How does the author portray the harshness of life in China during the Cultural Revolution? What does Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie reveal about the nature and purpose of China's Cultural Revolution and the suffering it caused? From this, how does the novel offer a more intimate portrait of what like under Chairman Mao than a strictly historical account could?
Dai Sijie is able to bring out much in way of the harshness of life in China during the Cultural Revolution. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress points out an aspect of this in the Cultural Revolution's stated need to eradicate ''Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits." The very idea that the narrator and Luo would be sent to a "reeducation camp" under penalty of death lingering over them is reflective of how life was harsh during the Cultural Revolution. Being sent to "Phoenix of the Sky" and being relegated to what amounted to silence because of their respective talents shows the harsh condition of being under Mao's rule.
This aspect of harshness becomes part of the novel's exposition. The foreman's controlling nature is revealed in instances such as, “Time to get off your backsides, you lazy louts, you spawn of bullock’s balls!” The description of having to carry excrement for prolonged periods of time also reflects a condition of harshness and suffering. The narrator addresses such a reality in a direct admission to the reader: “Dear reader, I will spare you the details of each faltering step; suffice it to say that the slightest false move was potentially fatal." These ideas help to reveal the oppressive condition of control that existed at the heart of China's Cultural Revolution. There was a desire to control everything about the citizenry in the Cultural Revolution. This involved condemning millions to physical labor, a policy of "rusticating" those who were cosmopolitan, and enforcing this change through force and death. The suffering caused was both physical and emotional. As painful as having to endure trials from villagers or physical labor in coal mines was only matched with the repudiation of one's past and one's own identity from an external force. These realities become part of the novel's depiction and revelation about the harshness and suffering in the Cultural Revolution.
One of the most pressing themes of the novel is the power of literature. Literature is shown to initiate thought processes that no one can accurately predict. Literature is shown to be life teeming with life. In this regard, the novel is able to depict the Cultural Revolution in a more divergent and powerful way than a strictly historical account. The Cultural Revolution sought to wipe out the personal and eliminate the subjective. Part of the reason why the novel is so effective is because it resurrects the subjective in a world that desired at nothing more than silencing it. In a strange twist, the historical record seeks to do much of the same. It is for this reason that the intimate portrait of Chairman Mao's desires under the Cultural Revolution is depicted in a more complex and intricate manner. By using the power of literature both as a motif in its development and in its own right as critiquing the Cultural Revolution, it offers a more intimate and subjective portrait than a strictly historical account could.