It is 1971, the morning just past the dawn of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, under the suppressive and anti-intellectual hand of Chairman Mao. The 17-year-old narrator of this story, along with his childhood friend, 18-year-old Luo, has been banished to a remote village on a mountain called the Phoenix of the Sky. The universities have been closed and the parents of these two Chinese youth have been labeled dissidents because they are educated – Luo’s father is a dentist; the narrator’s parents are doctors. The boys are sent to live with the noble peasants as part of a nationwide “re-education” program.
They quickly come to realize that many of the ignorant and superstitious peasants (not noble at all) relish their roles as educators; they lord it over these uppity city boys, compelling them to do the less savory scut work in the village such as carrying the latrine pails and digging coal in the claustrophobic and dangerous coal mine. The boys win some slight battles of wit by fooling some of the peasants, but for the most part theirs are lives of drudgery and hopelessness; short of another revolution they will be marooned in this boorish nether land for the rest of their days.
Things change when they meet the Little Chinese Seamstress, beautiful and a little more sophisticated than most of the other peasants. She lives in a distant village where her relatively affluent father is an esteemed tailor. He travels from village to village where he is fawned over by the villagers. In spite of their simple tastes, they still like nice clothes and the tailor is very much in demand. Luo and the Little Seamstress are instantly attracted to each other. This causes some jealousy on the narrator’s part, but his loyalty and friendship toward Luo wins out, though he continues to love and yearn for her in humble silence.
At about this time the pair experience another stroke of good fortune. They visit with another youth in their same predicament living in another village. After some time they come to realize this friend possesses a suitcase of banned books, though the friend is reluctant to admit it. After some humorous bargaining, finagling, and eventually an elaborate burglary, the boys are able to obtain the suitcase full of books. It is a treasure house of classic western literature, including a number of novels by Balzac. The boys devour these books and it transports them into a foreign and exciting world of romance and adventure. Luo woos and romances the little seamstress with the tales of Balzac, with the beneficent object of lifting her from her peasant roots.
However this scheme ultimately backfires as her tastes and ambitions evolve beyond Luo’s expectations. The boys experience heartbreak and disillusionment beyond anything they have read in their contraband novels when they realize the Little Chinese Seamstress may have newfound aspirations that do not necessarily include them.
This is a book that touched and re-awakened the first excitement I felt when I read a book that could transport me beyond the time, place and situation in which I lived. I expect it may do the same for anyone else who is a lover of fiction.