Big Breasts and Wide Hips

BOOK: Big Breasts and Wide Hips
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A
LSO BY
M
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Y
AN

Red Sorghum
The Garlic Ballads
The Republic of Wine
Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh

Copyright © 1996, 2011 by Mo Yan

English-language translation copyright © 2004, 2011 by Howard Goldblatt

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Arcade Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018.

Arcade Publishing books may be purchased in bulk at special discounts for sales promotion, corporate gifts, fund-raising, or educational purposes. Special editions can also be created to specifications. For details, contact the Special Sales Department, Arcade Publishing, 307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018 or
[email protected]
.

Arcade Publishing® is a registered trademark of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.®, a Delaware corporation.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

First published in China as
Feng ru fei tun
by Tso-chia ch'u-pan she

Visit our website at
www.arcadepub.com
.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.

ISBN: 978-1-61145-343-0

To the spirit of my mother

First Sister was stunned. “Mother,” she said, “you've changed.”

“Yes, I've changed,” Mother said, “and yet I'm still the same. Over the years, members of the Shangguan family have died off like stalks of chives, and others have been born to take their place. Where there's life, death is inevitable. Dying's easy; it's living that's hard. The harder it gets, the stronger the will to live. And the greater the fear of death, the greater the struggle to keep on living.”

—from
Big Breasts and Wide Hips

Introduction

No writer in recent memory has contributed more to the imagination of historical space in China or a reevaluation of Chinese society, past and present, than Mo Yan, whose
Red Sorghum
changed the literary landscape when it was published in 1987,
1
and was the first Chinese film to reap critical and box-office rewards in the West.
2
In the process of probing China's myths, official and popular, and some of the darker corners of Chinese society, Mo Yan has become the most controversial writer in China; loved by readers in many countries, he is the bane of China's official establishment, which has stopped the sale of more than one of his novels, only to relent when they are acclaimed outside the country

Born in 1955 into a peasant family in northern China, where a hardscrabble existence was the norm, Mo Yan received 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). His hometown, in quasi-fictional Northeast Gaomi County, is the setting for virtually all his novels; the stories he heard as a child from his grandfather and other relatives stoked his fertile imagination, and have found an outlet in a series of big, lusty, and always controversial novels, the earliest of which, in a delicious quirk of irony, were written while Mo Yan was serving as an officer in the People's Liberation Army.

Mo Yan styles himself as a writer of realist, often historical fiction, which is certainly true, as far as it goes. Like the Latin American creators of magic realism (whose works Mo Yan has read and enjoyed, but, he insists, have exerted no influence on his own writing), he stretches the boundaries of “realism” and “historicism” in new, and frequently maligned, directions. Official histories and recorded “facts” are of little interest to this writer, who routinely blends folk beliefs, bizarre animal imagery, and a variety of imaginative narrative techniques with historical realities — national and local, official and popular — to create unique and uniquely satisfying literature, writing of such universally engaging themes and visceral imagery that it easily crosses national borders.

Following the success of
Red Sorghum
, a fictional autobiography of three generations of Gaomi Township freedom fighters during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945), Mo Yan wrote (in less than a month) a political, if not polemical, novel in the wake of a 1987 incident that pitted impoverished garlic farmers against the mendacity of corrupt officials. And yet the unmistakable rage that permeates the pages of
The Garlic Ballads
(1988; 1995) is tempered by traces of satire, which will blossom in later works, and a lacerating parody of official discourse. Viewed by the government as likely to stir up emotions during the vast popular demonstrations in 1989 that led to the Tiananmen massacre, the novel was pulled from the shelves for several months. That the peasant uprising was crushed, both in the real world and in Mo Yan's novel, surely gave the leaders of China little comfort as they faced students, workers, and ordinary citizens in the square where a million frenzied citizens once hailed the vision of Chairman Mao.

Mo Yan's next offering was
Thirteen Steps
(1989), a heavily sardonic novel whose insane, caged protagonist begs for chalk from his listeners to write out a series of bizarre tales and miraculous happenings; in the process, the reader is caught up in the role of mediator. In narrative terms, it is a tour de force, a tortuous journey into the mind of contemporary China.

In a speech given at Denver's The Tattered Cover bookstore in 2000, Mo Yan made the following claim:
U
I can boast that while many contemporary Chinese writers can produce good books of their own, no one but me could write a novel like
The Republic of Wine”
(1992; 2000).
3
Compared by critics to the likes of Lawrence Stern's
Tristram Shandy,
4
this Swiftian satire chronicles the adventures of a government detective who is sent out to investigate claims that residents of a certain provincial city are raising children for food, in order to satisfy the jaded palates of local officials. The narrative, interrupted by increasingly outlandish short stories by one of the novel's least sympathetic characters, gradually incorporates “Mo Yan” into its unfolding drama, until all the disparate story lines merge in a darkly carnivalesque ending. Indeed, no other contemporary novelist could have written this satirical masterpiece, and few could have gotten away with such blatant attacks on China's love affair with exotic foods and predilection for excessive consumption, not to mention egregious exploitation of the peasantry.

