Symbolism of Birds: Portraying Oppression and Rebirth

Categories: Animals Cry For Help

Banishment of the Intellectuals

In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a novel by Dai Sijie, many birds represent magnificent symbols in the story. Birds and animals are often used by authors to make a correlation to the way a character acts or is portrayed. In this case birds like the Phoenix are referenced.

Luo and the narrator experience different things on the mountain than what they experienced at home. The narrator says, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our visits to town had become an obsession, but at least having to trudge across the mountain to see a film meant getting four days off from labouring in the fields, from carrying human and animal dung on your backs, or from toiling in the paddy fields with water buffalo whose long tails whacked you across the face”, and it is a representation of something good and a new experience that the boys have (81).

They can go see a film and get out of dealing with the animals and their harsh mannerisms.

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Luo falls in love with the seamstress and they decide to make love by a tree. When Sijie writes, “...We made love there, against the trunk. Standing…. ‘Standing?’ ‘Yes, like horses. Perhaps that’s why she laughed afterwards, a laugh so piercing, so wild, and echoing so far and wide that even the birds took wing in fright” this shows a correlation between the characters and how a horse lives (60). Horses are different than some other creatures in the way they live.

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They stand for most everything they do and the representation is clear and understandable. The references to different animals help the reader to understand what has happened. The narrator begins to reflect on how it would have felt of his parents could see him now. He says, “...I suddenly thought of our parents, his and mine: if only they could have seen the wavering light of the oil lamp in our house on stilts, if only they could have heard the strains of my violin interspersed with grunts of the sow…”(16-17). In this quote the grunts of the sow represent a background type sound that the narrator hears and wishes his parents could hear. The narrator loves the violin and music but he was sent away so his parents could never share his love. The grunting of the sow represents the sadness of the narrator.

The fact that the boys were transported to the mountain immediately shows one way the

government is corrupt. A raven is used as a symbol for the government in the novel. When the Sijie writes, “I pointed my finger towards the red-beaked raven, which had now alighted on the ridge at the very spot where I had decided to turn around and go back. ‘Yes, every morning, as if it has an appointment with me’”, this shows how the raven has a red beak when ravens typically have black beaks (115). The raven and the color of the beak represent the government and death. The ravens are mentioned again when the narrator says, “One of them - perhaps it was more aggressive than the others, or more incensed at the disturbance - swooped down towards me, brushing my face with the tip of its wing. I can still remember the stench of it”(135). The fact that the raven is being aggressive relates to the government relocating the intellectuals. The red beak means death and the government would be committing the crime.

Many authors use animals as symbols for other objects or characters in their stories, and Sijie uses, “...From the other hundred-odd ‘young intellectuals’ who were banished to the mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky”(11). When one thinks of a Phoenix they think a new life or rebirth and the reason the boys and others are on the mountain is because they are getting re-educated. The fact that they were banished away leaves one to wonder why they need to be re-educated but at that time the governmental system was corrupt. The name of the mountain has significant meaning to portray just what it was really like for them to be relocated there. The narrator says, “The name was a poetic way of suggesting it terrifying altitude; the poor sparrows and common birds of plain could never soar to its peak, for that was the reserve of winged creatures allied to the sky: mighty mythical and profoundly solitary”, this entire quote is a symbol for the intellectuals (11). The so called ‘intellectuals’ are different from everyone else and yet they are being re-educated. They are the smart ones or the ones good at music, but they are banished to a mountain that symbolizes difficulty and beauty. The Phoenix as in the name of the mountain is the intellectuals who are soaring high because they enjoy music and are smart. When Sijie says, “ At my first shout she hastened her step, at my second she broke into a run, and at my third she took of like a bird, growing smaller and smaller until she vanished”, it just brings the whole story together (184). This quote shows how the seamstress and the people on the mountain are birds.

Birds and other animals were incorporated in the story to help the reader understand the meaning of certain sections. Sijie used a Phoenix to set up the whole story. The Phoenix set the tone for the whole story and the theme of relocation and the power of the government. The energy and power needed to reach the mountains peak is something only few people possess and the characters in the novel met that potential.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Symbolism of Birds: Portraying Oppression and Rebirth. (2022, Apr 26). Retrieved from

Symbolism of Birds: Portraying Oppression and Rebirth essay
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