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Literature of East Asia Research Paper


The works of the modern Chinese authors represent the integral part of the world literature heritage. In contrast to the past times, the modern authors tend to feel themselves free to express their thoughts.

At the same time, the publication of many of their novels reflects their bold action taking into account the political conditions in the modern China. In this respect, the literary works by Mo Yan and Yu Hua deserve a special attention. The aim of this paper is to analyze the major themes and the historic background of the novels Big Breast and Wide Hips by Mo Yan and To Live by Yu Hua.

Big Breast and Wide Hips is the novel by the outstanding Chinese author Mo Yan. The work is about the family relationships in China. The author gives us a broad picture of the Chinese history of the XX century by describing the major social and cultural events occurred in China up to the 1980s. Big Breast and Wide Hips is not just a family saga. It is the narration about the Chinese history. All the characters of Yan’s work are rather symbolic.

At the same time, the novel is written in the genre of naturalism and, thus, is aimed at representing the reality as it factually is without any exaggerations and embellishments. This style in literature appeared in the XVIII century in Europe. “And for all its commitment to consolidating the indigenous imaginary, a national literature cannot distinguish itself till it has enacted a dialogue with the literature of other nations and traditions” (Hsia 24).

It can be said that the novel by Mo Yan provides a link between the Eastern and Western literatures by reflecting the European literary traditions in the context of the Chinese culture and history. In this respect, the novel by Mo Yan is interesting as it represents the naturalism movement in the Chinese literature. At the same time, the scholars argue that “the traditional critical practice of seeking the linkage between literature and history has been reinvigorated in recent years under the slogan “always historicize”” (Hsia 28).

In the novel Big Breast and Wide Hips, Mo Yan aimed at presenting the true picture of the Chinese history of the XX century by the example of the one single family. The naturalistic approach of the author is represented in his detailed and unbiased reflection of the reality. Taking into account that the naturalism was introduced in contrast to any ideology, the publication of the novel Big Breast and Wide Hips in the communist China was the bold action of its author.

The literary approach of the author can be referred to the Objectification of the Subject, which reflects the idea that the human nature expresses itself in the surrounding world.

This view represented a fundamental change in the literature and art symbolizing the transit from the reflection of the artistically and literary described objects to the description of their real essences in the objective world. “From the philosophical viewpoint, human creative activity is no longer the activity of consciousness but an activity involving an entire existence” (Kang & Tang 64).

The historic period depicted in the novel Big Breast and Wide Hips covered the times of the crucial historic events in the Chinese history including the end of the Qing dynasty, Japanese invasion in the 1930s, the civil war, the Cultural Revolution, and the Post-Mao years (Yan 2). Each of these periods influenced the social development significantly. The dynasty of Qing was the last ruling dynasty in the Empire of China (Yan 2).

In 1911, the group of soldiers stirred up the rebellion in the artillery garrison in the town of Wuchang. The population of the town joined the insurgents and supported the opposition. The Wuchang revolt was, essentially, the beginning of the revolution, which would subsequently result in the fall of the empire and the proclamation of the Chinese Republic.

Lydia Liu in her book The Clash of Empires examines the background of the independent judgments and the sovereign thinking. The author argues that their roots lie in the unconscious of power, which is the product of people’s mentality and which directs their minds towards the breakdown of the old order and to the radical changes (Liu 20). Undoubtedly, the psychology of revolution is one of the important themes uncovered in the novel by Mo Yan.

The author pays much attention to the events of the War of Resistance, which occurred in the period of 1937-1945 and was aimed at the liberation of China from the Japanese invasion. This period was characterized by the tough geopolitical situation in the region and in the whole world. The leaders of the most powerful states made the decisions vital for the mankind as a whole. It was the period of the World War II, when Japan supported the Nazi Germany.

The ideology played not the last role in the events of that time. It was not only the war of military; it was the war of thoughts. China was supported by the socialist USSR, which provided the substantial aid to the Chinese communists and played a crucial role in the capitulation of Japan. The American and British marine and air military forces won a series of victories over the Japanese army. All these events laid the foundation for the liberation of China from the Japanese invasion.

The contribution of Mo Yan in the Chinese and world history boils down to the fact that he gives his own unbiased opinion on the events of that time. His novel is the reflection of his ideas. The author makes the readers see that, actually, the Sino-Japanese War was not only the war against the Japanese invasion as it was the civil war in China as well. The Chinese soldiers fought not only against the foreign enemy but they fought against each other. And that was the war of the different ideologies.

