How do symbols in Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress represent China's Cultural Revolution?
Two symbols that are central to the story and that represent the Cultural Revolution in China are the violin and the violin strings. The violin itself is the more clearly understood symbol as it was literally one of the symbols of Westernism that the Cultural Revolution threw to the literal ash heaps of sacrificed objects of culture. The novel starts by highlighting this symbol:
my violin ... was the sole item that exuded an air of foreignness, of civilisation, and therefore aroused suspicion.
The Cultural Revolution was intended to purge capitalist thought and Western culture, with its bourgeois elements such as music and art, from China. To that end, youths were denied educations, lest they become Western style intellectuals, and were sent to live with peasants to be re-educated. Dai Sijie writes:
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.'
The early emphasis on violin strings represents a more subtle symbol. In Chapter one, the narrator is afraid that his violin strings will break under the "enthusiastic" examination they are undergoing.
His investigation was so enthusiastic I was afraid the strings would break.
This symbolizes one theme of the book in that it laments the broken condition of China after the rigorous and "enthusiastic" examination that rid Chinese life of capitalistic and Westernizing elements that might corrupt the "pure" peasant mentality and result in more “young intellectuals.”