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The Field of Life and Death & Tales of Hulan River

March 24, 2010

Xiao Hong. The Field of Life and Death & Tales of Hulan River. Howard Goldblatt, Trans. Boston, MA: Cheng & Tsui Company, 2002.

Miriam Gross (2006)

In this excellent translation, Goldblatt makes available two important novellas by Xiao Hong documenting village life and the Japanese occupation in Northeastern China during the Republican period. Xiao Hong’s first novel, The Field of Life and Death, was written in 1934 when the author was 23 and published by her patron Lu Xun as part of his Slave Series. Tales of Hulan River, Xiao Hong’s third and final novel, was written in 1940 a year prior to her death. Both novels focus primarily on documenting the visceral experience of village life, both its brutality and its unchanging monotony, a monotony reflected by a community almost incapable of change. Both stories, especially Tales, are informed by a strong autobiographical thrust. The Field has a particularly disjointed narrative which aptly embodies Xiao Hong’s vision of village life and the chaos of the Japanese occupation. Meanwhile good portions of Tales are from the perspective of a very young child whose naïve and non-evaluative perusal of her surroundings are the perfect foil to highlight villagers’ routinized violence.

In The Field Xiao Hong constantly refers to a population that is animal-like in its features and habits. However, villagers consistently care for animals, which are immediately profitable, with greater care and compassion than for children. As one character stated, “The death of a child is nothing. Do you really think I’d moan and wail over that?” (11). The author explains that, “For farming people, one vegetable or a single straw is worth more than a human being” (23). Not only do villagers devalue humanity, but also “in the village, people remained forever ignorant. They could never experience the spiritual side of life; only the material aspects gave them sustenance” (31). While Xiao Hong’s critique of her subjects is highly influenced by Lu Xun and the May 4th Movement, her first-hand descriptions move far beyond rhetoric and draw the reader into the intimate logic of village life. In fact sometimes the detailed reality she portrays overwhelms her own ideological beliefs. For example, although she decries the villagers’ lack of spirituality, she describes a life in which interactions with spiritual entities are as much a part of life as the material reality of one’s goat and one’s boots.

While all the villagers, prompted by custom and by ignorance, are savage to each other, Xiao Hong particularly emphasizes the incredible hardships faced by women. She explains the villagers’ logic in this way: “The Immortal Matron is supposed to be in constant fear of being beaten by the Patriarch, so what makes a gossipy woman like you different?” (150). Xiao Hong is at her most visceral in portraying sex as a brutal act, giving birth as a torment made worse by the community’s horrific reactions, and marriage as an opportunity to embark on a life of servitude and even torture. In Tales, after describing how the Hu family “enjoyed a position of leadership” because their “filial conduct” led to their being models for other women (189), she goes on to describe how they tortured their child bride to death by, amongst other things, stringing her up, beating her, and branding the soles of her feet. Throughout these novels, women are shown to be particularly trapped. There is simply no possibility for opportunity or a good life in the old society.

In the last third of The Field, Xiao Hong explores life under the Japanese. While horrific, to the community it seems to be simply the latest epidemic of violence. For many of the villagers, joining a revolutionary army is primarily a means to momentary entertainment or to find food. While the villagers remain entirely politically illiterate, Xiao Hong believes that amongst the most progressive there is one major change; they have finally come to realize what a nation is and to identify themselves as Chinese.

While Xiao Hong clearly has a strong agenda, she provides insight into the experiential reality and motivations of village life that cannot be uncovered in most standard historical sources. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in village life, rural women, and the integrated world of popular culture, religion, and health.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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