Shengi chang, 1935 (The Field of Life and Death, 1979)
Ma Bole, 1940
Hulanhe zhuan, 1941 (Tales of Hulan River, 1979)
Bashe, 1933 (with Xiao Jun)
Niuche shang, 1937
Kuangye li di hukan, 1946
Selected Stories of Xiao Hong, 1982
Shangshi jie, 1936 (Market Street, 1986)
Huiyi Lu Xun xiansheng, 1940
Xiao Hong (zhow hong) is one of the best writers in modern Chinese literature. She was born Zhang Naiying into a wealthy landowning family in 1911. Her mother died when she was nine; her father, a miser, became the archetype of the cruel oppressor in her fiction, but her grandfather taught her classical poems and the meaning of love. Her childhood, as captured in Tales of Hulan River, was cloistered and troubled but not without moments of joy. Her coming-of-age was adventurous, reflecting the spirit of the new woman in the early twentieth century. To escape an arranged marriage at the age of nineteen, she fled to Harbin and cohabited with a local teacher. After she was expelled from school, she traveled with the teacher to Beijing, only to discover that he already had a wife. Pregnant and destitute, she went back to Harbin alone and was stranded in a hotel. Out of desperation, she wrote to a Harbin newspaper for help. Xiao Jun, a contributor to the paper, came to her rescue.
Xiao Hong’s literary career started with her cohabitation with Xiao Jun. In August, 1933, they self-published Bashe, a joint anthology of stories and prose. In 1934 they went to Shandong and stayed there for six months before traveling on to Shanghai. In Shandong, Xiao Jun wrote Village in August, and Xiao Hong wrote The Field of Life and Death. Both novels, first published in Shanghai, became overnight sensations in China. Although both writers chronicled rural life in northeast China during the Japanese occupation, Xiao Jun’s style is masculine and propagandistic, whereas Xiao Hong’s style is feminine and naturalistic. Xiao Hong, particularly, portrays the mute suffering of rural women in the cycle of monotonous life and death. She gradually unfolds the disruptions of that monotony caused by the Japanese invasion and the creation of a meaning in life with increasing anti-Japanese consciousness among the peasants.
In 1935 Xiao Hong wrote Market Street, an imaginative re-creation of her life with Xiao Jun during their final years in Harbin. Apart from her vivid description of psychological distortions caused by constant hunger, Xiao Hong poked at Xiao Jun for his self-centered male chauvinism. In Shanghai, Xiao Jun’s condescending protectiveness and intellectual disdain toward her became unbearable, and in the summer of 1936 she traveled alone to Japan. Xiao Hong was physically and emotionally frail. Fortunately, she had developed an intimate relationship with Lu Xun and his family. The death of Lu Xun in October of that year threw her into utter loneliness and isolation; however, she did not stop writing. Her Huiyi Lu Xun xiansheng (remembrance of Lu Xun), an intensely personal and honest account, established a model for modern memorial narrative.
Her three best-known stories, “The Bridge,” “The Hands,” and “On the Oxcart,” fully demonstrate her mastery of storytelling. “The Bridge,” through musical refrains, recaptures the tragic fate of a poor Chinese woman who is forced to be a nanny for a rich man’s child. “Hands” is her most artistic achievement in structure and characterization. “On the Oxcart” skillfully uses the first-person narrator as a sympathetic listener to indict the evils of war. Xiao Hong also used short story as preliminary exploration to longer fiction. “The Family Outsider” was later incorporated into her famous novel Tales of Hulan River, a lyrical account of the author’s hometown narrated by an innocent girl. “Flight from Danger,” a caricature of a sham revolutionary, was developed into Ma Bole, a comic novel that bears the influence of Lu Xun and Lao She in probing the diseased psychology of a Chinese man.
Although Xiao Hong was not overtly a feminist, she was inwardly resistant and softly stubborn, traits revealed in her writing. She left Xiao Jun and became common-law wife of Duanmu Hongliang in 1938, but in their relationship she again suffered from male selfishness. In 1940 they fled to Hong Kong. During the Japanese attack of Hong Kong in December 1940, Xiao Hong entered Queen Mary’s Hospital, where she died of a throat infection on January 22, 1942.
Unlike another Chinese woman writer, Ding Ling, Xiao Hong seldom focuses her writing on gender issues. Although Tales of Hulan River and Market Street reveal her feminist consciousness, her writings are preoccupied with victimized women, peasant suffering, and the Chinese character during national crisis. Largely because of Xiao Hong’s broad perspective, Lu Xun remarked in 1936 that she was “the most promising of our women writers, and shows possibilities of becoming as much in advance of Miss Ding Ling as the latter was in succeeding Miss Bing Xin.”
The preeminent feature of Xiao Hong’s writing is a distinctively female style. Her writing is different not only from that of male writers such as Xiao Jun but also from that of Shen Congwen, the leading lyrical stylist of her time. Her style is fluid and breath-borne; it can be best compared with that of the Brazilian Clarice Lispector.