Big Breasts and Wide Hips

Mo Yan

Reviewed by Kenny Ng

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2005)

Mo Yan. Big Breasts and Wide Hips: A Novel. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2004. 552 pp. US $27.00, ISBN: 1559706724 (cloth)

First published in China in 1996, Mo Yan's Big Breasts and Wide Hips has come to be seen as yet another contentious work by the author. While the novel gained immediate critical acclaim after its publication, winning an award from a non-government literary magazine in Mainland China, it drew vehement criticism from diehard leftists for its blatant display of eroticism and more seriously, its deviation from the official historical narrative.[1] It is no surprise that Mo Yan's bold endeavor—to rewrite official history and memory in fiction—trespassed the prohibited areas of revolutionary ideology and political correctness in the eyes of conservative critics and Party ideologues.   Following in the footsteps of his first major novel and attempt at creating a national epic, Red Sorghum,  Big Breasts and Wide Hips sets itself an even more ambitious task: to invent a "foundational fiction" (see footnote #2 below) for modern China in the tumultuous twentieth century. As the novel carves out a century of Chinese history in its ceaseless cycles of revolution and liberation, political struggle and economic reformation, the story focuses on the "founding" and decline of a family and the nation writ large, a story suffused with depictions of epic magnanimity, erotic desire, bloody violence and chaos, and fantastical suspense. In terms of the novelist's continuing literary innovation over the last twenty years, this novel might well be his most effective blending of "magical realism with Chinese characteristics" to date, bringing together history and romance, realism and supernaturalism. The novel also melds indigenous "cultural roots" and foreign styles in accordance with the author's own idiosyncratic storytelling style.

Howard Goldblatt's English translation of Mo Yan's mammoth novel is a much-awaited literary undertaking that will serve to promote the work's international visibility as well as to generate cross-cultural discussions of contemporary Chinese literature in the global literary arena. The story of Big Breasts and Wide Hips unfolds in the author's fictionalized hometown of North Gaomi County, the geo-historical space to which the author insistently returns in his major works. The story spans the entire twentieth century, but much of the narrative centers on the period of the War of Resistance (1937-1945). Divided into seven chapters, the novel opens on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War with the birth of the male protagonist, Shangguan Jintong ("Golden Child"). The second chapter flashes back to the turn of the century, and the mythic past of the Shangguan family is set in the context of the death throes of the Qing dynasty and the rise of foreign imperialist intrusion in China. Chapter 2 also recounts how Shangguan Lu, the beleaguered mother, struggles to give birth to her seven daughters, all fathered by men other than her legal husband through incestuous relationships, rapes, or illicit affairs. The remaining chapters principally follow in chronological order such momentous historical events as the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the post-Mao economic reforms, against which tableaux the members of the Shangguan family pursue their passions and undergo trials and tribulations. Despite (or perhaps because of) its attempt to intertwine these strands of family history with national allegory on a panoramic scale, the novel's temporal narration reflects Mo Yan's obsessive concern with a developmental and linear vision of history.      

Readers who are familiar with Mo Yan's works will also readily observe the similarity of the characterization of Mother in the novel with that of Grandma in Red Sorghum. The two women are unconventional characters determined to defy traditional moral values and effect their own fates. The heroine in Big Breasts and Wide Hips is married into a traditional peasant family, unable to bear any child with her sterile husband, and is seduced or forced to sleep with other men, including her own uncle. Ironically, her beloved but developmentally impaired son, Jintong, is delivered by virtue of her affair with a Swedish missionary, to whom the woman grants her genuine affection.  

One noteworthy feature of Mo Yan's inventive works is his continual exploration of point of view and narrative voice. Big Breasts and Wide Hips is another illustration of his consistent experimentation in this regard. In the scene in which Shangguan Lu (Mother) struggles to give birth on a battlefield, surrounded by bullets and raging fires, an intrusive narrator gains immediate access to the heroine's mind, forging a dialogic tension between the real and unreal, past and present, time and individual memory:  

The intermittent rumble of explosions from the edge of the village came on the air, punctuated by a mysterious yet somehow familiar clamor, like the magnified noise made by a horde of tiny crawling critters, or the gnashing of countless teeth ... I've heard that sound before, but what is it? She thought and she thought. Then a flash of recognition quickly transformed itself into a bright light that brought into focus the plague of locusts she'd witnessed a decade or more earlier. [...]

