In the early 1970's during the later stages of China's "Cultural Revolution," two city-bred teenage best friends, Luo and Ma, are sent to a backward mountainous region for Maoist re-education. Sons of "reactionary intellectuals," the boys are required to perform arduous manual labor along with locals while under the supervision of the zealous village headman. Still they manage to find diversions. They save Ma's violin from destruction by claiming a Mozart lieder is actually a celebration of Chairman Mao. Because of their literacy, the headman sends them to a larger town to watch imported Albanian and North Korean communist melodramas, and then report back to the culture-starved locals. They embroider the stodgy plots with their own inventions and the villagers are entranced. During one of these trips, the two see and fall in love with the local beauty, the daughter of the most renowned tailor in the region. They never know her name, referring to her only as "the Little Seamstress," but she captivates them with her innocence and sensuality. When they discover a hidden suitcase filled with banned books by Western writers, mostly French-- Flaubert, Dumas and Balzac among them--they read these works to the Little Seamstress for hours on end in a secret meeting place. Thirsting for knowledge of the world beyond, she comes to love, in particular, Balzac and his characters. Eventually, Luo and the seamstress become lovers, but their romance comes to an abrupt end when he is recalled home and she finds herself pregnant. Changed by her "sentimental education," the Little Seamstress ultimately finds the courage to leave her village for wider horizons. In a bittersweet coda, many years later Luo and Ma, beneficiaries of China's economic gains and enjoying considerable professional success, meet and wonder about the Little Seamstress.