Analysis of the Bipolar “monster”:
Mandarin Oriental’s “I’m a Fan” Campaign:
Liam Neeson — “He’s a Fan”: https://www.mandarinoriental.com/celebrity-fans/liam-neeson
How and why is the character of the Little Chinese Seamstress portrayed as she is in Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress?
The 2000 semi-autobiographical novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie takes on many themes such as coming-of-age, loyalty, and censorship. However, an often overlooked but significant theme throughout the novel is sexism, as seen through the Little Seamstress’s initial portrayal. The novel takes place during the Chinese communist revolution from 1966 to 1976, and its intended audience includes westerners who may not understand this revolution. It follows two teenage boys sent to a rural village for reeducation and their interactions with local villagers, including the Little Seamstress, whom the boys educated using forbidden western literature. The novel closely alludes to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, where two men also try to educate a lower-class woman, and both include the themes of sexism and education. Dai’s novel is important in giving audiences insight into the positive impacts of education and the negative impacts of objectification on teenage girls, which is applicable even today. In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, through the use of point of view, tone, and contrast, the Little Seamstress is portrayed as shy and dependent due to a culture of sexism but gradually begins to prioritize herself after exposure to western literature.
The Little Seamstress is described as beautiful and elegant, reflecting the emphasis on beauty in China during that time, through the use of point of view. The narrator, one of the boys, introduces her as having “a glowing complexion… almost noble. Her face possessed an impressive, sensual beauty …” (Dai 42). She and Luo, the other teenage boy, later explore a romantic relationship, but his objectification persists: “[Watching her swim] gave me the opportunity to admire her sensual body gliding through the water” (211-212). The first description is in the narrator’s point of view and the second is in Luo’s; in both cases, the Little Seamstress is described as sensual and desirable — the first description focuses on her face, while the second on her body. The boys’ perspectives reflect the male gaze, a film theory that media is portrayed in the perspective of a heterosexual man, usually viewing women as “sexual objects” (Mulvey 11) rather than humans. Because audiences are unable to understand the Little Seamstress from an objective perspective, they have to take these boys’ words as the truth; readers will also come to understand her as a beautiful but empty girl. Although Mao encouraged gender equality (Bernell 8), the boys’ perspectives show that women were still valued and appreciated for their beauty (10).
The Little Seamstress is portrayed by the boys as uneducated and uncivilized through tone, reflecting the lack of education in women. Luo initially describes her as “not civilised, at least not enough for [him]” (Dai 45). Eventually, Luo tries to improve her with western literature: “[He] declared: ‘With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again’” (155). Here, Luo has an apparent lack of respect for the Little Seamstress, referring to her using an insulting tone. Through derogatory words like “uncivilized” and “simple”, he suggests that he thinks of the Little Seamstress as someone uncultured who needs to be fixed rather than as his equal. Although he, too, has not read this western literature, he still views himself as more respectable than her and worthy of improving her. This suggests that Luo looks down upon the Little Seamstress and reflects women’s lack of education during this period (Li 36).
After constant objectification by men around her, the Little Seamstress adopts this ideology and devalues herself, as seen through point of view and tone. She says, “I’m not like those young French girls Balzac talks about. I’m a mountain girl. I just love pleasing Luo” (Dai 214). This is from the Little Seamstress’s perspective, showing she has internalized and succumbed to the stereotype that women exist to serve men. With a self-deprecating tone and words like “mountain girl” and “just”, she distances herself from complex, independent female characters in Balzac’s novels, such as Ursule from Ursule Miruoët. Even when Luo impregnated her and she was worried about the implications of being a pregnant teenager, “she hadn’t mentioned this to Luo, although it was he who was responsible – or to blame” (235). This is through the narrator’s point of view, who has a somewhat judgmental and bitter tone when talking about how she had not told Luo. Even from a teenage boy’s perspective, it is believed she should have told Luo about her pregnancy as he had equal responsibility. The Little Seamstress’s decision to undergo an abortion without Luo becomes more significant considering the wider social context of how abortion was outlawed to encourage childbirth and strengthen the workforce (Ma). Still, she goes through with her abortion to not worry Luo, despite the possible stigmatization and social rejection, as she has internalized the idea of male superiority to such a large extent. This suggests the Little Seamstress has begun to devalue her worth around men.
Although the Little Seamstress is portrayed as beautiful yet uneducated, she is also, ironically, portrayed as curious through tone. When initially meeting Luo and the narrator, she said, “But you needn’t think I’m a fool, because I enjoy talking to people who can read and write” (Dai 43). Her tone is playful and curious; she is not content with living life without education, and she is actively looking to interact with more educated individuals with different life experiences. She says that “having Balzac’s words next to her skin made her feel good, and also more intelligent” (91). Here, her tone is optimistic and happy as she describes how Balzac’s writing makes her feel, showing her deep interest in learning from the books. When allowing her curiosity to thrive, like being educated through literature, the Little Seamstress is genuinely happy and excited. There is more depth to the Little Seamstress than the stereotypes against her dictate — she is more than just a beautiful girl; she is curious and eager to learn about the world.
