When the English translation of Mo Yan’s novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996) was published in 2004, it was seen by some critics as his bid for global literary prestige. It hit all the right notes: it was a historical saga of modern China featuring a proliferation of stories, it was unceasingly violent and nasty, and it came near to puncturing Party myths.
In the preface, Howard Goldblatt, Mo Yan’s longtime translator and advocate, reported that it had provoked anger on the mainland among ideologues for humanising the Japanese soldiers who invaded Manchuria, though there can’t have been very much anger because the novel wasn’t banned, or even expurgated. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post praised Mo Yan for having ‘spoken out courageously for freedom and individualism’. Here was a liberal voice in repressive China. ‘The Swedish Academy, which leaps at any chance to mix literature with politics,’ he concluded, ‘might well find in Mo Yan just the right writer through whom to send a message to the Chinese Communist leadership.’