Xi Xi’s Mourning a Breast – first published in 1992 and in a new English translation by Jennifer Feeley this year – is a semi-autobiographical novel that reads like a series of nonfiction essays, recorded dialogues, and musings. It is centered around the late Hong Kong-based author’s experience with breast cancer and the surgical removal of one of her breasts.  

Xi Xi (aka Sai Sai, or Cheung Yin) 1937 – 2022, was born in Shanghai, and she lived her teen years through adulthood in Hong Kong (then a British colony). She passed away in her mid-80s. Mourning a Breast was one of 40 books she authored.

The author’s breast cancer diagnosis occurred in 1989, when she was in her early 50s. She had not married, nor had any children. In the book, she shares fanciful ideas about what may or may not have led to the malignant tumor in her breast tissue, as if she were somehow fully responsible herself for the diagnosis.  

Her motivations for the novel have to do with providing breast cancer information to her readers. She has personal notes at the ends of some chapters to point readers off to other parts of the book based on topics of interest. She writes of the Chinese attitude in the face of illness:  

“The Chinese have always been a people who are secretive about sickness and hesitant to seek medical treatment, concealing illness, especially of this kind, and considering it a taboo subject.  As a result, not only the body but also the soul ends up sick.”  

The work sparks a conversation around the phenomenon of breast cancer in both men and women.  

In the lead-up to the surgery, she turns to the novel Madame Bovary in French, English, and Chinese, to distract herself. The surgery itself is anticlimactic.  She wakes without pain and no memory of the surgery and she is surprised to find a drip plan hanging off her body. She writes:  

“I nicknamed the ‘drip pan’ the ‘flying guillotine’ after the deadly weapon from martial arts films that looked like a bladed hat attached to a long chain. The first time I saw it, I was terrified. Gradually, I got used to it. When I moved my body or walked around, the bloody discharge sloshed inside it, reminiscent of a music box—if there was less fluid, it clinked and clanked; if there was more fluid, it trilled and rippled. However, the striking red of the bloody discharge seemed inappropriate for the public. And so, each time I got out of bed, I squeezed it flat, tucked it into the elastic waist of my pants, and concealed it with a large shirt. It became my secret.”  

She is given her surgically removed breast as a specimen in a plastic bag as part of the hospital practice. She writes: “Inside a plastic bag, there was a floating mass that resembled a cluster of shredded cotton wadding:  my breast.” She maintains an avid curiosity about her health and the medical procedure. She laments that her physician had not explained more about the material he used to stitch together her body.  

She rejoices in the mechanics of her body.  

“Skin isn’t fabric.  It can’t be sewn inside out. Fortunately, the way God created the human body is extraordinary. Stitched-up skin has blood vessels and nerves, epidermis and dermis, hair follicles and sweat glands, yet it can regulate its own growth, skin connecting with skin, reuniting in no time.  The human body is a true heavenly robe without any seams.”  

The suffering is more mental than physical. She has family and friends around to help with her life. They bring gifts, and they visit. But in quiet moments, she focuses on her body. She finds it difficult to enjoy a bubble bath and soaking, which used to be a pleasure.  

She goes into flights of fancy in references to various works of global literature—Simone de Beauvoir’s musings about women, classic Chinese works like Dream of Red Mansions, and others. She muses around music, both recorded and live performances.  She brings in famous artworks that relate to breasts and riffs off of those.  

There is a sense of a loss of control: “Once you have cancer, you’ll be dealing with it for the rest of your life, harboring an unpredictable, misshapen monster that can strike at any time and swallow you up.”  

Mourning a Breast is about the lived realization of the body’s frailties and eventual mortality. It is about a health journey that is at once mundane and profound. The journey is a deeply personal one, with the author reminiscing of her working class life (but still with sufficient resources to attain medical care and to not work). She takes on tai chi practice. She shares anecdotes from her life, such as an experience with a fellow teacher who had experienced a fatal bout of cancer when the author was in her early years of teaching.  

Some of her ideas read as gullible, such as a story she’d read about five female Russian cosmonauts (in the Soviet era) who had spent time in space but suddenly experienced pregnancies in space, in the absence of men, in occurrences of human parthenogenesis.  

In some instances, her writing may be illuminating. In others, they may be exhausting in their naivete and datedness. Every piece of writing is a product of its time, with strengths and weaknesses.  

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