After continued exposure to western culture through literature, the Little Seamstress begins to explore her own preferences and shows her individuality through contrast. She starts the novel with “pink canvas shoes” (36) and “a long pigtail three or four centimetres wide” (36). Towards the end of the novel, she changes her style: “The long pigtail tied with red ribbon had made way for a short bob, which was very becoming and modern-looking” (268). These two descriptions show a stark contrast in the Little Seamstress’s physical appearance from before and after her exposure to western literature — the first is of a village girl with a stereotypical feminine style, while the second has a more modern style. This contrast shows the profound impact western culture via literature had on the Little Seamstress; she begins to grow into her own, more modern and individualist style instead of abiding by the status quo of being a feminine and traditional girl.
Eventually, following her exposure to literature, the Little Seamstress decides to pursue a life in the city and is portrayed as independent and confident through contrast. At the beginning of the novel, as she and the boys first meet, the narrator states, “she didn’t seem to want [the boys] to leave” (43). This shows the Little Seamstress’s original high level of reliance on the boys for her happiness and fulfillment. By the end of the novel, she realizes it is possible to change her life and eventually decides to leave the mountains, saying “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” (275). Here, the use of “beauty” to describe herself shows the Little Seamstress’s increase in self-confidence. Ironically, from being educated patronizingly by Luo, she discovers her innate worth and beauty and leaves him in pursuit of the better life he wanted to give her. These quotes show a stark contrast in her level of dependence and confidence; she begins the novel as dependent and clingy, and eventually leaves the village independently and with certainty. This change suggests the deep impact of literature — through education, the Little Seamstress begins to value herself and realizes she does not have to act as society dictates.
Through point of view, tone, and contrast, Dai Sijie portrays the Little Seamstress as initially uneducated and dependent due to the sexism in China at that time. Because of the boys’ objectification, she quickly began to devalue herself. However, the Little Seamstress’s curiosity led her to learn more about the world through literature. Throughout the novel, the Little Seamstress learned more about her own value and became more individualistic and independent after being educated. Her journey of self-realization was hindered by the societal norms of women, specifically the objectification of women and gender stereotypes. Through the Little Seamstress’s story, Dai Sijie helps audiences understand the harms of stereotypes and the benefits of education on impressionable girls. Even though there are still many areas around the world where objectification and stereotyping are common, perhaps with more access to education and literature, girls around the world will begin to stand up for themselves and their rights.
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Bernell, William Maxwell. The Development of Female Visual Culture and Self-Adornment as an Extension of Revolution in 20th Century Communist China. 2016. Duke U, PhD dissertation. sites.duke.edu/bakerscholars/files/2017/02/Bernell_FemaleVisualCultureinCommunistChina.pdf. Accessed 25 May 2020.
Dai, Sijie. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. iBooks ed., Anchor Books, 2001.
Li, Yuhui. “Women’s Movement and Change of Women’s Status in China.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2000, p. 36. Bridgewater, vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1626&context=jiws.
Ma, Jian. “China’s barbaric one-child policy.” The Guardian, 6 May 2013, www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/06/chinas-barbaric-one-child-policy. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, Fall 1975, pp. 6-18. Oxford Academic, academic.oup.com/screen/article-abstract/16/3/6/1603296?redirectedFrom=fulltext. Accessed 28 May 2020.
The Tumblr blog oceansandwine documents the thoughts of characters in books 9-12 of The Odyssey. The blog mimics a type of blog popular in the mid-2010s, where cheesy text is paired with an aesthetic photo. This blog aims to explore the motif of the beautiful tragedy through analyzing the imperfections of characters, while simultaneously satirizing middle schoolers and their poetry blogs.
The main techniques used in this blog are spacing and minimalism, something very typical of Tumblr poetry blogs. The structure is simple, with a calming picture followed by text. The photos utilize spacing between objects, which draws focus on the main object in the photo, and the writing is split up into many lines. The use of minimalism makes the blog more aesthetically and visually pleasing — the blog is not too busy and retains audiences’ attention with its simplicity.
The pictures are barely related to the to the topic of the post; for example, the post about Odysseus’ crew on Helios’ island is paired with a photo of cows and flowers. This emphasizes the focus on glory and public image by both characters in The Odyssey and Generation Z users of the blogs — although they are going through a lot of hardships, they would prefer to paint a beautifully tragic façade rather than show the ugly truth. The text is split up into lines to mimic the character’s ebb and flow when speaking, and it only uses lower-case capitalization to make the posts seem raw and reflective of the characters’ thoughts — strict capitalization can often make poetry seem edited and fake. The use of multiple lines and lower-case emphasize that the writing is what the characters truly believe, underneath all the romanticized stories the bards may recount. It shows the characters’ inner-most, embarrassing thoughts.