“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 the history upside down, fabricates lies, and glorifies the Japanese fascists and the Landlord Restoration Corps”, in the words of one critic” (Yan 2).

However, the plot of the novel Big Breast and Wide Hips is much richer and far more complicated than the simple narration of the historic events. The author masterly intertwines the destinies of the main characters with the fate of the whole nation. It is not surprising that he has chosen such a provocative title for his work. Big Breast and Wide Hips is, probably, the reflection of the human fanaticism and addiction to the certain ideas.

Jintong, one of the main characters, is chronically addicted to the women’s breasts. His sexual desires influence his way of thinking and his whole life. His compulsive ideas and desires symbolically represent the ideological and political views, which shake the Chinese society of the first half of the XX century.

Jintong is a sexual impotent and this fact makes his character correspond to the historic stance of the Chinese society of that time. The author tries to say that it was ill with the compulsive ideas, while being the impotent to withstand the pressure of the political ideology. The author makes us think that the failure in the democratic society building in China was the result of the inability to overcome the urge of the ideological propaganda.

Unarguably, the theme of sexuality takes one of the central places in the novel by Mo Yan. However, it is not only expressed through the character of Jintong. We can see that another heroine of the novel, Shangguan Lu, is the victim of the sexual desires. The author puts an additional emphasis on her image of “mother”. Shangguan Lu gives birth to seven children and she strives to survive under the extremely hard life conditions.

Some of her children have been born as a result of the insect or rape. One of her daughters has been born in the battlefield. This episode deserves a special attention in context of the novel analysis. We can clearly see that the author reflects not only the external environment: the war, battlefield, deaths, but also the inner thoughts of the mother, who is giving the rise to the new life, while being the observer of the deaths of others.

Undoubtedly, it is one of the most emotionally intense episodes of the novel. It should be mentioned that all seven daughters of Shangguan Lu are fathered by the men, with whom the heroine has been in the extramarital relationships. She has an affair with the Swedish pastor, whom she really loves. It is he, who is the father of her child Jintong, whose character has been described above.

We can see that there are a lot of contradictions as well as fatal events in the destinies of the main characters, the ones, which reflect the tragedy of the whole nation. Shangguan’s behavior contradicts the conventional moral values. She gives birth to the child fathered by the foreigner and the clergyman. The birth of Jintong represents the negation of the conventional order itself.

The novel To Live by Yu Hua represents another historic work in the Chinese literature. The plot of the novel is similar to the plot of Big Breast and Wide Hips as it also narrates about the sufferings and struggles of the Chinese families in the first half and the middle of the XX century. However, Yu Hua focuses his attention on the period of Civil War, which started in 1927, when the first military conflicts took place. However, the civil disorder lasted during the World War II and continued even after its end.

After the capitulation of Japan, the Civil War in China flared up again. It was the military conflict between the Chinese communists and the ruling party of Kuomintang. “The Communists aimed for a revolutionary overthrow of the regime and followed by the confiscation of large estates from the landlords and of businesses from their private owners” (“Communists and Nationalists” 13).

Although the first civil military clashes occurred long before the start of the World War II, they became much more frequent after the end of the WWII. China was the area of the geopolitical interests of the world’s leading nations at that period. Undoubtedly, the question of the after war allocation of the spheres of influence played a crucial role in the international relations of that period. In this respect, the situation in China represented the cornerstone in the global and regional politics.

Xu Fugui is the main character of the novel by Yu Hua. He is a son of the wealthy family but their welfare has been destroyed by the addiction of Xu to the gambling. He gambles away the entire estate of descendant and leaves his family with nothing. At the same time, the communists join their efforts to reorganize the Chinese society making it the community of the proletariat. They aim at building the industries by redeploying the capital of the prosperous families to the national property.

The author pays close attention to the processes of the Collectivization and Industrialization in China. These policies of the Communist party reflected the major slogans of its leaders. In particular, Mao Zedong indicated to the course to the building of the democratic dictatorship of people in his speech in 1940.

He also said which social layers he considered under the definition of “people”. In his words, the “people” were only the proletariat, peasants, and the petty bourgeois. In contrast, the upper bourgeois and the capitalists were considered as the “servants of the imperialism”.

Essentially, Mao inspired people to join their forces against each other. He said that those he considered as “people” might fight against the “servants of the imperialism”. His speeches facilitated the split of the society and led to the millions of the innocent victims. The author of the novel To Live depicts exactly these social transformations in China and we can see that his characters become the innocent victims of such changes.

