Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: Chinese Walnut Chicken Recipe

Year Released: 2005
Directed by: Dai Sijie
Starring: Kun Chen, Ye Liu, Xun Zhou, Shuangbao Wang
(Not Rated, 110 min.)

"A truly great library contains something in it to offend everybody." Jo Goodwin

Sent to the country as part of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, two enterprising teenagers manage to relieve the daily drudgery of their lives with the help of a saucy little seamstress and a suitcase full of forbidden novels.

Luo (Kun Chen) and his friend Ma (Ye Liu) are sent to a small mountain village to cleanse them of their evil intellectual bourgeoisie ways. Part of the cleansing consists of carrying tubs of liquid excrement on their backs to the mountaintop where it will be used as fertilizer. They also toil away in a dark and cramped copper mine, but their youthful exuberance is not so easily squelched.

Their only book, a cookbook, is quickly thrown into the fire as an example of decadence. There will be no Walnut Chicken eaten here, only the People’s cabbage and corn. Ma’s violin is about to meet the same fiery fate when fast talking Luo and the talented Ma conspire to save it. While Ma transpires the locals with a lovely Mozart Sonata, Luo explains that “sonata’ means “mountain song” and this one was inspired by Mozart’s love and admiration of Chairman Mao. 

But the real saving grace is the lovely little seamstress, a beauty among beauties in the region known for its exquisite women. She is lovely but illiterate, her schoolteacher mother having unfortunately died before she could teach her daughter to read, so smitten Luo and Ma decide to do a little reeducation themselves, even if it does mean stealing the cache of forbidden novels from “Four Eyes,” another wayward intellectual quartered there.

Other opportunities bloom as the village finds more appropriate uses for the pair. They are sent to nearby villages to watch films from North Korea and Poland and then retell the plots to the folks back home. Of course, Luo and Ma manage to enhance the dull propaganda sagas, spicing them up with plot details swiped from the forbidden French novels they have been devouring with the little seamstress.

Even though they hide the cache of books in a grotto, soon the old tailor, the seamstress’s very protective grandfather, learns of their existence. It seems his granddaughter has picked up a little fashion advice from Balzac and has managed to create a very foreign French undergarment, the brassiere, whose purpose, she prattles to the local girls, is to enhance the bosom. The books must go, declares the ancient tailor, but like Scheherazade, Luo regales the old man with the Western stories, and he too is hooked on literature.

The Mao embracing head of the village also learns of the banned books, but he merely uses it to extract some service from Luo, son of a famous dissident dentist. Can the youngster do anything about his bad tooth? With a hand drill hooked up to a manual sewing machine, the cavity is excised, perhaps with some purposefully painful delay, and melted tin becomes a very satisfactory filling. Soon the entire village is lining up outside “Dr. Luo’s” door, live chickens or some handmade noodles the proffered payment. 

Part of the beauty of the film is the exquisite mountain village -- sharp gray cliffs rising out of the mists, ancient stone steps that seem as much of the topography as the mountains themselves. It was quite a coup that director Dai Sijie received permission to film here in China the cinematic version of his semi-autobiographical best selling French novel, translated into 25 languages, Chinese not being one of them.

Perhaps that accounts for his somewhat muted portrayal of the harshness of his experiences, where wily word games and comic curtsies to the Chairman give the youths some unprecedented freedom. A much bleaker picture of the reeducation camps is presented in the 1999 film Xiu Xiu: the Sent Down Girl, but it was filmed without permit in Tibet and earned its director Joan Chen a $50,000 fine and an indefinite ban from the Chinese film industry.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Let us retrieve that decadent cookbook from the village flames and resurrect the infamous Walnut Chicken Recipe that got Luo and Ma in so much trouble their first day at reeducation camp. 

Really, how can a simple chicken be a reactionary? And I bet chickens don’t read inflammatory French novels either. If this event had happened later, I’m sure the resourceful duo would have found a saving phrase to keep the cookbook out of the flames. 

“But Walnut Chicken is Chairman Mao’s favorite dish, and this recipe was inspired by him. The coarsely broken walnuts are the revolutionary soldiers, the thin strips of chicken are their swords, and the tender bamboo shoots the truth in their hearts.”

Quickly now, take the book out of the fire.

Chinese Walnut Chicken

  • 1 cup coarsely broken walnuts

  • 1/4 cup salad oil

  • 2 chicken breasts (raw), boned and cut lengthwise in very thin slips

  • 1/2 tsp. salt

  • 1 cup onion slices

  • 1 1/2 cups bias-cut celery slices

  • 1 1/4 cups chicken broth

  • 1 tsp. sugar

  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce

  • 2 tbsp. cooking sherry

  • 1 5 oz. can (2/3 cup) bamboo shoots, drained

  • 1 5 oz. can water chestnuts, drained and sliced

In skillet, toast walnuts in hot oil, stirring constantly. remove nuts to paper towels.

Put chicken into skillet. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring frequently, 5 to 10 minutes or till tender. Remove chicken.

Put onion, celery, and 1/2 cup of the chicken broth in skillet. Cook uncovered 5 minutes or till slightly tender.

Combine sugar, cornstarch, soy sauce, and cooking sherry; add remaining chicken broth.Pour over vegetables in skillet.Cook and serve till sauce thickens.

Add chicken, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and walnuts. Heat through.

Serve with Rice.

Recipe Source: Uncle Phaedrus, Finder of Lost Recipes