Literature always provides an excellent platform where authors can present some of the happenings in the society in an artistry manner through fiction. According to Eoyang, authors always use the power of their imagination to depict what happens in the world in such a way that it is not only meant to entertain, but also to teach and offer some guidance on various issues in life.1
Fiction can also be considered as a rich source of history, because most of the writers usually base their story on real events that took place some time back in their lives, or events taking place during the time of their writing. This means that in most cases, it would be possible to detect some form of similarity on works of different authors who had a similar experience in life that shaped the content of their works.
As Fong notes, one of the areas to detect such similarities would be the guiding theme in the works, the type of the language used, and some of the historical references made.2 In this study, the researcher intends to analyze two fictions with the view of identifying some of the similarities and differences they exhibit.
The book ‘To Live’ by Hua Yu and ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’ by Yan Mo were both written in the context of cultural practices in the East Asian, and their transformations in modern China and Japan. Although the two books were written in different timeframes, they both present the transformation of the East Asia from the historical perspective, the two books are presents issues relating to gender, ethics, and environmental concern in this region.
This makes it necessary to conduct a comparative analysis of the two books in order to determine some of the similarities that they present. Comparing these two literatures helps in construction of the social structure of the people of East Asia. These scholars have given detailed discussion of the social structure of the people of the East, especially the Chinese social and cultural practices.
Comparative analysis of these two literatures helps in bringing a detailed understanding of the historic facts in this region. The two books will be discussed to determine some of common and different issues they have in terms of style, theme presented, and any other stylistic features they could have in common.
Common Themes in the Two Books
These two books share a number of themes, especially concerning the virtues in the society, and some of the historical facts of this country. It is important to note that the two literatures were written in the context of East Asian cultural practices. Both books try to depict the cultural practices of the Chinese people, and the way they related with their neighbor, especially Japan.
As mentioned previously, these two books were written two different individuals at different times, but both were based on Chinese social background. This means that although they could have some differences in the themes presented, it would be easy to depict similarities, especially in the social practices. The following are some of the similar topics discussed in these two books.
Immorality and Unfaithfulness
The authors of these two books were concerned of the ethical practices that were common in their society. Although in both books the authors do not complain directly of the rotting culture and the rampant immorality, the manner in which they present immorality shows that they are not pleased with the vice. In the book ‘To Live’, the character in the story talks about several incidences of immorality right from the beginning.
The narrator recalls several incidences in his life when he was sent to collect stories and songs from a certain village. While working in this village, the narrator talks of cases when he would meet people engaging in immoral affairs disregarding the fact that some were already married. For instance, the man describes an old man with a bloody nose on a ridge, who was only in his panty.
The old man had a swollen face, and the narrator got concerned. He wanted to know what could have caused the bruises. The old man stated that the ungrateful son had hit him. The narrator concluded, “… the old man must have been putting the moves on his daughter-in-law.”3 This is not only an immoral act, but also a sign of unfaithfulness on the side of the daughter-in-law towards the husband.
The act is an incest. This book also presents another story about Fugui, an old poor farmer. The narrator meets him on one of the days when he is in the field collecting songs and stories. Fugui tells the narrator about his early life and his ‘whoring’4 character despite being married.
In the book ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’, the theme of immorality and unfaithfulness is also presented in a clear conscious manner. In this book, we meet Shangguan Lu, the wife to Shangguan Fulu, who is a blacksmith. She has bent over to sweep in front of her shop. Suddenly, Pastor Malory appears from behind the church. Seeing the woman bent, he stares at her lustfully: “…His heart skipped a beat, his lips quivered…” and “…Dear Lord, he muttered, almighty God…”5
The pastor then moves to a corner where he is able to observe Fulu’s wife better without her realizing that someone is watching her exposed thighs6 while she was sweeping. The pastor’s acts clearly demonstrate that he is longing for an intimate affair with someone’s wife. This is not only a betrayal to his religious teachings, but also betraying the faithful people who trust his leadership and ethical views.
Moreover, this book demonstrates various instances where married men would walk out of their matrimonial beds and engage in immoral affairs with other women. In fact, the story shows how lust ‘for big breasts and wide hips7’ is forcing some men into illicit relationships with women who are not their wives.
