Novel Excerpt by Dai Sijie

We crept up to the suitcase. It was tied with a thick rope of plaited straw, knotted crosswise. We removed the rope and raised the lid in silence. Inside, piles of books shone in the light of our torch: a company of great Western writers welcomed us with open arms. On top was our old friend Balzac with five or six novels, then came Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Dumas, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Romain Rolland, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and some English writers, too: Dickens, Kipling, Emily Brontë…

We were beside ourselves. My head reeled, as if I’d had too much to drink. I took the novels out of the suitcase one by one, opened them, studied the portraits of the authors, and passed them on to Luo. Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives.

“It reminds me of a scene in a film,” said Luo. “You know, when a stolen suitcase turns out to be stuffed with money…”

 “So, are you weeping tears of joy?” I said.

“No. All I feel is loathing.”

“Me too. Loathing for everyone who kept these books from us.”

 Hearing myself utter this last sentence frightened me, as if there might be an eavesdropper hidden somewhere in the room. Such a remark, casually dropped, could cost several years in prison…



Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) takes place in China during the Cultural Revolution of the early 1970s – when educated young adults from the big cities were sent to do hard labor in rural areas to learn about “real life” and rid them of Western influences.

The novel follows the fortunes of a young male narrator and his friend as they try to navigate an unfamiliar way of life, while maintaining their love of art and literature. The village headman recognizes their storytelling skills and once a week sends them to another remote town to view a propaganda film, then return and recount the movie scene by scene to the villagers — who listen with avid attention and emotional engagement.

Based on the author’s re-education experiences, this brilliant novel is about our need and our hunger for stories – stories are what keep us human, what keep us connected to other people. Stories are food for our souls. When the book’s main characters uncover a stash of hidden novels from the West in Chinese translation, as described in the above excerpt, they risk torture and imprisonment to feed their hungry souls.

The little seamstress in the title is a beautiful young woman the thieves take into their confidence – reading the smuggled books to her, and introducting her to the outside world.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a short novel (less than 200 pages) with a huge impact – bringing home our deep need for stories and storytellers.

Highly recommended — an all-time favorite! Find beautiful hardcover editions for just one (1!) cent (plus shipping) at