Dai Sijie was born in 1954 in Sichuan, China and when 17, was sent to a remote part of China for re-education during the Cultural Revolution spearheaded by Mao. His parents were well known professors in medicine. Millions of youngsters like Dai Sijie were sent to underdeveloped parts of China for “re-education” by the peasants who were believed to be better citizens by Mao and his revolutionary officials. To be an intellectual was a crime during the Cultural Revolution.
Relevance of the Title
It is the departure of the Little Seamstress to the city that brings the story to an end. The young men use the Chinese translations of the French stories to enthrall the villagers and educate the Little Seamstress. But they do not expect it to have such far reaching consequences. All they had wanted was to give the girl a bit of French élan. She so believes in her own sexuality that she moves to the city where she will have more opportunities.
When the boys first arrive in the mountain village for their re-education, they consider themselves superior to the villagers as they are city educated. But soon they realize that there is more to education than going to a school. While they know languages and the sciences, they cannot get by in a remote area with just that knowledge.
It is arguable whether the revolutionary officials expect this kind of result from a re-education project, but the boys mature significantly by the end of a few months’ stay in the mountain village. The narrator especially learns to use his wits to get by. The boys learn to stand up for each other. The narrator is also in love with the seamstress but he does not in any way undermine Luo’s love for her. He helps her to procure an abortion from a regular doctor.
All the stories that the boys read and share with the villagers are from French literature. But they have no difficulty in understanding them as they deal with universal concerns. So banning them does not make any sense.
Of the two young men, the narrator is the more resourceful one. His parents were well known teachers of medicine. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to a remote village to be re-educated as he was tainted with city education. But he, along with his childhood friend Luo, finds ways and means to escape some of the brutality associated with Cultural Revolution. Though he too is in love with the Little Seamstress, he does not take any action to take it further.
Luo along with his friend the narrator are sent to a remote mountain village in China as part of re-education associated with the Cultural Revolution. His crime is that his father who was a famous dentist had revealed that he had worked on Chairman Mao’s teeth. He falls in love with the Little Seamstress. He reads out Balzac hoping it will refine her. The unexpected happens; she becomes aware of her sexuality, feels that the village is no place for her, so escapes to the city.
The Little Seamstress
She is just a raw village girl when Luo and she meet. But she comes under his tutelage and rapidly changes. He reads out Balzac to her making her realize that there a different world exists in cities. Though he is her boyfriend, she leaves without informing him.
Luo and the narrators are two boys who are sent to a remote mountain village for re-education during the Cultural Revolution. They parents are well known intellectuals which makes them suspect in the eyes of the revolutionary officials. The narrator is very resourceful. He realizes that the people of the village are starved for entertainment so he tells them stories which leave them spell bound. The village headman lets them go to the neighboring town to watch movies on condition they will relate the stories to the villagers in an “oral cinema show”.
On one such movie expedition, Luo and the narrator meet the local tailor’s daughter who is referred to as the Little Seamstress. Luo instantly falls in love with her though he considers her unpolished. As part of their re-education, the boys have to work hard in a coal mine. Luo falls ill with malaria. The Little Seamstress ministers to him using traditional medicine which works. One night, the narrator sees them kissing.
Once Luo gets better, the narrator and he make the acquaintance of Four Eyes, another young man who is there on re-education. He is the son of writers. They notice in his room a heavy suitcase which is always locked. The boys feel that the locked box very likely contains books. Books were banned in China then. When questioned by the boys, Four Eyes refuses to even acknowledge the existence of such a box. Later one day, Four Eyes’ mother comes visiting her son. The boys trick her into admitting that the locked box contains banned books. Daringly, they steal the whole box. The village headman goes away on work. They exploit the situation by spending all the time reading without reporting for work.
The little Seamstress and Luo grow closer. The narrator suspects that they now have a physical relationship. One day, Luo is summoned home as his mother is unwell. He is reluctant to go as the Little Seamstress has been getting proposals from young men, some of whom her father favors. He requests the narrator to keep her safe until he returns. The narrator is also in love with the seamstress though he does not tell her this. She considers him her friend and confides in him. She is pregnant and needs an abortion as she and Luo cannot marry until they are both twenty-five. But abortions are illegal and getting one is fraught with danger. After many enquiries, he goes a gynecologist directly as that is safer than going to quacks. But the doctor refuses to have anything to do with an illegal abortion. Luckily for the narrator, the doctor turns out to be lover of literature who finds it impossible to find books. In exchange for a Balzac novel, he performs the abortion on the Little Seamstress. The narrator is so thankful that he gives the doctor his copy of his favorite Jean-Christophe by Romain Roland. When Luo comes back, he is happy that the Little Seamstress is working at perfecting her city accent. He notices that she has shed her unfashionable clothes for stylish city clothes.
Then one day, she disappears. Distraught with worry, Luo goes to her father to inquire. He tells him that the girl has left for the city. He and the narrator pursue her. They find her in the family graveyard praying for blessings from her ancestors. Luo dissuades her from going but she quotes Balzac’s words about women’s beauty and leaves for the city. Devastated by the turn of events, Luo burns all the books.