Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan

Are women really wonderful things? Maybe they are. Yes, women are wonderful things, but when all is said and done, they aren’t really ‘things’.
— Mo Yan, Big Breast and Wide Hips

A slightly perverted and definitely violent read, Mo Yan makes Big Breasts and Wide Hips worth it with his wonderful writing,  archetypal characters, and his interest in portraying women as the. b(r)e(a)st. ever. 

With magic and many, many words, Yan tells the history of the Shangguan family and China's last 100 years simultaneously. Beginning in 1900 following the Boxer Rebellion, we zone in on Shangguan Lu, the narrator's, Shangguan Jintong's, mother. Orphaned as an infant, she is adopted by her aunt and uncle, who bind her feet and know her early on as a phoenix among ordinary men and women. Despite this, she is married to a blacksmith and suffers incredible brutality at both his hands and the hands of his mother-in-law when she cannot, first, produce a child and, later, produce a son. She has seven daughters, almost all by different men, because her husband is infertile and she must fulfill her family's wish of having a son. In 1939, as the Japanese are attacking, he and his twin sister are born. Finally, a son.

As the decades unfold, we come to learn a little about each of his eight sisters, the inspiring men they marry, and the offspring they leave with Mother - Shangguan Lu. The family grows and grows in those first years, sometimes with Mother nursing as many as four infants at once. She nurses none as much as Jintong, who continues to want to nurse from her well into his teens, and who goes on to develop a wild fascination with women's breasts and their lifeblood. Meanwhile, through the Sino-Japanese War, civil war, the Korean war, the Great Leap Forward and its famine and the Cultural Revolution, his sisters and their offspring come and go, in and out of scene, living and dying in always unexpected and extreme ways. The Shangguan family, no doubt, leaves behind a mighty legacy.

My nursing process over the long winter months was shrouded in anxiety, for when my lips were wrapped around the left nipple, all I could think about was the right one... Falling under the control of that feeling, I’d quickly switch nipples, leaving the left one, from which milk had just begun to flow, for the right one; but I’d no sooner begun to suck there than I’d switch back to the left.
— Mo Yan, Big Breasts and Wide Hips

In the introduction, it is noted that Yan "draws attention to what he sees as a regression of the human species and a dilution of the Chinese character...; 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." It is a gloomy vision indeed, but also mystically alive, with the presence of ghosts and Bird Fairies and revolutionaries and heroes and villains, daughters lost and daughters returned, and dozens upon dozens of descriptions of and longing for breasts. This central obsession adds humor to the gloomy disposition and often gloomy characters' outcomes of this book. 

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.
— Mo Yan, Big Breasts and Wide Hips

Having carried this brick of a book around for a few years now, I am so pleased to have finally read it, and will remember the Shangguan family well. Mo Yan jokes that if you were to read only one of his books, it should be this one, and I can only agree. They are the family of dragons and phoenixes, and their history is intertwined with the history of modern China, rising through the ashes, feminine, powerful and matriarchal.