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A Reader’s Guide

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie Common Reading Program for the Class of 2022

Letter from the Provost Dear Class of 2022, On behalf of the University’s Faculty and the 2018 Common Reading Program, we welcome you to Washington University! We’re very excited you will soon be joining us, and we are busy preparing for your arrival. The Common Reading Program initiates your intellectual college experience and highlights the essence of your education - habits of inquiry and debate that underlie effective citizenship in communities beyond the self. Throughout the first semester, you will encounter themes from the book in classes, discussions, and on-campus programming. On August 24th, as part of the 16th annual Common Reading Program, you will be participating in what we anticipate will be a dynamic and thought-provoking discussion of the book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. In this book, Sijie takes us into the painful experiences of re-education following the Cultural Revolution in China. The experience of reading and discussing this transformational novel will allow you to put yourself in the place of the characters in the book. One of the principle goals of the humanities is to cultivate empathy and immersing yourself in the characters of the novel will give you a glimpse into the life of those who lived through the harsh world that the book describes. Literature has another great influence, which is that because it can’t be censored and because it can make experience so real, it has the power to change the world. Certainly the world has changed in the years following the Cultural Revolution. In your studies here, we’ll also be talking to you about the great problems of the world. Those underlying our approach to identity are certainly among the greatest facing society. But so are climate change, inequality, hunger, international conflict and disease. This sounds heavy, but it isn’t for us because we believe in the energy and optimism that you are bringing to education and all the great work you will do at WashU and beyond. Welcome, Bears. Let’s get started.

Holden Thorp Provost and Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor Departments of Chemistry and Medicine Washington University in St. Louis



About the Book The Author Dai Sijie was born in Chengdu, Sichuan in 1954. After being sent to a re-education camp himself in the early 1970s, Sijie left for France to pursue filmmaking. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was first published in 2000 in France, and is now sold in over nineteen countries. The Cultural Revolution August 13, 1966 -- Mao Zedong announces the Cultural Revolution, or the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution aimed to modernize China’s agricultural and industrial economies while eliminating bourgeoisie culture. Colleges were shut down, adolescents were sent to rural villages for re-education, and many non-Communist and Western influences were destroyed. The Red Guards – often high school and college students – utilized violence and intimidation to enforce Mao’s anti-elitist policies that led to millions of deaths throughout the countryside and in prisons. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is often criticized for its fantastical portrayal of the Cultural Revolution.



Letter from the Student Leader Dear Class of 2022, In his award-winning work of fiction, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, largely based on his own experience, Dai Sijie expresses the harsh realities of re-education in China during the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960’s-1970’s. Re-education involved young adults being forced to leave school in order to work with peasants. In the book, the narrator mentioned that he had “not enjoyed the privilege of studying at an institution for advanced education.” The education and experiences you will have at WashU are invaluable and it is a true privilege to not only get the opportunity to learn from professors in a classroom setting but also your peers on a daily basis. The Common Reading Program combines both of these learning environments as it invites you to take part in a discussion with your floor and be guided by a dynamic faculty member. It serves as the first of many traditions to help create a community in which the privilege of education is uncensored and thrives. You will get the chance to spend time with your residential college through countless traditions, feel the uniqueness of your new home while cheering as loud as you can at Convocation, get to know new people through Bear Beginnings and WUSA hours, and feel supported by the caring people you will meet.

Part of your participation in the Common Reading Program requires that you email your discussion leader a 250-word response to one of the following questions by Friday, August 17th at Noon CST. We will send you the name and contact information for your group discussion leader in early August. Your submission will only be read by the faculty or staff member leading your discussion group. 1.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress follows a seventeen-year-old narrator and his friend, Luo, after they are sent to a rural mountain village during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960s and 1970s China. During their time on the mountain, the boys are enchanted by both the Little Seamstress and a stash of forbidden Western novels. While receiving their own re-education, Luo promises that “with these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress.” Taking into consideration the end of the novel, how can we define what education is and who is being educated?


Early on, the narrator says, “The only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories. A pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand-and-One-Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers— more’s the pity.” How do we see storytelling being valued or marginalized in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress?


We see a few examples of the narrator and Four-Eyes salvaging banned art and literature when the narrator keeps his violin to play “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao,” and Four Eyes publishes the Old Miller’s songs after changing the lyrics in favor of the proletariat. In what ways has censorship impacted how citizens navigate the freedom of expression under Chairman Mao’s rule?


For most of the story, there is only one narrator. What is gained or lost by the inclusion of The Old Miller’s Story, Luo’s Story, and the Little Seamstress’s Story two-thirds of the way through the novel? And why does the narration switch back to the unnamed narrator afterwards?


Welcome to WashU and happy reading!

Using examples from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and current media, illustrate how themes of freedom of expression will intersect with your experiences as a student at Washington University in St. Louis.

Libby Evan Class of 2020

Questions? Please contact 314.935.5050 or

The language in this novel comes alive to demonstrate the exact sensation the very real characters feel– the power of literature. As this book expresses, once in the hand of the reader, the influence of literature cannot be suppressed. Sijie cleverly uses a seemingly unfamiliar experience to spark discussions on very relatable and necessary topics such as accessible education, gender and women’s rights, what it means to be an adult, censorship, freedom of expression, and social class. His book expresses universal themes that are extremely empowering and warrant discussion. College will be a transformative experience for all of you, and we look forward to being a part of it. To paraphrase Sijie, a tiny glimmer of hope for the future can transform someone so utterly. It is my hope that at WashU, you gain the confidence of Luo, the love of stories of the narrator, the genuineness of the Little Seamstress, and the warmth of the elderly miller. I look forward to having you meet all of these characters, and discussing the impact with your peers as you begin the privilege of studying at this amazing institution for advanced education.


Assignment Instructions




CONTEST GUIDELINES For this year’s contest, we invite you depict any moment (or number of moments) from Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress told from the point of view of any character other than the narrator. Your submission may be created in written format, video, photography, art piece, music or any other creative medium that can be submitted electronically for judging. If you are submitting a written entry, please limit it to a maximum length of 500 words. The contest is open to all members of the Washington University Class of 2022. Please e-mail your submission to by Friday, August 31st at Noon CST. The top five contest winners will have the opportunity for a special meet and greet with the Common Program Reading Program Assembly Series Speaker. Additionally, the grand prize winner will also receive a $100 gift certificate from the Washington University Campus Store. While the contest is optional, we encourage you to participate!



SAVE THE DATE Friday, August 17th at Noon CST Email Assignment Due Friday, August 24th at 10:30 AM - Noon CST CRP Discussions with residential floor communities For more information on the Common Reading Program, upcoming events, and other resources, visit our website at

WORKS CITED (13 Aug. 1966). 1966: China Announces Cultural Revolution. BBC News. Retrieved from Riding, A. (18 Oct. 2001). Arts Abroad: Adopting a Country, Then Crashing Its Best-Seller List. The New York Times. Retrieved from -ing-a-country-then-crashing-its-best-seller-list.html Somin, I. (3 Aug. 2016) Remembering the Biggest Mass Murder in the History of the World. The Washington Post. Retrieved from term=.9c08cb7454b8



Common Reading Program Campus Box 1136 One Brookings Drive St. Louis, MO 63130-4899 314.935.5040

Common Reading Program Guide 2018  
Common Reading Program Guide 2018