Disrespect in the society
Respect is one of the most cherished virtues in the society, and many of the East Asian literatures have always expressed this in different ways, especially the need to respect the elderly and those in power. The two have clearly illustrated lack of respect in the society from various perspectives. In both cases, it is clearly presented that lack of respect to the elderly and those in authority comes with some consequences.
The people who should be given honor are treated by contempt. In the book ‘To Live’, the lack of respect is demonstrated in various ways, even among little children. When the narrator gets into one village he frequented in the past, children start shouting: ‘Here comes the man who yawns quite often.’8 This is a clear lack of respect showed by these children.
They must have learnt this bad habit from their parents and other senior members of the society. The old man who is hit by the son lacked respect for the son, when he made a sexual move on his son’s wife. The son also displayed disrespectful behavior by beating up the father without mercy. Fugui would dismiss the father when he tells him that his conduct is untoward.
One day when the father tried to punish him for his gambling, he shoved the old man away, hurting him in the process. As a son, it would be expected that Fugui would never dare to lay his hand on the father who has been doing all he could to shape his life for a better future. Fugue also lacks respect to the father-in-law.
While ‘riding on the back of a fat whore’, he would tell the ‘whore’ to stop by the father-in-law’s shop so that he could greet the family. He continued with this disrespectful habit even after being told that the father-in-law abhorred his presence. Same incidents can be witnessed in the book ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’ on various instances.
Shangguan Lu, the wife to the blacksmith Fulu, shows a lot of dishonor to her husband. She commands every activity happening in the family without giving her husband an opportunity to offer his opinion as the head of the family. “I asked you a question!” she says to the husband, “What do you gain by showing me those yellow teeth? I can’t get a fart out of you, even with a stone roller.”9
A wife should not express herself to the husband in this manner, especially in front of their son and daughter-in-law. It is a clear demonstration that she does not consider her husband as a person who deserves any form of respect.
Abused Marriages and Families
Another common theme that comes out of the two books focuses on the abused marriages. In the two cases, we witness marriage partners engaging in abusive acts against their wives or husbands. In the book To Live, Fugui has been proven very abusive towards his pregnant wife. Despite being unfaithful to her, he would come home late at night drunk and dirty, demanding for food from her.
Any form of delay or complaint would earn her beatings from the man. She respects Fugui a lot and rarely talks about his unfaithfulness or irresponsible behavior to other people. However, the husband sees this as a weakness and abuses the wife verbally and even physically at times.
The same topic is presented in the book, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. Shangguan Lu is described as a women abusive to all the family members. She does not respect the husband who esteems her so much. She would dismiss him in their discussion in front of other people. She regards her husband’s opinion as being inferior to her. Lu is also abusive to other members of the society.
She shows not respect to her son, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter. Besides the woman tells the son: “I never hear an encouraging, proper sentence from that mouth of yours, and you never tire of spouting nonsense and rumors.”10 This phrase is made in reference to a statement the son made about foreign troops that are attacking the country.
The son has to keep quiet, fearing possible reactions from the mother. The latter also tells her grandchild to get married at a tender age because she is good for nothing in the family. The girl is depressed by the constant physical and emotional abuses from Lu.
In addition, it turns out that Shangguan Lu is physically abusing her husband, which can be observed in her saying: “Women are worthless creatures… so you have to beat them.”11 Upon hearing this statement, the husband asks, “Then why are you always beating me?”12 This question from Fulu demonstrates that his wife has formed a habit of beating him, and he has come to conform to this culture of abusive marriage.
Another similar theme that is outlined in the two books is Christianity as a common religion in the two societies. In the book, ‘To Live’, there are several instances where characters show their faith in the Christian teachings. Jiezhen, the wife of Fugui, believes in the biblical teachings, especially the need for a wife to respect and be submissive to the husband.
Although the man does not reciprocate this in his actions, she does not tire in her commitment to him. Fugui describes himself as “… the prodigal son of Xu family….”13 This is in reference to the biblical prodigal son who takes away his portion of wealth and squanders it in a foreign land. This means that he knows from the biblical teachings, that the path he has taken is wrong, but chooses to be like the prodigal son anyway.
Christianity can also be traced in the book, Big Breasts and Wide Hips. As it begins, we meet Pastor Malory, who is a man of God and has been given the responsibility of carrying for the faithful in the church. He is the head of this church, and the members of this society rely on him for spiritual guidance. One of the most loyal faithful is Shangguan Lu and her family.
