Mo Yan: ‘Big Breasts & Wide Hips’

October 11, 2012

Editor’s note: This review was originally published Nov. 28, 2004. It has been republished on the occasion of Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

This massive novel, which runs well over 500 pages and spans almost the entire 20th century, appears to be Mo Yan’s grab for the brass ring, i.e., the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author of innumerable short stories and three previous novels -- most notably Red Sorghum, which was made into a well-regarded and popular film -- turns 50 next year, and even at that relatively early age has long been an important voice in China, where he has spoken out courageously for freedom and individualism, and in the world, where he is properly regarded as representing his country’s hopes for unconstrained literary and artistic expression. The Swedish Academy, which leaps at any chance to mix literature with politics, might well find in Mo Yan just the right writer through whom to send a message to the Chinese Communist leadership.

According to Howard Goldblatt, Mo’s American translator and passionate advocate, Mo has said: “If you like, you can skip my other novels, but you must read Big Breasts & Wide Hips. In it I wrote about history, war, politics, hunger, religion, love, and sex.” That is no exaggeration. Big Breasts & Wide Hips goes for all the marbles. It calls to mind a couple of other novels of fairly recent vintage that attempt to embrace the history of the author’s country (Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children) or continent (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). It calls them to mind, but it falls well short of the heights they achieve. Its ambition is laudable, and its humanity is self-evident, but it only infrequently achieves literary grace or distinction.

Granted, literary quality in translations is always difficult to appraise fairly unless the reader knows the language being translated, and Chinese is notoriously difficult to render in English. Goldblatt (who teaches Asian studies at Notre Dame) appears to be near-universally regarded as the leading English-language translator of fiction from the Chinese, so presumably he has struck that difficult balance between fidelity to the original and readability in translation. The result is a novel with clear if rather uninspired prose, loose narrative structure and a profusion of characters, many of whom are interesting and strong, but the Western reader has difficulty distinguishing one from the other because of the unfamiliarity of their Chinese proper names. Goldblatt fortunately has supplied a “List of Principal Characters,” and I found myself flipping back to it over and over again: Who is Sha Yueliang, who is Sha Zaohua, who is Sima Ting, who is Sima Ku?

For some reason Goldblatt does not tell us, in his otherwise very helpful introduction, that Mo Yan (which means “don’t speak”) is the pen name of Guan Moye, about whom you can read much of interest at http://www.china.org.cn/english/NM-e/68238.htm. He was born to a peasant family in Shandong Province in eastern China (which he fictionalizes as Northeast Gaomi County, his version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) and, Goldblatt writes, had “little formal schooling before being sent out into the fields to tend livestock and then into factories during the disastrous decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976),” which he satirizes to stinging effect in this novel. He seems to be almost entirely self-educated; he acknowledges having read and admired the Latin American novelists of “the Boom,” but insists that his own country and his own experience are the raw materials from which his work is drawn.

Among the many convictions of Mo Yan’s that surface in Big Breasts & Wide Hips, none is more prominent than his passionate feminism. It’s easy to be a feminist in the West, but something else altogether in China, where women for centuries have been exploited, undervalued and often despised, where “the cruel reality [was] that for a woman, not getting married was not an option, not having children was not acceptable, and having only daughters was nothing to be proud of. The only road to status in a family was to produce sons.” That is a description of attitudes in China between the world wars; more recently women have achieved certain rights and opportunities, but the government’s attempt to limit families to one child and the wide availability of Chinese girl babies in the international adoption market make plain that old attitudes linger. In taking such a strong feminist position, Mo is very much against the grain.

The woman around whom this immense novel revolves is Shangguan Lu, born Xuan’er in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, almost immediately orphaned when German soldiers murdered her father; her mother “had hidden her daughter . . . in a large flour vat before hanging herself from the rafter to preserve her chastity.” She grows up under the care of an aunt and uncle, marries the feckless Shangguan Shouxi, a blacksmith who “was as useless as a gob of snot outside the house and totally subservient in front of his mother,” as well as useless in the conjugal bed. In order to produce children she must stray, as she does over and over again, coming forth with one girl after another, to a total of seven before her final pregnancy, which yields twins: a blind girl and a son, Jintong (”Golden Boy”), upon whom she dotes and who is the narrator of most of the novel, though occasionally Mo reverts to omniscient narration.

Jintong is perhaps the novel’s principal failure. He is weak, spoiled, “useless, worse than useless,” selfish. He is meant to embody masculine weakness by contrast to all the female strength with which he is surrounded as symbolized by the female breasts with which he is obsessed, not as sexual objects but because “the only worthwhile things in my life were breasts and the milk they held.” He nurses at his mother’s teats, and then at a goat’s, until he is well into his teens. When his mother tries to wean him onto a bottle, “the yolk-colored rubber nipple . . . couldn’t compare with the real things on the tips of Mother’s breasts -- hers were love, hers were poetry, hers were the highest realm of heaven and the rich soil under golden waves of wheat -- nor could it compare with the large, swollen, speckled teats of my milk goat -- hers were tumultuous life, hers were surging passion.”

He is, in short, a momma’s boy and a pantywaist, a combination with which a reader may find it very difficult to connect. Obviously Mo intentionally made the novel’s principal male character as weak as he is (another leading male character, Sima Ku, a fierce and resourceful warrior, is “a bastard, but he’s also a man worthy of the name”), but he gives the reader nothing to care about, except to wish that Jintong would get off the teat and grow up.

The female characters, though, are almost uniformly terrific, which leaves one to lament that Mo methodically kills most of them off: one who attempts to fly by leaping off a cliff, one who is executed by Red troops, one who is killed by Japanese soldiers during World War II. They die off, but they do so spectacularly and bravely. Unlike Jintong, who barely has the courage to accept a woman’s sexual overtures, these women are, in their different ways, warriors. Indeed, readers familiar with Ang Lee’s spectacular film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” will feel at moments as if Mo had transported them right into it.

Mo does heavy drama -- war, violence, natural upheavals -- uncommonly well. Though World War II ended a decade before he was born, no scenes in the novel are more vivid than those involving Japanese brutality against ordinary Chinese civilians and Chinese guerrilla resistance. He gets the Red Guards exactly right, with their ridiculous accusations (posting “notices such as: “Traitor’s Family, Landlord Restitution Corps Nest, and Whore’s House”) and their random, vicious brutality. He’s not much kinder to the new China. As one of the younger characters puts it: “No more class, no more struggles. All anyone can see these days is money.”

The sweep of the novel is broad and bold. It’s fiction in the grand, triple-decker tradition, Dickens gone to China and finding as much human raw material as England ever offered. If it has flaws, they mostly are those of ambition, of reaching further and higher than the material can bear. There’s nothing wrong with that.

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