However, it should be mentioned that the historic situation of that time was, obviously, determined by the presence of conditions favorable for the realization of the Communist ideology. The peasant suffered from the excessive interest on the loans, which were provided by the large landlords.

Before the revolution, 70% of the Chinese land was controlled by the landlords and wealthy farmers. At the same time, their weight in the total Chinese population accounted for only 4% to 6%. It was obvious that the slogans of the Communist party would have an effect upon the peasants.

The Collectivization was the main point in the five years plan of the Communist party. As a result, all the agricultural holdings had been owned by the government. They were managed by the collective farms.

Undoubtedly, the author of To Live expresses his negative attitude to the policy of the Communist party. The criticism of Yu Hua is based on the strong arguments. The Collectivization led to the ineffective agriculture. Besides, it remains ineffective even today, when China has already achieved the tremendous economic growth. Nowadays, the economic and financial institutions claim that the Chinese agriculture is forty times less effective than the agriculture of the neighboring South Korea.

It was not surprising that the attempts of the Communist party to increase the productivity rates at the expense of the Collectivization were in vain. The peasants of the collective farms did not have the motivation to work more and work better.

The irony of the main character’s destiny boils down to the fact that his loss in gambling helps him to survive under such social and political conditions. His property has been a threat to his life and to the lives of his beloved. However, we cannot say that his future becomes easier when he loses his property. The Communist regime ruins Fugui’s family. It should be noted that although the title of the novel is To Live, the majority of its characters die. Fugui is the only one, who has managed to survive. However, all his family members become the victims of the Communist regime.

The book by Yu Hua uncovers very important themes. One of them is the theme of the betrayal. Fugui betrays his son under the pressure of the ideology (Robison n.pag.). Such tragedies were rather frequent in China at that period. People defied the highest moral values in order to defend themselves. He betrays his son because he fears of being considered as the opponent of the Communist party (Robison n.pag.). Although Fugui has repented, his action represents the weakness of the human nature under the public pressure.

The author is, undoubtedly, the opponent of the Communist regime. He gives a plenty of examples of the tragic deaths of people resulted from the actions of the Communist party. A lot of the wealthy Chinese families are victimized for the sake of the ideology. Many characters of the novel have been executed. Yu Hua tries to say that the regime established by the Communist Party was the criminal regime, which sacrificed millions of people. He makes us see that the end does not justify the means.

The events described in the plot of To Live span a number of historic periods. The Cultural Revolution is one of them. It was the historic period of the political, social, and cultural transformations in the Chinese society, which were facilitated by the regime of Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist party from 1949 up to 1976 (“The Cultural Revolution” n.pag.).

The failure of the Great Leap Forward, the campaign encompassing the politics of Collectivization and Industrialization in China, represented one of the reasons for the Cultural Revolution as the position and authority of Mao shook. At the same time, the events occurring in the Soviet Union, which was the ideological and economic supporter of the Communist regime in China, undermined the power of Mao.

It can be said that he felt in a fog about what to do as a result of the failures of the economic initiatives by Nikita Khrushchev. Moreover, the Soviet leader realized the policy of De-Stalinization aimed at the overcome of the ideology of the cult of personality, which was maintained by Stalin. Under such internal and external conditions, Mao realized that it would be better for him to make the semblance of the revolutionary changes in order to vanquish his political opponents by placing the blame on them.

Actually, Mao intended to strengthen his authority and power at the expense of the dissatisfied layers of the population. It can be said that the Cultural Revolution was initiated as the screen for the political crimes. It was, essentially, the mass terror against all people, who were potentially able to exercise the independent judgment and to rival Mao. It was for this reason he used the uneducated and active youth as his driving force.

The period of the Cultural Revolution is reflected on the pages of book by Yu Hua. The author discloses its political purposes and shows how such policy ruined the lives of the millions of Chinese people. In particular, we get to know how the involvement of the inexpert doctors contributed to the deaths of the adults and the children.

As it has already been mentioned, Xu Fugui is the only one, who survives in the end of the novel. We get to know that he saves the ox and associates himself with this animal. Fugui names the ox in his honor. “Fugui is a good ox. Of course he gets lazy sometimes, but even people drag their feet from time to time – how can you expect an animal not to? I know when to make him work and when to let him rest.” (Hua 234).

The historic times depicted in the novel covers the Post-Mao period. It was the time when the country was in the deep political and economic turmoil. After Mao’s death, the Chinese society was, essentially, divided. The political ambitions of the representatives of the Communist party facilitated the crisis in the country.

