should and could earn more, deserve more, maybe because she already sacrificed more.  So she abandoned everything she decided that she didn’t need or couldn’t satisfy her anymore – love, family, the lake she had been swimming in, and the life she’d lived with…  If you asked me, sadly, an undesired ending was here – ironically the forbidden western books did erode and decay the little seamstress.

It is a book beyond beauty.  It’s beautiful because of the ugliness within; because of the pitifulness that can be happening to every life, in every regular or significant incident.

This book reminds me of the reasons that I always stay away from politics.  Even today, people are fighting hard with different political views: people who are discontent because they are suffering; people who are content so that they think they are responsible to worry about others.  But remember, people are biased because they have suffered; people are biased because they haven’t.  As such an ordinary person who has a strong opinion but is constantly told by my consciousness that I am nobody but one who has or hasn’t suffered, I always try to step back.

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