The setting for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a remote village at the base of the fictional Phoenix of the Sky mountain in southwestern China, near Tibet. The village is very primitive, and has little contact with the outside world. The neighboring mountains are described as having jagged peaks and unforgiving terrain. The local people are farmers and miners, and many live in stilt houses.
The author, Dai Sijie, was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, and he himself was sent for re-education in rural Sichuan. Therefore it is reasonable to assume the setting is somewhere in Sichuan. The Province is mountainous in the west, while the fertile Sichuan Basin in the east is a major agricultural center, producing rice, wheat and other grains.
From 1966 to 1976, China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, a movement instituted by Mao Zedong to eliminate traditional Chinese culture, combat capitalism and promote revolutionary communist ideals. This led to a prolonged wave of intense violence, as well as the destruction of priceless cultural artifacts and historic sites.
Many Chinese accused of real or imaginary crimes were paraded and humiliated in public, and subjected to physical and verbal abuse by watching crowds. Teachers and school administrators were forced to march through the streets in dunce hats.
Meanwhile the children of the urban middle class were sent to re-education camps in remote rural areas to learn from farmers and workers in the Down to the Countryside Movement.