Word count: 295
In Sijie Dai’s novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the underlying sexism and gender stereotypes in their community shaped the little seamstress as a person and ultimately caused her to leave everything she knows to pursue a life in the city. Throughout the novel, the audience sees how the little seamstress transforms as a person and is finally able to find her way in the oppressive, sexist world.
From the very start of the novel, the little seamstress was portrayed as a typical Chinese girl: “She had a glowing complexion and her features were fine, almost noble. Her face possessed an impressive, sensual beauty, which aroused in us an irresistible desire to stay and watch her work the treadle of her Made in Shanghai” (Dai 42). The emphasis on her fine features and her beauty outlines the norm in society at that point in time — girls were valued for their looks, and their looks only. The narrator also mentions her work on the sewing machine, which is traditionally feminine job. There was no mention by any of the characters, almost throughout the entirety of the book, about any of her other, non-physical characteristics. The section mentioning the “aroused… irresistible desire” of the boys perpetuates a culture of objectification of women; the boys stayed to see her beauty.
Throughout the novel, Luo repeatedly tries to educate the little seamstress: “[Luo] declared: ‘With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again” (155). Here, Luo states that with the new books he and the narrator had stolen from Foureyes will be used to “transform” her. Luo views the little seamstress as someone who needs to be fixed. This shows Luo’s subconscious condescending attitude towards women, and his idea that men are more capable than women. Even though these books will be equally helpful to Luo and the little seamstress in terms of education, Luo immediately dismisses the idea that the books could help him — after all, he thinks he already knows everything. He thinks of how he can use these books to help the little seamstress, which in of itself is a kind thing to do. However, the context of this lets readers know that Luo actually thinks he is higher than her, as a man and as someone who grew up in the city, and that he is capable of changing her. This, to a minor extent, also shows the manipulative and possessive nature of Luo over the little seamstress.
As a result of being constantly objectified and looked down upon, the little seamstress unsurprisingly starts viewing herself as what others view her as: an empty vase. She states, “I’m not like those young French girls Balzac talks about. I’m a mountain girl. I just love pleasing Luo, that’s all there is to it” (214). Here, the little seamstress suppresses any sense of self-worth. She distances herself from the more sophisticated French girls in Balzac’s novels (although these girls’ storylines also mostly revolve around men), implying that she’s not that complicated. She states that she is a mountain girl. This doesn’t have a negative connotation; however, the context shows that this is actually a stark contrast from what is implied to be good and sophisticated — French girls — and why she’s not it. She says she “just” likes pleasing Luo. In this quote, the little seamstress suppresses the other aspects of herself, like her hobbies or her emotions, and instead revolves her life around Luo and making Luo happy.
The sexist oppression of the little seamstress by those around her eventually caused her to leave the small town she grew up in. Luo says she decided to do this because “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” (275). Ironically, through being educated patronizingly by Luo, she finally discovered her value as a woman; she learned that she isn’t what society has defined her as. Here, the word “beauty” doesn’t just mean superficial and physical beauty — it means all that she represents as a human being that is good and beautiful. This includes her tailoring skills, her diving skills, her curiosity — whatever she values in herself. It was Balzac that taught her she was more than what others thought — just a pretty face who would make a good wife. Balzac taught her that she is valuable and that should be prioritized in her own life. This inspired her to focus on developing herself, and that meant she had to leave behind everything that was pushing her down.
Through the characterization of the little seamstress, Sijie Dai was able to show how sexism and gender stereotypes can work to shape a person over time. He did this by introducing the little seamstress as a typical female stereotype, how this affected her self-image, and how she was finally able to escape the toxic, sexist environment she grew up in.
1. A photo of me:
2. Something to remember me by: Always being super early to class (except for the times I’m really late)
3. Where I’m going next year: Vanderbilt University in the US! It’s in Tennessee so I’m getting ready for a lot of country music 🙂
4. One takeaway from this class + advice for juniors: I (and anyone) can improve at a subject if they try hard enough! I didn’t do well in the class at the start of last year, but slowly as I did more practice, my grades + analysis skills just improved naturally. It really boosted my confidence and made me believe in myself as a learner.
5. One favorite memory: This would probably the big group projects because I got to interact with my classmates and listen to their opinions and perspectives on texts we were studying.
6. One memorable text we studied: The Odyssey — I didn’t really expect myself to enjoy it because I don’t USUALLY enjoy the classics (really long and drawn out storylines, unnecessarily complex use of language, etc.) but this epic was super interesting and I could relate some of the mini-stories to things I’ve seen in pop culture, like Calypso or the Land of the Lotus Eaters.