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TitleBig Breasts and Wide Hips Mo Yan
TagsNovels Unrest Narration Narrative
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Big Breasts and Wide Hips

Mo Yan



Reviewed by Kenny Ng

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2005)


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


Mo Yan. Big Breasts and Wide Hips: A Novel. New York:

Arcade Publishing, 2004. 552 pp. US $27.00, ISBN:

1559706724 (cloth)

http://mclc.osu.edu/
http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/pubs/reviews/ng.htm#fn1
http://www.arcadepub.com/Book/index.cfm?GCOI=55970100633210

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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).

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http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/pubs/reviews/ng.htm#fn2

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