Dai Sijie — Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2000)
Setting: Rural China during the Cultural Revolution.
What it’s about: Two young intellectuals are sent to the countryside for “re-education”. They both fall for a local seamstress, who they decide to teach to read, teaching her to read using a chest of hidden novels. She, however, ends up teaching them a lot more about life.
Although it romanticises the Mao era somewhat, the story of the bourgeois boys from the city adapting to rural life is charming and uplifting.
The scenes of rural life leave a lasting impression. When the boys first meet the seamstress:
“This was a sign that she had taken a liking to us. On this mountain an invitation to take a drink of water meant that your host would crack some eggs over the boiling pan and add sugar to make a soup.”
The best book from China? Several other writers have engaged with the harsher aspects of Communist Party rule, such as Yiyun Li, Mo Yan, Ha Jin.
Why you should read it: For the paean to the power of reading.
Still on my list: The Four Books by Yan Lianke.
To read if you liked: Reading Lolita in Iran, Fahrenheit 451.