Part 1 of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

(1) The title of this novel begins with the name Balzac …

Balzac was a French writer. He lived and wrote in the 19th century (= the 1800’s). His work was considered rather shocking and immoral at the time he lived, although today it does not seem that way compared to everything we now see in movies and on TV. His novels are the kind of bourgeois Western literature that was hated and forbidden by Chinese Communists at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Later, in Part 2 of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, we will start to understand the meaning of the title.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia article about Balzac:

(2) On pages 3-5, the narrator plays a violin sonata by the 18th-century German composer Mozart. Here is one of Mozart’s many violin sonatas. Most of them were for piano and violin, and the narrator of this story would have played only the violin part.

(3) On pages 6-10, Sijie explains China’s Cultural Revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Here is link to the Wikipedia article about it:

Here is the China News Digest “Virtual Museum of the ‘Cultural Revolution.'” You can read this text in English or in Chinese:

(4) The two city youths in this story are from Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan. Here it is on a map of China:

From Chengdu, they are sent to be re-educated in a remote mountain village near the border of Tibet:

(5) The village is on “the Mountain of the Phoenix.” A phoenix is a magical bird in both Chinese and western mythology, but the meanings are different. In western mythology, it is a bird that has the power to be reborn in flames when it dies:

The Chinese phoenix is, as the narrator describes it on page 11, a creature “allied to the sky: mighty, mythical and profoundly solitary.”

Chinese phoenix pictures may look something like a rooster, and Luo has a clock with a mechanical toy rooster on it.

(6) The two young men in the story live in a “house on stilts” (page 3). Stilts are wooden legs for a house, like this:

The same word is used for wooden legs used to raise a person off the ground for a game or a play:

(7) On page 4, the village headman says that Luo’s violin is a “bourgeois toy.”

The word bourgeois is the English word for the kind of culture that the Chinese Cultural Revolution was fighting against. Actually, the English word is borrowed from French, and is pronounced like the French word:

Bourgeois means “middle-class,” but in the political context of the Cultural Revolution, it had a very negative connotation (meaning). It meant luxurious, useless, lazy, working against the Communist revolution. Chinese Communists of that time considered all Western cultural influence to be bourgeois. The narrator’s violin and his playing of Mozart would be considered very bourgeois indeed.

(8) On page 6, Luo addresses the village head man as “comrade.” Comrade = fellow member of an organization or a person who is your equal in doing some kind of work. Members of the Communist party addressed each other as “comrade.”

(9) On page 7, talking about their re-education, the narrator says, “We were not the first to be used as guinea pigs in this grand human experiment …” Guinea pigs are small animals that are sometimes kept as pets, and often used as experimental animals by scientists:

The narrator means that he and Luo were like experimental animals in the Cultural Revolution.

(10) On page 7, the narrator describes a picture on the cover of his school book that showed “a worker with arms as thick as Sylvester Stallone’s.” He is describing this kind of Cultural Revolution picture of workers and peasants:

and comparing the thick arm in the picture to those of Sylvester Stallone, an American movie actor who became famous when he starred in the 1976 boxing movie Rocky.

(11) Pages 9-10 describe the public humiliation (shaming) of Luo’s father as a “reactionary.” A reactionary is a person who rejects modern developments and wants to return to the past. The word was used for enemies of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but is also used in political contexts today; for example, racism in the U.S. today is described as reactionary.

(12)  On page 10: “I realised how fond I was of the dentist.” The English translation of this book is British, and you will occasionally see words that are spelled in the British way.

Many verbs that end in -ize in American English, like realize, are spelled with -ise in British English.

(13) On page 12, the narrator relates the record of a French Jesuit who had visited the region in the 1940’s. The Jesuits are an order, or organization, of Catholic priests, founded in Europe in the 1500’s. The Jesuits are famous for scholarship, cultural accomplishments, and missionary activity. Most converts to the Catholic Church in Asia were due to the work of Jesuits; even the modern Vietnamese writing system was a Jesuit invention.

Here is a link to the Jesuits’ Web site:

(14) On page 12, the Jesuit report talks about the farmers of this area growing opium, which has been an important “cash crop” (grown to make money) in many parts of Asia:

(15) The Han Dynasty (page 12) was a period of Chinese history about two thousand years ago (206 B.C.E to 220 C.E.)

(16) The Jesuit’s history of the area refers to a royal eunuch. A eunuch was a man whose sexual organs had been removed. This was done in a variety of ancient cultures, for various reasons. In ancient China, eunuchs served as servants and guards for high-ranking women. Here is an old photograph of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) attended by her eunuchs.

(17) On page 12, he Jesuit describes the forest of the Mountain of the Phoenix as a “thickly screened by giant trees, tangled creepers and lush vegetation.” It may have looked something like this:

(18) The word maize on page 13 is typical of the kinds of vocabulary differences between British and American English.

This vegetable is called corn in American English and maize in British English:

In American English, corn is one kind of grain. Corn, wheat, rice, millet, etc. are all different kinds of grain.

In British English, maize is one kind of corn. Maize, wheat, rice, millet, etc. are all different kinds of corn.

(19) On page 21, the little seamstress is described working an old-fashioned treadle sewing machine that was “Made in Shanghai.” This is the kind of sewing machine that can operate without electricity. The power comes from the person who is sewing working the foot pedal, called a treadle. Here is a picture of a treadle sewing machine, with the treadle labeled at the bottom:

(20) On page 28, the two young men are working in a coal mine. This picture shows what it might have been like:

(21) On page 31, Luo becomes sick with malaria. This illness is very common in hot countries, and is spread by mosquitoes. People with malaria have a fever that goes and comes back for weeks, months or years. Here is a website where you can read more about it:

(22) On page 35, the narrator tells the story of the North Korean film The Little Flower Seller. You can watch this complete film with English subtitles on YouTube:

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