Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Rating: ★★★★★

Spoiler-Free Review


This book is set during China’s Cultural Revolution and follows two city boys who are placed in a mountain village to be re-educated by workers and peasants. However, they come across banned Western classics, and you follow their journey as books color the way they see the world.

I read this book for my English class and I loved it so much! Though historical fiction isn’t usually my go-to genre, I loved the way the cultural background made the book feel a lot more organic and real. It highlighted the point that this story isn’t an imagined dystopia or fantastical world, that its ideas are not only applicable but actively present, in the past and still today. Also, who doesn’t love a good book about books?

The flow of the story reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby, in that it didn’t really have a clear beginning-middle-end/problem-solution arc and was instead driven by mundanity and a constant, underlying theme. The general structure of the book also played a great role in subtly commenting on the power of perspective, on one’s reality compared to another’s, on the similar yet distinct convictions books birth in individuals. With this, I think I was able to really experience the message of the book.

I gave this book five stars because I’d encourage anyone to read this. However, I think I’d rate my personal experience of the book three or four stars, primarily because the ending didn’t shock me. In this book, the ending is easily the most important part of this book. The last line, and more specifically, the shock you feel while reading it, lets you understand the purpose of the story. However, I didn’t feel very surprised by the ending and it’s not that the book was badly written, but rather that while discussing the book in class, my teacher pointed out a key detail in the story (for anyone interested: the characters’ dynamics in page 40) that I think made me experience the book the way you’re supposed to experience it the second time you read it. (Sidenote: this book is definitely one of those books where a reread really helps you understand the meaning of this book.) If I’m being optimistic, I guess this just proves that Dai Sijie was genius in the way he framed this book and in the way he placed so much weight and purpose on reader experience.

So yes, I highly recommend this book! The symbols/metaphors are as deep as you choose to make them (the deeper you go, the clearer the beauty–though not the meaning–of the book), the writing style is simple yet entrancing, and it’s just honestly such a great read. I’d especially recommend it to anyone that’s interested in history, loves to read books that obsess over books, or wants to ponder over what makes a book “impactful,” but it’s a relatively short book so if you can get your hands on it, definitely give it a try! And if you ever do end up reading the book or already have, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

Finally, I leave you with this quote:

Without him I would never have understood the splendour of taking free and independent action as an individual.

Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Who’s the speaker? Who is “him”? Guess you’ll just have to read the story to find out. 🙂

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