The locusts have returned! she thought to her horror, as she sank into the mire of despair. "Heavenly Master, just let me die, I can't take it anymore ... God in Heaven, Blessed Virgin! Send down your grace and bounty to save my soul..." she prayed hopefully even in the throes of despair, sending prayers both to China's supreme deity and to the paramount god of the West (pp. 38-9).

Mother's interior monologue reveals her mental anguish and physical agonies during the delivery, muddled together with her sweet memories of her romance with the foreign missionary. The switching back and forth in an impressionistic, free-associative style between subjective interiority and exterior events is one of the stylistic hallmarks in Mo Yan's novelistic discourse. Readers will no doubt be struck by certain close parallels between his narrative techniques for rendering subjective consciousness and those of the the masters of Western modern fiction. In this respect, one may compare Mo Yan's style with those of his favorite foreign authors, such as James Joyce and Gustave Flaubert, in its maintenance of a delicate balance between narrative internalization and objectification. Indeed, some might argue that Chinese fiction writing is actually more free to exploit the technique of free indirect discourse, since there are fewer restrictions on the tense of narration, punctuation markers, time signals, thus allowing for easier shifts between first- and third-person narration. This is also why reading the original Chinese novel and its English translation side by side is such a challenging experience. And yet, Goldblatt manages to capture the complexity of Mo Yan's narrative, as well as the stylistic rhythms of the original language.

Another noteworthy feature of the novel is the dominating voice of the "I" protagonist. Much of the story is told by way of Jintong's first-person account, although at times this first-person narration alternates seamlessly with third-person narration and the use of flashbacks. The omnipresent and omniscient I-narrator describes his observations of horrific events, and even peeps into the secret affairs of his mother and sisters, hence becoming a most intriguing persona with a seemingly all-encompassing consciousness. Jintong vividly recalls a scene during the Sino-Japanese War when some brutal Chinese soldiers stormed into the church and ravaged his mother, forcing his Swedish father to kill himself (chap. 3, sec. 2). His childish vision can turn memories of the mass evacuation and gory warfare in the civil war period into something as fantastic as a tableau of flocks of crows and explosive fireballs inscribed across the sky, seen as his family is fleeing through the wilderness of history (chap. 4, sec. 9).  

That this infantile character is able to present such compelling scenes of violence and chaos not only bears out the novelist's penchant for the surreal side of magical realism, but also points to some deeper concerns with the portrayal of history and subjectivity. One of the most scandalous themes in Big Breasts and Wide Hips no doubt relates to Jintong's addiction to women's breasts. Beginning in his infancy, the narrator develops a passionately possessive appetite for his mother's breasts and milk, one that borders on fetishistic obsession throughout his life. His fixation then turns to his sisters, and it provokes their derision and repugnance. This spoiled and vulnerable son, who breast feeds well into childhood, has been incapable of severing himself from his instinctual attachment to the breasts of his mother, his sisters, and his wife. As erotic and at times sleazy as the protagonist's breast mania seems, this trope of the female breast becomes increasingly grotesque and bizarre, taking on larger implications and ironies as the plot proceeds through the historical events of the second half of the twentieth century. Immediately after Liberation, Jintong enjoys his happiest moments in life when he is chosen to play the part of the Snow Prince in a local festival: responsible for curing village women wanting to bear a child by fondling their breasts and bestowing blessings on them (chap. 5). A few decades later, in the economic frenzy of the 1980s, Jintong is appointed manager of a bra shop. The business was founded by his cousin Sima Liang, who wants both to cure Jintong's neurosis and exploit his expertise in women's bodies (chap. 7). For all his hardships through the tumultuous events of twentieth-century China, Jintong remains mired in his own carnal passions and inhibited desires. Indeed, the I-narrator's lack of moral superiority, as well as his sensualized masculine corporeality, renders him a weird and yet all the more intriguing witness of history in all its madness and unfamiliarity. As one moves from chapter to chapter, one unmistakably has the sense that Big Breasts and Wide Hips is an exploration not only of sexual impotence and problematic sexuality, but also correlates these themes with an imputed failure of self-making and nation-building.           

