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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Xiao Hong (1911 - 1942) - also rendered as Hsiao Hung; pseudonym of Zhang Naiying


Chinese novelist, short story writer, and poet. Xiao Hong led an itinerant life and died in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong at the age of thirty. Her writing career spanned less than a decade, but her works have stood as models for later generations of writers. Xiao Hong's masterpiece, Tales of Hulan River, came out posthumously in 1942. A central theme in her work was the fate of women under patriarchy.

"Just before sunrise each morning Wang Asao went out with Little Huan to the square of the front village to slave for the landlord. Though Little Huan was only seven years old, she was already learning how to sweat for the landlord. Spring had come and gone, summer had come and gone.... Wang Asao performed every type of work imaginable, including weeding the fields and planting rice shoots." (from 'The Death of Wang Asao', The Dyer's Daughter: Selected Stories of Xiao Hong, translated by Howard Goldblatt, 2005)

Xiao Hong was born Chang Naiying to a landlord family in Hunan county, in the northeastern part of China (Heilongjiang). She spent an unhappy childhood under a domineering father, recalling in her memoir that her father "buried his humanity in greed." Xiao Hong was nine when her mother died. "My father changed even more; when someone would on occasion break a glass, he would shout and carry on untul the person was shaking in his boots." In 1926 she enrolled in a famous girls' school in Harbin. During these years she read the works of Lu Xun, Xie Bingxin, Upton Sinclair, and others, and became involved in the student movement. When she began an affair with a local teacher, Xiao Hong was expelled from the school.

Rejecting's her father's plans for an arranged marriage, she escaped to Beijing. Xiao Hong's intended husband followed her there and she agreed to live with him. They returned to Harbin where he eventually left her in a hotel, penniless, pregnant, and addicted to opium. While in Harbin, she met Xiao Jun, a young writer, who contributed poems and short stories to a Harbin newspaper under the penname San Lang. Xiao Hong published her works in the International Gazette and Dadong Newspaper. Xiao Jun, who was known as a womanzer, beat her on occasion. Together they began to contribute to local papers. They also formed a drama club with fellow writers.

In 1931 Japan took over Manchuria. Following a brush with the Japanese occupiers in 1934, Xiao Hong and Xiao Jun fled to Shandong. During a brief stay in Quigdao, where they went at the invitation of Mei Lin, she completed the draft of her first novel Sheng si Chang (1935, The Field of Life and Death). Finally the couple settled with Mei Lin in Shanghai, where they became friends with Lu Xun (1881-1936), a distinguished writer of the leftist literary world. Over the next several years she constantly moved from place to place, avoiding Japanese manoeuvres, and traveling from Wuhan to Chongquing and finally to Hong Kong. In addition to the hardships of the homeless condition itself, she suffered from stomach ailment, anemia, tuberculosis, and malnutrition.

 In 1933 Xiao Hong wrote the short stories 'Trek' and 'Tornado', and in the same year she and Xiao Jun were published in a joint collection of short stories, Bashe (1933, The Long Journey) under the pen names Qiao Yin and San Lang. The book was banned by Japanese censors. As a writer Xiao Hong made her breakthrough with The Field of Life and Death. It appeared with the help of Lu Xun, who published it in his own Slave Society Series and wrote a preface for it. "Even those who have an abhorrence of literature or those of a practical bent cannot help but be moved by this work," Lu Xun said. The book was banned by the  authorities, but was an instant success and made a strong impact on leftist literary circles and urban readers. It was one of the first literary works to reflect life under Japanese rule. The story depicted village life during the thirties in northeast China and the revolt against Japanese aggression.

Much of Xiao Hong's essays, poetry, and short stories appeared in Taibai, ZhongxueshengWenxue, Zuojia, Wencong, Wenxue Yuekan, and Zhongliu under her pen name Qiao Yin. He writings from 1935-36 were later collected in Shang shi jie (Market Street: a Chinese Woman in Harbin), an autobiography covering her days in Harbin, Qiao (The Bridge), and Niuche Shang (On the Oxcart). In 1936, she was asked by the American journalist Edgar Snow to write a brief autobiographical sketch for Living China: Modern Short Stories. Following the death of Lu Xun, who had been been a supporter of her work and who did not undervalue her work, Xiao Hong's literary output nearly ceased. She went to Japan for health reasons and returned to China after the outbreak of the War of Resistance Against Japan in 1937. All the pieces in On the Oxcart were written in Japan. The title tale, narrated by a child, is about a domestic servant who travels to distant military garrison to discover that her husband has been executed for desertion.

Among Xiao Hong's best-known short stories is 'Hands' (1936), a story of a girl who is deprived of everything she yearns for – knowledge, love, freedom. The protagonist is a dye-worker's daughter who is looked down on at school because of her black hands.

---"... I heard a rustling by my pillow as if someone were groping about, and opened my eyes to see Yaming's black hands. She laid the book she had borrowed down beside me.
--"Find it interesting? Did you like it?"
--At first she did not answer. The she covered her face with her hands, and her very hair seemed to tremble as she breathed:
--Her voice was trembling too. I sat up in bed. But she ran away, her face still buried in hands as black as her hair."