As the new millennium approached, Mo Yan once again undertook to inscribe his idiosyncratic interpretation of China's modern history, this time incorporating nearly all of the twentieth century, a bloody century in China by any standard. Had he been a writer of lesser renown, one bereft of the standing, talent, and international visibility that served as a protective shield, he might well not have been able to withstand the withering criticism that followed the 1996 publication of his biggest novel to date (nearly a half million words in the original version, a “book as thick as a brick,” in his own words),
Big Breasts and Wide Hips.
This novel, with its eroticism and, in the eyes of some, inaccurate portrayal of modern China's political landscape, would have sparked considerable controversy had it simply appeared in the bookstores. But when, after its serialized publication (1995) in a major literary magazine,
Dajia
, it was awarded the first Dajia Prize of 100,000 renminbi (roughly $12,000), the outcry from conservative critics was immediate and shrill. The judges for this nongovernmental prize had the following to say about a novel that its supporters have called a “somber historical epic”:

Big Breasts and Wide Hips
is a sumptuous literary feast with a simple, straightforward title. In it, with undaunted perseverance and passion, Mo Yan has narrated the historical evolution of Chinese society in a work that covers nearly the entire twentieth century…. It is a literary masterpiece in the author's distinctive style.

The judges took note of the author's skillful alternation of first-and third-person narration and his use of flashback and other deft writing techniques. As for the arresting title, Mo Yan wrote in a 1995 essay that the “creative urge came from his deep admiration for his mother and … the inspiration [for] the title was derived from his experience of seeing an ancient stone sculpture of a female figure with protruding breasts and buttocks.”
5
That did not still his critics, for whom concerns over his evocation of the female anatomy were of lesser consequence than his treatment of China's modern history.

While the novel opens on the eve of the Sino-Japanese War (1936), with the birth of the central male character, Shangguan Jintong, and his twin sister, the narration actually begins in time (chapter 2) at the turn of the century, in the wake of the failed Boxer Rebellion, in which troops from eight foreign nations crushed an indigenous, anti-foreign rebellion and solidified their presence in China. As in Mo Yan's earlier novel,
Red Sorghum
, the central, and in many ways defining, events occur during the eight years of war with Japan, all on Chinese soil. For Mo Yan, the earlier decades, while not peaceful by any means, are notable for personal, rather than national, events. It is the time of Mother's childhood, marriage, and the birth of her first seven children — all daughters and all by men other than her sterile husband. The national implications become clear when Mother's only son, Jintong, arrives, the offspring of Swedish Malory, the alien “Other.”

The bulk of the novel then takes the reader through six turbulent decades, from the Sino-Japanese War, in which two defending factions (Mao's Communists and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists) fought one another almost as much as they fought, and usually succumbed to, the Japanese. It is here that Mo Yan has particularly angered his critics, in that he has created heroes and turncoats that defy conventional views, resulting in a “sycophantic, shameless work that turns history upside down, fabricates lies, and glorifies the Japanese fascists and the Landlord Restoration Corps [groups of landed individuals who went over to Nationalist-controlled areas after the War when their land was redistributed by the Communists],” in the words of one critic. Of the several male figures in the novel, excluding the foreigner, whose “potency” cannot save him and stigmatizes his offspring, one is a patriot-turned-collaborator, another is a leader of Nationalist forces, and two are Communists (a commander and a soldier); all marry one or more of Mother's daughters, but only one, the Nationalist, earns Mother's praise: “He's a bastard,” she says, “but he's also a man worthy of the name. In days past, a man like that would come around once every eight or ten years. I'm afraid we've seen the last of his kind.”

Big Breasts and Wide Hips
is, of course, fiction, and while it deals with historical events (selectively, to be sure), it is a work that probes and reveals broader aspects of society and humanity, those that transcend or refute specific occurrences or canonized political interpretations of history. Following Japan's defeat in Asia in 1945, China slipped into a bloody civil war between Mao's and Chiang's forces, ending in 1949 with a Communist victory and the creation of the People's Republic of China. Unfortunately for the Shangguan family, as for citizens throughout the country, peace and stability proved to be as elusive in “New China” as in the old. The first seventeen years of the People's Republic witnessed a bloody involvement in the Korean War (1950-53), a period of savage instances of score-settling and political realignments, the disastrous “Great Leap Forward,” which led to three years of famine that claimed millions of lives, and the Cultural Revolution. In defiance of more standard historical fiction in China, which tends to foreground major historical events, in Mo Yan's novel they are mere backdrops to the lives of Jintong, his surviving sisters, his nieces and nephews, and, of course, Mother. It is here that the significance of Shangguan Jintong's oedipal tendencies and impotence become apparent.
6
In a relentlessly unflattering portrait of his male protagonist, Mo Yan draws attention to what he sees as a regression of the human species and a dilution of the Chinese character (echoing sentiments first encountered in
Red Sorghum);
in other words, a failed patriarchy. Ultimately, it is the strength of character of (most, but not all) the women that lends hope to the author's gloomy vision.

BOOK: Big Breasts and Wide Hips
4.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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