There were so many books I could have chosen for China, and making a decision about which one to read was difficult. In the end, I picked Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, translated by Ina Rilke, because I loved the book’s cover and its title.
The narrator is a seventeen-year-old boy, whose name we are never told, who has been sent out of the city of Chengdu with his eighteen-year-old friend Luo for “re-education.” According to the narrator, this was a campaign begun in 1968 by Chairman Mao in which the “universities were closed and all the ‘young intellectuals,’ meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be ‘re-educated by the poor peasants.’” Neither the narrator nor Luo are high school graduates, since they had missed out on a few years of school while the Cultural Revolution was in full swing. However, their parents are among the intellectual elite and have been labeled enemies of the people, so the boys will be going through the “re-education” process for an indefinite period of time.
In between carrying manure to the fields and laboring in the copper mines, the boys’ talent for storytelling becomes known to the village headman, and he begins sending them to a nearby town to watch movies so they can come back and retell the stories to the villagers. They travel to a few small villages, meeting people along the way who will become important to them – Four-Eyes, who has a secret stash of forbidden western literature, the tailor, who travels from village to village to make new clothes for people, and most important of all, the tailor’s daughter, the Little Seamstress.
The Little Seamstress is beautiful, resourceful, and beloved by her father and every young man who crosses her path. The narrator and Luo fall completely under her spell and begin spending more and more time with her, telling her the stories they’ve read in Four-Eyes’ hidden volumes. Beginning with the works of French author Honoré de Balzac, and moving on to Dumas, Flaubert, Hugo, and others, the three young people discover a world previously unknown to them. The Little Seamstress, who has had no education, is not merely enthralled by these stories, she is empowered.
This charming little book serves as a reminder of the power of books to take us outside the drudgery of our daily lives, filling our imaginations with dreams that no longer seem impossible.
I had no problem finding a vegan Chinese recipe on the Internet. In fact, there are dozens. I chose a vegan version of the popular General Tso’s, which is usually made with chicken. The recipe I found on ohmyveggies.com is for General Tso’s (Not) Chicken Bowls. I’m not a big fan of seitan, so I substituted tofu, and I left off the green onions. It was so good that I expect to make it again one of these days.
GlobalGiving.org listed many projects in China, including several providing education to children living in rural areas. Seeing how hungry the Little Seamstress was for education, I wanted to do my part to help give other young people opportunities to learn. According to the Overseas China Education Foundation (OCEF), millions of underprivileged children in rural areas drop out of elementary school, and millions more can’t afford to continue on to secondary school. OCEF is seeking to remedy this problem by offering “1) a financial aid program to help kids in elementary and secondary schools, 2) a scholarship program to support high school students and college freshmen, 3) a library program to ensure rural kids have books to read, and 4) a special quality-of-life enhancement program.” It is hoped that this will help to close the urban-rural educational divide in China.
More information about this program is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/ocef-edu-equity/.
NEXT STOP: COLOMBIA
(Originally published on September 29, 2017.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.