The interweaving of sexuality, nationalism, family history, and allegory into fiction in China can be traced to the practice of revolutionary historical fiction (geming lishi xiaoshuo) in twentieth-century China. Appearing first in the 1950s, the revolutionary historical novel in mainland Chinese literary history refers to a fictional genre that covers heroic Communist struggles from 1921 to 1949, with a mission to emplot the fateful rise of the Chinese Communist Party. And yet, Mo Yan's fictional writing has constantly undermined this hegemonic historical discourse. There are also some revealing counterparts in other literary traditions. Doris Sommer has considered nineteenth-century Latin American novels as quintessentially "foundational fictions," in that they imagine the ideal of nonviolent consolidations of nations through the figures of lovers who represent different regions, races, parties, economic interests, and social classes.[2] Likewise, the erotic representations of the female body and sexual desire in Big Breasts and Wide Hips register a multitude of political and cultural meanings. Not only does Mother personify the traditional female virtues of perseverance, diligence, enduring love, and devotion to her family, the heroine is also the very embodiment of female fecundity and sexuality. Perpetuating the "impure" origins and genealogy that is typical of Mo Yan's family sagas, Mother's nine children are "bastard" offspring, all born of other men (Jintong and his twin sister are fathered by a foreign missionary). The female body provides the site to nurture the family members and they follow their inevitable confrontations and conflicts in the ensuing political struggles and historical evolution. Her daughters are married to men of varying backgrounds and political persuasions, including Nationalist and Communist commanders, heroes, cowards, traitors, patriots, and foreigners. As the complex plots expand and follow history's course, their descendants then embark on diverse paths to become Party officials, political opportunists, or the nouveau riche of a new post-Mao China.

Much as Mother hopes to maintain harmony within their extended family and assume the role of protector in the relationships between her daughters and their lovers, she is incapable of bringing their love affairs to happy endings. Third Sister is miraculously transformed into a Bird Fairy after her love is denied (chap. 3, sec. 5). Readers are informed that this event has its precedent in the superstitious folklore of Northeast Gaomi Township, where unhappy, jilted women are said to turn into wild creatures such as foxes, hedgehogs, weasels, white snakes, badgers, and bats. But many readers will also see a literary antecedent for this tall tale in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Some of the most mesmerizing subplots are achieved with a magical realist touch. Tilting against the odds of political instability and national disintegration, flirtatious lovers and metaphorical marriages meet with tragic endings. Eldest Sister, for one, is as daring as her mother in having sexual encounters with a patriot, a turncoat, a crippled mute solider, and these episodes with her lovers take place in the heat of battle and in their frenzied chase for wealth and fame. By the end of the novel, she is condemned to death for committing adultery with Birdman Han. Twining erotic passion and political turmoil to forge a monstrous history of modern China, Big Breasts and Wide Hips blatantly links the body spectacle with the theme of nation building, with clear gender implication. In developing this mythic history, Mo Yan seeks to portray the eclipse of patriarchal authority by maternal power. Gone is the heroic archetype of Grandpa who haunted Mo Yan's historical romance in Red Sorghum. The only remotely heroic character, Sima Ku, husband of Second Sister and an anti-Japanese warrior, has none of the superhuman charisma that characterized the rebellious ancestor in Mo Yan's earlier saga.

What may raise reader's eyebrows still further is the repulsive character of Jintong, a cynical anti-hero who functions to deepen the author's interest, already apparent in earlier works) in the notion of "species regression" (zhong de tuihua). This problem of de-evolution fuels his visions of civilizational decadence and historical decline. Mo Yan's sarcastic attitude toward history is bitterly and hilariously depicted in Jintong's disastrous entry into sexual maturity, which takes place just before the onset of the great famine in 1960. A physically and sexually ravenous Communist supervisor attempts to force him to have sex with her, but shoots herself after she fails to seduce him. Out of sympathy, Jintong grants her final wish before her life slips away. He is then sentenced to jail on charges of murder and necrophilia (chap 6). After fifteen years of prison life, our vulnerable protagonist returns to a society undergoing the rapid transformations of the 1980s, still unable to overcome his infantile attachment to the breast. His appetite for breast milk has finally to be appeased by a woman named Single-Breast Old Jin, who is clearly yet another trademark deformed and bizarre figure in Mo Yan's gallery of such characters (chap. 7). Jintong's deterioration coinicides exactly with China's post-socialist boom times. His abject failure to enter into adulthood is therefore symptomatic of the subject's incapacity to cope with the times and seek new meaning in a rapidly developing society.  

