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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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.
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