Traditional practices and beliefs
The theme of tradition is exhibited in both books in several instances. In the novel ‘To Live’, this tradition is presented through the collection of songs the narrator had, and through the story of Fugui. The songs that the persona collects reflect on the traditional Chinese culture in the olden days. The narration by Fugui also shows some traditional beliefs.
When the father of Fugui realizes that the son has become lazy, he beseeches him that he is the only light in the family. He tells the son that he has to protect the legacy of the ancestors and ensure that the lineage remains as rich as it has always been in the past. This situation demonstrates a strict family pattern that exists in this country.
As Hagel notes, the Chinese culture has a strong social classification within the society, and it is difficult for one to come from one social class to another.14 Once born in a royal family, a person would remain in this loyalty for the entire life, unless something abnormal takes place. This is what the father was trying to explain to his son.
The same cultural practice is presented in Fulu’s family in the novel ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’. Shsngguan Fulu is a lazy blacksmith. The son Shangguan Shouxi also becomes a blacksmith like his father. Shouxi’s son is not ambitious to achieve higher success than that of his father, arguing that a man cannot compete against his shadow. When Shouxi’s wife dies, the mother conducts a traditional ritual that is common in the Chinese culture.
This is demonstrated in the sentence that says, “Shangguan Fulu presented a bolt of white cloth to a matchmaker… with a request that she approach the Yu family with a marriage proposal on behalf of her only son….”15 She does this as part of her traditional responsibility as a mother to her son. The marriages are also ‘registered’ in a traditional way, with mules given out as a bride price.
The social class, as mentioned above, is a common factor in the Chinese traditional society. Both novels have covered this aspect adequately. In the book ‘To Live’ social classes and class differences come out in various instances. Thus, the family of Fugui is very rich. and has slaves who work for them on their large track of land. Other servants also perform multiple tasks such as taking care of little Fugui when he has just started schooling.
The poor are treated like slaves having no rights. Fugui recalls how their servants respected his father when he was just a young boy. In his early life, a slave would be sent to school to take him home every evening. He would molest the slave who never dared to refuse his unfair instructions: “… After I climbed on (him), I’d hit him on the head as say, ‘Changgen, let’s go!… Fly”16 This is a treatment that befits a beast of burden such as an ox, and not a human being.
The book ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’ also brings to focus the issues of social class in this society. Fulu’s family is on the lower social class as compared to Fugui’s clan. Being a blacksmith, Fulu can barely earn enough for the family that is considered as one of the poorest in this society, and people look down upon them.
Although the principles and authoritativeness of Shangguan Lu earns the family some respect, this does not change the fact that the family is considered poor. This is witnessed when Shangguan Lu is making a proposal to Xuaner’s family. Xuaner askes: “Have I raised a proper young lady just so she can marry the son of a blacksmith?”17 This question demonstrates that Fulu’s family is on the lower social ladder.
Similarities in Stylistic Devices
As Huang says, an author is always given power to use various stylistic devices to make the story unique and interesting.18 Some of them are shared in a number of ways. The following are some of the devices that are common in both stories.
Story within a story
A story within a story is one of the most popular literary devices among writers. In the book ‘To Live’, this literary tool has been majorly used to bring out most of the themes in this story. The narrator is explaining his life when he goes to the field to collect songs and stories. In this narration, he tells of how he meets a desperate old man trying to overwork his ox.
Then, one could be acquainted with the story of the old man Fugui, which dominates in the better part of the book. This is the story within the story the narrator it presenting to his audience. In the book ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’, Shanggguan Lu describes a story about his life when the Japanese military forces controlled the entire region of the current China and Japan.
At that particular time, the Japanese forces are ruling the region. She remembers how strong the Chinese forces were then, and how they managed to keep the Japanese forces away from this land.
Use of dialogue
Dialogue is one of the most common literary devices that are always very popular in novels. According to Huang, dialogue brings life into a novel, as it creates a scene in the mind of the reader as he or she relates the character to a real life scenario.19 In the book ‘To Live’, dialogue has been used extensively throughout the story. There are cases where the author uses dialogue to present the societal issues in this book. The book, ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’ has also used this stylistic tool to highlight actions happening and the thoughts of the characters.
One could notice that premonition is evidenced in the two novels. In both cases, it has been utilized to predict the unpleasant future. In the book ‘To Live’, Fugui’s father tells the son that he is good for nothing and is a disgrace to the family. The man tells him that it would continue with his gambling habit then his future is bleak. This happens as has been predicted by the old man in his last days.
