Big Breasts & Wide Hips by Mo Yan

Reviewed by Li Miao Lovett

Image of Big Breasts & Wide Hips by Mo Yan

At a time when Western eyes fixate on China's influence as a budding economic superpower, Mo Yan has turned his gaze inward on the vicissitudes of the last Chinese century. Big Breasts & Wide Hips is more than an act of catharsis; it's a nine-course sensual feast, peppered with colorful characters and hypnotic imagery.

The Shangguan family, whose matriarch bears eight girls and a boy by different fathers, live and die in a harsh landscape shaped by repeated political upheavals-the defeat of old dynasties and foreign invaders, and the persecutions under Mao's Communist regime. For Jintong, the bastard child of a Swedish pastor, the all-too-brief seductions of the maternal bosom are his mainstays in a tormented world.

Mo Yan deftly interweaves the whimsical with the tragic. Our young anti-hero fondles the breasts of a hundred and twenty village women as their designated Snow Prince, each pair coming to life as "stubborn hens" and "explosive quails," and the most ravishing of all-a one-pronged unicorn. Yet soon after, he is thrashed by school bullies, and their cruelty echoes the high-pitched violence and bloodshed of the times.

The novel begins with Jintong's birth against the backdrop of Japanese invasion, flashes back to Mother's life at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, then moves forward through relentless battles that result in the Communist takeover, followed by periods of political oppression and reform. The bulk of the story focuses on Jintong as a child, who rides through each episode of terror on the coattails of those who are stronger and bolder. Be prepared; there are a lot of dead bodies in this book. After a while, the mass violence takes on the aura of road kill, but Mo Yan keeps the reader riveted to the seat, and never fails to provide an anchor to the sights and smells of his native land. The breathtaking power of the Flood Dragon River reminds one that there are forces even greater than the flames of human conflict.

Throughout the political shifts, Jintong's sisters and their lovers gain ascendancy and rule in rapid succession, but no one is free from the onslaught of oppressions and psychic delusions. Here Mo Yan draws on magical realism that harkens back to the epic tales of Marquez. A lovelorn sister turns into the bird fairy, drawing devotees from all over who seek her prophecies. She possesses unearthly powers, yet she is undone by her own fantasies.

Allegorical tones reverberate throughout the novel, yet the narration seldom dwells on the actual political events that defined so much of China's life under Mao. The strongest members of the less fair sex are the deposed rulers of the Sima clan, the last of the old bourgeoisie. Translator Howard Goldblatt notes that only the Nationalist, Sima Ku, earns the mother's praise among her sons-in-law of different political persuasions. Sima Ku's surrender to the victors is one of the most poignant scenes in the book, a pivotal point in which the raw courage and primal lust he represents must yield at last to the ethos of a new China.

One of the daughters is a loyal Communist, and she becomes the township's mayor decades later, when Jintong returns from internal exile to a thriving city of commerce and concrete. Amidst the feverish pursuit of wealth in China's new market economy, his fetish becomes an asset. Yet the grownup Jintong never gets cured of his foibles, and his life continues to take one perverse turn after another. His desperation is reminiscent of the last days of Sima Ku many years before. "Heaven and earth both seemed so remote, eternity seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, thoughts that brought him profound anguish."

Toward the novel's end, the pace of change only accelerates, although I found the twists and turns somewhat chaotic. Jintong, a failed male heir, must learn to survive in a reformed, yet ruthless China. His problems could be blamed on character defects, or in grander terms, on the repercussions of war and patriarchy. But this book is more than an epic journey through China's recent past. Although known for his satire, Mo Yan shows a remarkable tenderness toward his main characters, and fallible as they may be, he celebrates their resilience. Like my father, many Chinese who have lived through revolution would rather forget the past, yet Mo Yan can shine a light into the darkness with honesty and earthy humor.