Many of them aimed at taking the post of the Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. It was the time when the attempts to conduct the political revolution were made. Ultimately, the new political leaders subjected the Cultural Revolution to the harsh criticism.

Both novels Big Breast and Wide Hips and To Live cover the difficult historic periods in China. I think that both works share one common theme, and the central one, the tragedy of the families and the nation under the conditions of the social and cultural transformations. Both novels are about the influence of ideology on people’s destinies.

They are about the sufferings and the will to live despite how unfair and cruel the life can be. Both Mo Yan and Yu Hua subject the actions of the Chinese government of that time to the harsh criticism. They disclose its cynical slogans, which were aimed at the colliding of the masses for the purpose of the realization of the personal ambitions. Obviously, both novels can be referred to the same genre of the family saga.

At the same time, the novels Big Breast and Wide Hips and To Live are quite different. First of all, although both novels narrate about approximately the same time frames, they are focused on different events and processes.

I guess that the author of the former pays closer attention to the War of Resistance, whereas the author of the later focuses on the period of Collectivization and Industrialization. Secondly, we can see that the character of “mother” takes the central place in the novel of Mo Yan. In contrast, the events unfolding on the pages of the book by Yu Hua are centered on the male character. I guess it can be said that Xu Fugui, the protagonist of the novel, represents the character of the “father”.

Overall, the period of the XX century was the turning point in the Chinese literature. The end of the century was the time when the representatives of the art and literature made the attempts to express their own independent thoughts, which contrasted to the prevailing ideology. The Chinese author began to devote their works to the problem of the influence of the politics and ideology on the destinies of people. Many of them criticized the government for its actions, which led to the millions of the ruined lives.

Nowadays, the period of the Cultural Revolution in China is considered as the time of the mass terror. I think that it was the crime against humanity. The authors such as Mo Yan and Yu Hua try to make the public think about these events and take the unbiased look on them.

The scholars state that the time in the Chinese left-wing literature from the late 1920s to the 1970s can be divided into certain periods: the period up to the 1950s, when the works of Hu Feng and Feng Xuefeng were published; the period of the literary work of Shao Quanlin and Lin Mohan; and the last one, which can be referred to the eve of the Cultural Revolution, when the ideas of Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan, and others were presented (Hong 57).

Unarguably, the bold works of the authors of these periods laid the foundation for the facilitation of the independent thinking in China. In addition, they contributed to the discussions of the gender and ethical issues encouraging people to express their ideas in order to struggle for their rights. It is interesting to note that the literary works of the left-wing authors were much more effective in the formation of the national consciousness than the compulsive measures.

They make people fight for their human rights and social equality using the democratic approaches. Their novels bore the spirit of progress and independent thought, which are so important for the achievement of the social well-being and the happiness of the every single family.

In order to sum up all above mentioned, it should be said that the modern Chinese literature is characterized by the different genres and reflect the various opinions on the historic and social processes. The left-wing authors of the XX century laid the foundation for the progressive way of thinking. The representatives of the contemporary Chinese literature, including Mo Yan and Yu Hua, subject the ideology and policy of the Communist Party to the harsh criticism.

Their novels Big Breast and Wide Hips and To Live share the common idea: the end does not justify the means. The characters of both novels become the victims of the ideology and the political interests of the ruling party. The authors try to say that the violent policy will never lead to the social well-being.

The sound slogans of the Communist leaders resulted in the civil disorder, the split of the Chinese society and the stagnation of its development. After all, it is the independent thought and the freedom of the expression of the personal opinion, which make the social breakthrough, not the violence and compulsion.

Works Cited

“Communists and Nationalists”. Nisis.weebly.com. n.d. Web.

Hong, Zicheng. A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Hsia, C.T., A History of Modern Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965

Hua, Yu. To Live: A Novel. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007.

Liu, Kang, and Xiaobing Tang, ed., Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China: Theoretical Interventions and Cultural Critique. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993

Liu, Lydia, The Clash of Empires. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006

Lin, Justin Yifu. “Collectivization and China’s Agricultural Crisis in 1959-1961.” Journal of Political Economy 98.6 (1990): 1228-1252. Print.

Robison, Nick. “To Live under Communism”. www3.wooster.edu. n.d. Web.

“The Cultural Revolution”. Library.thinkquest.org. n.d. Web.

Yan, Mo. Big Breast and Wide Hips. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012.

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