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Mo Yan: 丰乳肥臀 (Big Breasts and Wide Hips)

This is Mo Yan’s big novel, a long novel that delves into Chinese history of the twentieth century, though, for the most part, staying firmly in place in Mo Yan’s native Gaomi. Much of the story is followed through the eyes of Jintong, the youngest of nine and only son of Shangguan Lu, known throughout the book as Mother, except when she was a child when she was called Xuan’er. The story actually starts on the day Jintong is born in 1936, which happens to be the day that the Japanese invade the town. However, Mo Yan gives us a summary of Mother’s history. In 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion, Mother’s parents had both been killed by German troops. She, a baby, had barely survived and had been found and then brought up by her aunt and uncle. She had to undergo the usual rituals, in particular bound feet. However, when she grows up, bound feet are frowned upon, so the blacksmith dares to propose marriage between Xuan’er and his son Shangguan Shouxi. This is reluctantly accepted and Xuan’er has to go and live with Shangguan Lü, her despotic mother-in-law, and her husband. Her mother-in-law starts becoming even more despotic when Xuan’er does not produce any children. However, she and her family eventually realise that it is her husband who is infertile and not her. First her uncle has sex with her and she produces two daughters, which does not really please her mother-in-law. Further men come and go, including itinerant peddlers, a doctor, a monk and, finally a rape by four deserters. Every time the result is a girl. Finally, Pastor Malory, the local priest who claims to be Swedish, though he speaks the local dialect perfectly, falls in love with her. Mother becomes pregnant and goes into labour as the Japanese troops arrive. Despite her midwife being shot by the Japanese, her daughters in full panic and the local vet only reluctantly offering his help, she manages to deliver another girl and then, immediately after, Jintong.

However, the war has arrived. The local militia, one of whom will end up marrying one of Mother’s daughters, and the local steward and his younger brother (who will end up marrying another of mother’s daughters) organise resistance to the Japanese, primarily by burning the key bridge. But the war will be hard for all of them. The town is occupied by various troops, Japanese and Chinese, some of whom are nice and some of whom aren’t. They will face many hardships, including starvation, violence and having to sell one Mother’s daughters to a rich woman. One daughter will become the Bird Fairy, a sort of bird goddess and, for a while, will earn money for them as the well-to-do come and consult her. One will join a guerrilla group. Jintong’s twin sister, of whom we hear little, is blind. Mother struggles to support the family, including her mother-in-law, and struggles to survive. Jintong, however, has only one aim, which is, as the title indicates, breasts, in particular breast-feeding. He continues to enjoy being breast-fed till he is seven. He naturally loves his mother’s full breasts but, when he can’t get hers, he will look for other breasts, particularly those of his sisters, who, naturally, are less enthusiastic and less able to breast-feed him. This fetish continues for many years and even when he is finally weaned off milk and not solid food, he has a relapse.

But that is the least of their troubles. After the war, the Sima family comes back to take over where it left off. Fortunately, one of the sisters is married to Sima Ku, the war hero. But things are changing, with the arrival of the communists and the Simas are soon driven out. Things get worse, with flood, famine and civil war, all of which affect the village and the family. Some die but others are born. The Shangguan family are something of outcasts as they are deemed to have been high-class peasants and they pay the price for that and for being related to the Sima family, till they are reclassified. Mo Yan gives us both wonderful descriptions and fascinating stories of these troubled times. During the Cultural Revolution, things get even worse. The family is abused. Several die, often brutally, though some manage to make their way. Famine and floods come back even more forcefully.

Meanwhile, we follow the fate of Jintong. Sometimes, Mo Yan tells his story in the third person and sometimes Jintong himself narrates his story. Will he grow up and become a man or is he always going to be weak? He, too, faces his travails, including a work farm, imprisonment and a mental institution. He is beaten up by Red Guards, set upon by thieves, almost drowned, raped by a fox-woman and married to a woman he does not love. All the while, history moves on, through the Cultural Revolution and up to the present-day of semi-capitalism.

Mo Yan said If you like, you can skip my other novels, but you must read Big Breasts and Wide Hips. In it I wrote about history, war, politics, hunger, religion, love and sex. And he is right. It is a big novel, in the sense he describes, but it also tells of the ups and downs the specific family faces and, in particular, Mother and Jintong. They and their family are very real characters and the novel works exceptionally well on both levels. Mo Yan clearly has his favourites – Mother for her dogged perseverance, Sima Ku, who becomes a bandit chief, and Jintong, whom he does not necessarily admire but whom he feels for, like a parent for a difficult child – and those he does not like, for example the Red Guards, do not come out well, but it remains a superb novel of twentieth century China.

Publishing history

First published in Chinese 1996 by Tso-Chia ch’u-pan she, Taipei
First published in English 2004 by Arcade
Translated by Howard Goldblatt