Two of China's most gifted writers and social critics deal in black humor in new books that dramatize the frequent absurdity and cruelty of life in their native...

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“Big Breasts & Wide Hips”

by Mo Yan,

translated by Howard Goldblatt

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Arcade, 552 pp., $27

“The Noodle Maker”

by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew

Farrar Straus Giroux, 181 pp., $21

Two of China’s most gifted writers and social critics deal in black humor in new books that dramatize the frequent absurdity and cruelty of life in their native land.

Withering criticism met Mo Yan’s novel “Big Breasts & Wide Hips” when it was published in China in 1996. In the bawdy, often heartbreaking lives of one peasant family, Mo takes on China’s 20th-century political history, from the 1936 Japanese invasion through the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” and the Cultural Revolution.

It is a novel of strong women and of men who never rise to being their equals. Often the women are more than mortal: one becomes a bird fairy; another, a fox. The family is that of Lu Shangguan, who possesses the big breasts and wide hips of the title. So do her eight daughters, the last of whom is born a twin to her only son.

Historically, nothing has been deemed more unfortunate in China than giving birth to multiple daughters. That is barely the beginning of Lu’s misfortune. None of the children are fathered by her impotent husband. Instead she turns to extramarital affairs to satisfy her mother-in-law, who demands that she bear children.

Through years of famine and savage score-settling, Lu finds that peace is as elusive in the “New China” as in the old. “Dying is easy; it’s living that’s hard,” she observes. Most grievous to her is her weakling son, imprisoned for necrophilia before the story’s end.

Translator Howard Goldblatt is responsible for the book’s smooth rendering into English. Mo is best known as the author of the acclaimed novel and film “Red Sorghum.”

In his novel “The Noodle Maker,” Ma Jian, a Chinese dissident who lives in New York, gives us insights into the world of striving professionals caught between the harsh realities of totalitarian politics and the seductions of capitalism. The tales are related by a professional writer to his friend, a professional blood donor who receives three times the writer’s monthly salary for each blood donation. Ma sees God as “The Noodle Maker,” who pulls and shapes lives as if they were noodle dough. He catches the absurdities with laugh-out-loud precision.

Caught between the restrictive world of the Cultural Revolution, in which an explicit word could bring a prison sentence, and the Open Door Policy, which admits new freedoms such as cosmetics and permanent waves, contestants in a beauty pageant are quizzed on memoranda issued at the Ninth Party Conference.

“The Swooner” concerns a man who has converted a large ceramic kiln bought from an art school into a crematorium, where he plays “decadent” Western music so the dead will swoon and rise properly to heaven. He routinely kicks and abuses corpses of officials who were haughty in life, but he gives his curious mother only the best.

In another story, an actress noted for playing revolutionary heroines writes a script for a public performance that will culminate in her suicide. She models the hero on her boyfriend, giving him a history of heartbreak. “She made him spew a few of the vulgar terms and phrases that filled the latest magazines — words like: ‘IQ,’ ‘spiritual enlightenment,’ ‘my bleeding heart,’ ‘too vile for words,’ and ‘chasing skirt.’ This was her idea of the perfect man.”

Elsewhere, a man trapped by the One Child Policy tries repeatedly to abandon a daughter with severe disabilities to try for a son; an editor who is an aging Lothario is caught by his intellectual wife; and a museum illustrator reminisces about conversations with a three-legged dog he kept for two years in defiance of an official policy of dog extermination.

Ma is the author of “Red Dust,” hailed as the Chinese equivalent of the Beat Generation’s “On the Road.” Flora Drew is Ma’s translator.