Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Little Feminist Seamstress

I found Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress on a post-election booklist beside Orwell's 1984. It was a part of my last big Amazon purchase before I committed to the boycott (see Trump products and allies to boycott at #grabyourwallet).

The fact that I ordered it at all -- let alone picked it up shortly after it came in the mail -- makes me a little sheepish. At one point in my life, half of my male friends were dating Asian women. I'd scoffed at their sudden, put-on interest in everything Asian.

Now here I am dating a Korean woman and genuinely drawn to Asian-themed news stories, books and arts. Drawn, I should add, in a mostly white fashion: I'm curious about all of Asia, regardless of region or ethnic group. The exception is news stories about modern-day Korea.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is set in Communist China, when two city boys from middle-class families are sent to the countryside to be "re-educated." The center of the book is a young seamstress, raised by her father, just discovering her womanhood and power, alongside the two boys and a handful of Western classics in Chinese translation.

Spoiler alert.

I loved everything about this book: the vivid descriptions of the Chinese countryside, the dailiness of rights infringement in a totalitarian society and the way in which people resist oppression, in big and small ways.

We see the girl's strength when she handles an unplanned pregnancy without consulting her boyfriend. It's a powerful picture: this slip of a girl, all of eighteen, from the middle of nowhere with no education, pulling herself together to get an illegal abortion and high-tail it out of town, leaving the boys in the ancient dust.

So I resisted the last line: "She said she had learned one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price."

That's not the lesson! It's anti-feminist! It's objectifying!

Then I took a breath. The last lines come to us through her rejected love, and may be unfair or inaccurate.

Another breath. Beauty and power are not mutually exclusive, and the journey to confidence often contains both, especially for young women.

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