(from 'Hands')

Xiao Hong's short stories from the late 1930s include 'Vague Expectations,' 'Flight from Danger.' and 'A Cry in the Wilderness,' written during her stay in Chongqing in 1938-39 and published in Kuang ye de huhan (A cry in the wilderness). While in Chongquing she published her remembrance of Lu Xun, Huiyi Lu Xun Xiansheng (1940). Part I of Ma Bole appeared in 1940; Part II came out the following in serialized form in a Hong Kong literary magazine. The author was posthumously canonized by Mao Zedong, but Mao's approval was of no concern to Xiao Hong.

In 1940 Xiao Hong moved to Hong Kong with Duanmu Hongliang, a leftist writer, whom he had met in Wuhan after separating from Xiao Jun. Duammu and Xiao Hong were married in a private ceremony. She was five months pregnant. The child died in less than two days after birth.

Although at that time she was ill, she published the first volume of a planned trilogy, Ma Bole (1940), a satire of a spineless man, in which she mocks the patriotism of the era and trivializes the ongoing war. Hulanhe zhuan (1942, Tales of Hulan River) focused on Xiao Hong's hometown in Hulan and depicted, in simple yet poetic language, its people still suffering from their feudal heritage. The novel evokes domestic images and observes village stage performances, exorcist rites and festivals, but also reveals the barbarous side of life with an account of a ritual killing of a child-bride by her in-laws.

Xiao Hong still had the strength to finish the story 'Spring in a Small Town' (Xiaocheng sanyue).  The American journalist Agnes Smedley convinced her to seek treatment at Queen Mary Hospital, where she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She underwent two surgical procedures which left her unable to speak. Xiao Hong died of respiratory problems in January 1942, in a temporary hospital set up by the Red Cross, shortly after the colony fell to the Japanese. Xiao Hong did not reach her thirty-first birthday. "But to die like this ... my heart is heavy...." were her last words allegedly. Xiao Hong's ashes were buried in Repulsive Bay (Qianshuiwan), and then in 1957 they were transferred by the Chinese Writers' Association of Guangzhou to Yinhe gongmu, a cemetery in Guangzhou.

On November 20, 1944, the poet Dai Wangshu (1905-1950) visited her grave, portraying the author as not responsive but still living: "A Lonely walk of six hours, / To lay red camellias by your head  – / I wait through the night, / While you lie listening to the chitchat of the ocean tides." ('By Xiao Hong's Tomb, an Impromptu')  Her works were not published until 1980, partly due to her feminism and willingness to experiment with a narrative style that was not in tune with the official doctrines of realism.  Xiao Hong's short, turbulent life was the subject of Ann Hui's film The Golden Era (2014), starring Wei Tang and Shaofeng Feng.

For further reading: Living China by E. Snow (1936); Battle Hymn of China by A. Smedley (1943); Hsiao Hung by Howard Goldblatt (1976); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Woman and Literature in China, ed. by Anna Gerstlacher (1985); Body, Subject & Power in China, ed. by Angelo Zito and Tani E. Barlow (1994); Encyclopedia of the Novel, Vol. 2, ed. by Paul Schellinger (1998); 'Translator's Introduction' by Howard Goldblatt, in Field of Life and Death and Tales of Hunan (2002); Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Twentieth Century, Volume 2, edited by Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (2015) - Note: Xiao Hong sent to Upton Sinclair a copy of her novel The Field of Life and Death. He responded with a warm letter and a copy of his novel Co-op

Selected works:

  • Bashe, 1933 (with Xiao Jun)
  • Sheng si chang, 1935 - The Field of Life and Death & Tales of Hulan River (translated by Howard Goldblatt and Ellen Yeung, 1979)
  • Niucheshang, 1937 - On the Oxcart (translated by Howard Goldblatt, in Born of the Same Roots, 1981)
  • Huiyi Lu Xun Xiansheg, 1940
  • Ma Bole, 1940
  • Kuang ye de huhan, 1940
  • Hulanhe zhuan, 1942 - Tales of Hulan River (translated by Howard Goldblatt, 1979)
  • Anthology of Modern Chinese Stories and Novels, 1980 (includes Xiao Hong's short stories 'Hands' and 'Family Outsider')
  • Selected Stories of Xiao Hong, 1982 (translated by Howard Goldblatt)
  • Shang shi jie, 1987 - Market Street: a Chinese Woman in Harbin (translation of Shang shi jie by Howard Goldblatt, 1986)
  • Xiao Hong san wen quan bian = Xiao Hong’s Complette Proses, 1994
  • The Dyer's Daughter: Selected Stories of Xiao Hong, 2005 (bilingual edition; translated with an introduction by Howard Goldblatt)
  • Xiao Hong shi nian ji, 1932-1942, 2009 (2 vols.)
  • Xiao Hong shu jian, 2014

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