Fugui’s life became unbearable. He turns out to be one of the most desperate members of the society where his father is considered as one of the richest. In the book, ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’, Gou San would predict possible attack from the Japanese forces, and this comes to pass.
Differences between the two Novels
The two books under consideration are developed in the Chinese setting that explains why they have a lot of similarities. As Chang notes, it is common to find novels written in a same environmental setting share a number of themes and other features because of a common influence.20 However, the two books have some difference in terms of the central theme and some of the literary devices.
In the book ‘To Live’, the focus is on the life of Fugui, an extremely irresponsible son of a village tycoon. He gets hold of the family wealth and wastes it in gambling. However, he realizes his mistakes, repents, and changes his wayward ways. Although this comes when it is too late to spare the family from poverty, this character appreciates that he has been responsible for the misfortunes of the family.
On the other hand, ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’ presents Shangguan Lu who is very abusive to the husband. Unlike Fugui, Lu does not come to appreciate that physical abuse of the husband is a mistake that she should be avoided.
War with Japan (Historic Perspective)
The two books discussed present the military confrontation between the Chinese and Japanese military forces. However, the books describe two different eras. In the book, ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’, the story is told when the Japanese forces were stronger. They took control of many cities in this region and the Chinese were living in constant fear of possible attacks by the Japanese.
Sima Ting says: “… the Japanese are on their way… run, don’t trade your lives….”21 The book demonstrates that in this era the Japanese forces ruled the region, which is contrary to the message brought out in the book, ‘To Live’. The second story is told when the Chinese forces have managed to subdue the Japanese forces. They recaptured some of the territories they lost to the Japanese, and the region was generally free from any possible Japanese attacks.
In this regard, the narrator says, “The wildest time was just after the Japanese Surrender, when Nationalist troops entreated the city to recover the lost territory.”22 This shows that during this time, the Chinese forces managed to drive away the Japanese army away from the Chinese territory.
So, this story is told in a different era from that of the other book. The use of the story within a story as a literary style is more extensive in the book ‘To Live’ than it is in the book ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’.
The two pieces of writing discussed in the story written by different authors share a number of common factors and contain some differences. This situation can be explained by the fact that most of the works of fiction are always based on real life experience, and when authors share some environmental factors, it is common to find similar and contrasting issues.
The books ‘To Live’ and ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’ contain a number of similarities, especially in themes presented. They both talk about the Chinese culture and traditional practices. In addition, they cover some similar stylistic devices. However, it is important to note that the two novels also have clear differences in their central themes and some stylistic devices.
Chang, Kang. Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Eoyang, Eugene. The Transparent Eye: Reflections on Translation, Chinese Literature, and Comparative Poetics. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.
Fong, Grace, Herself and Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.
Hegel, Robert. Reading Chinese Illustrated Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Huang, Martin, Mapping Masculinity. University of Hawaii Press, 2006.
Huang, Martin. Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Yang, Mo. Big Breasts & Wide Hips: A Novel. New York: Arcade Publishers, 2004.
Yu, Hua. To Live: A Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 2003.
1 Eoyang, Eugene. The Transparent Eye: Reflections on Translation, Chinese Literature, and Comparative Poetics. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1988, p. 38
2 Fong, Grace, Herself and Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2008, p. 45
3 Hua, Yu, To Live: A Novel, New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. 3
4 Ibid p. 4
5Mo, Yang, Big Breasts & Wide Hips: A Novel, New York: Arcade Publishers, 2004, p. 2.
6 Ibid p. 2
7 Ibid p. 7
8Hua, Yu, To Live: A Novel, New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. 3
9 Ibid p. 5
10 Mo, Yang, Big Breasts & Wide Hips: A Novel, New York: Arcade Publishers, 2004, p. 13.
11 Ibid p. 65
12 Ibid p. 65
13 Ibid p. 9
14 Hegel, Robert. Reading Chinese Illustrated Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 78
15 Mo, Yang, Big Breasts & Wide Hips: A Novel, New York: Arcade Publishers, 2004, p. 117.
16 Ibid p. 81
17 Ibid p. 123
18 Huang, Martin. Desire and Fictional Narrative in Late Imperial China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 56
20 Chang, Kang. Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 74
21 Ibid p. 142
22 Hua, Yu, To Live: A Novel, New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. 21