Dai Sijie’s novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, the story of two intellectually curious boys who are assigned to reeducation through forced labor during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, paints a vivid picture of seeking knowledge in the face of hardship. It asks the reader to consider how important knowledge is, and the ways in which reading can affect the life of a person who is undergoing immense hardships. Sijie proves that knowledge is everything needed to lead one into the light in the midst of stifling darkness. This theme is symbolized by the use of both western literature and a rooster clock in the novel.
Western literature changes the lives of Luo and the unnamed narrator, the two protagonists of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Dai describes Western literature as like “Tibetan incense, where you only need to say the name, Zang Xiang, to smell the subtle, refined fragrance and to see the joss sticks sweating beads of scented moisture which, in the lamplight, resemble drops of liquid gold” (Dai 51). This shows the allure that literature holds for Luo and the narrator, and ably demonstrates the limitless well of knowledge waiting below the cover of a book. By reading books, the protagonists gain the power to secretly fight against the government, become more civilized, and provide meaning to their life in the mountains. The boys crave knowledge, and through reading western books they are able to understand their nuanced emotions and the wonderful feeling of love. The way that literature represents an escape, and a place of education, for the boys can be seen in the way the author writes to “picture if you will, a boy of nineteen, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, of all the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me” (Dai 57). As a symbolic element in the book, western literature provides liberation of the mind and identity to those who are able to wield its power.
Another symbol that is closely related to the power of knowledge is the rooster clock. One might argue that the clock has nothing to do with knowledge, as it is just an alarm clock that shows time. A careful examination of the text, however, supports it as a deeper symbol. The clock itself is a product of advanced technology, something created by civilized people. Despite this, the technologically opposed villagers are under its control. “It was nearly nine o’clock,” writes Dai, “and at the sight of the rooster dutifully pecking away Luo had a brainstorm: with his little finger he slid the hands of the clock back by one hour. We got back to bed to enjoy our lie-in, which was all the sweeter knowing that the village headman was pacing to and fro outside, puffing on his long bamboo pipe” (Dai 15). In this passage, Luo and the narrator are reluctant to get up and do their job, so they come up with the trick to set the time back by one hour. Everyone relies heavily on this small object to regulate their daily routine. Thus, the whole village is affected by this simple action. Dai also uses the clock to underscore the irony of the protagonists’ situation: Luo and the narrator are supposed to be re-educated to forget their thirst for higher knowledge, yet they actually educate themselves further during this time. This is seen in the way the villagers take to this piece of technology. In one passage, Dai shows the narrator reflecting on the village headman by writing “I was convinced that [the village headman’s] real reason behind his liberal attitude was the irresistible attraction of our alarm clock, with its proud peacock-feathered rooster: our ex-opium grower turned Communist was besotted with it” (Dai 80). Here, we see the rooster clock symbolize the power of knowledge. Even though the village headman loathes intellectuals and believes in the supremacy of ignorance and illiteracy, he is subconsciously influenced by this advanced technology. This mirrors the way Luo and the narrator’s thirst for knowledge pushes through their regressive environment and continues to flourish.
Knowledge is power. This long held adage is shown to be true in Dai Sijies’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Because of knowledge, Luo and the narrator do not think what the government wants them to think, or act the way it wants them to act. Dai ultimately uses western literature as both a symbol of and a conduit for the protagonists’ education, and the rooster clock as a symbol for both their education and the inevitable knowledge gained by the village. In this sense, the latter underscores just how powerful knowledge is, as it shows that even some villagers who may not wish to are influenced by the rising tides of knowledge. In summation, knowledge changes everyone’s life for the better.