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.