Big Breasts and Wide Hips
Author: Pen name: Mo Yan 莫言. Real name: Guǎn Móyè 管谟业
(First published in 1996 in Chinese; 2005 in English)
Big Breasts and Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀 is the second novel I’ve read by Mo Yan, the first being The Garlic Ballads天堂蒜薹之歌”. Both novels are set in Mo Yan’s native Shandong Province, in the village of Gaomi, but any similarities end there. The Garlic Ballads is a depiction of corruption in rural China in the early 1980s, a period when the old certainties of communism fade and unbridled market forces are unleashed. Big Breasts and Wide Hips is a long journey through the tumultuous history of 20th century China: it’s a saga of endless wars, revolutions and violent political persecutions; a desperate time when bayoneting Japanese soldiers, marauding Communist and Nationalist troops, famine, starvation, murderous family infighting, corruption and a whole cast of vile characters all play their part in wreaking havoc on Gaomi village.
The heroine is Shanguan Lű. From her birth, in the middle of a massacre during the Boxer Rebellion, her life is an incredible story of survival and the irrepressible will to live on, through some of the most desperate situations a human being may have to endure.
Shanguan Lű, whose husband is impotent, has eight daughters and eventually one son, all by different men. Jintong, the son, who was fathered by a foreign priest, is the narrator of the story.
Jintong’s sexual hang ups, impotence and general inability to be of any use, make him a both an original and fascinating chronicler of the epic events that marked China in the 20th century, such as the Japanese invasion, the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping. Under such extreme and often adverse circumstances Shanguan Lű is forced to take drastic measures: at times selling her daughters for adoption, or into whoring. Other daughters find themselves joining bands of outlaws, or turning into staunch Communists.
Mo Yan shows no compassion for the characters he creates. They are often dispensed with, with a sudden, brutal and unexpected ruthlessness. The scenes that are played out in Mo Yan’s twentieth century rural China are nothing less than a Hobbesian battle for survival: the country, already on its knees, is racked by one tragedy after another, its moments of peace mere interludes before the next disaster begins. Shanguan Lű’s determination to continue living in some way seems to mirror China’s own immense struggle to survive and emerge alive from the 20th century.
Like many of Mo Yan’s works, Big Breasts and Wide Hips is banned in China. The reason is probably his refusal to make a simplistic distinction between the Good and the Bad. In this story: the Japanese, the Nationalists and the Communist alike; all are capable of committing unspeakably cruel acts. Why? Poverty, ignorance, greed and revenge are among the essential ingredients.
Warning: Not a book to read when depressed!