Mo Yan's fiction reconstructs history by subverting the political sanctions of good and evil, the sublime and the ugly. Big Breasts and Wide Hips can be magnificent (even grandiloquent) in its evocation of a maternal love so large that it is conflated with the nation, yet this massive work also undermines the grand Maoist rhetoric of revolution and unveils the violence and terror hidden beneath the glitzy veneer of economic modernity. The story of the dejected hero is a Bildungsroman that runs awry in China's twisted and malformed social transformation. Small wonder that the work has incited resentful polemics from leftist critics, who have not yet been weaned from the "milk of the Communist Party."

The Chinese version of Big Breasts and Wide Hips first saw print in book form in 1996 in mainland China and Taiwan. A revised and shortened edition was later published by China Workers Publishing House in 2003. The current translation by Goldblatt was based on an even more extensively abridged manuscript, supplied by the author to the translator in the form of a computer print-out. Certain emendations and rearrangements of the original text were effected in the process of editing and translation, with the approval of the author. Inevitably, the venture of translation entails a certain degree of loss. Certain idiomatic expressions, culturally-specific connotations, and distinctive style and voice can be particularly resistant translation. To retain a sense of the original is a daunting task, even for a competent and prolific translator whose works have encompassed so many modern Chinese writers, representing a diversity of styles, including Huang Chunming, Li Rui, Liu Heng, Gu Hua, Su Tong, Wang Shuo, Wang Zhenhe, Xiao Hong, and Zhu Tianwen. Still, I find Goldblatt's translation of this novel by Mo Yan an engaging read in its own right, and he has done an excellent service to an English-language public worldwide to bring it such a massive and complex work.

Multifaceted and mammoth in scale, with dozens of principal characters, Mo Yan's novel is far from an easy read in the Chinese original, let alone its English translation. Indeed, the translation often appears more coherent than the original, as the translator worked directly with the author to cut a substantial portion of the original and reorganize the sequence of some of the chapters. Chapter Seven in the original Chinese version, which narrates the early days of Mother's family, has been moved forward to become Chapter Two in the English translation. The Chinese version, in addition to its seven chapters, also contains an appendix consisting of seven supplementary anecdotes about the whereabouts of some of its principal characters.[3] This appendix seems less like a gambit to keep the novel "fragmentary" and "open-ended" than a sign of the author's failure to impose a coherent "sense of an ending" on the text as a whole. Indeed, the difficulty in achieving a teleological closure reflects the writer's ongoing obsession with constructing a modern epic. In Big Breasts and Wide Hide Hips, Mo Yan has yet to resolve the inherent conflicts between novelistic form and the historical temporality of its narrative content. The latter half of Big Breasts and Wide Hips in particular seems loosely and hastily constructed, and its straightforward and chronological narrative movement drives forward to the detriment of narrative complication and stylistic variation. On the whole, this panoramic novel by Mo Yan is a masterwork in terms of its epic sweep and striking imagination. And yet, its artistic achievement cannot be said to have surpassed earlier and more experimental works such as Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads, and The Republic of Wine, in which deliberately digressive and incomplete narrative structures foil any sense of an overarching historical scheme.

Kenny K. K. Ng
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology


[1] A storm of criticism from leftists nationwide followed the publication of the novel in 1996. See, for example, Yunnan dangdai wenxue [Yunnan contemporary literature], no. 31 (Apr. 1996).

[2] Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

[3]For the Chinese version, Fengru feitun, I am using the renewed edition published by China Workers Publishing House (Beijing, 2003).