In the constellation of modern Chinese literature, Xiao Hong is one of the brightest star. With her early death at 31, she has long been the focus of controversy. For some time, she was famous among scholars and readers for the vicissitudes of her life rather than for her literary creations.
This, to be honest, does no justice to such an accomplished writer as Xiao, whose literary output amounts to nearly one millions words and whose representative works such as Sheng Si Chang (Field of Life and Death), Hu Lan He Zhuan (A Life of River Hulan) are truly masterpieces in the 20th century Chinese literature, while such books as Jia Zu Yi Wai De Ren (A Man Outside the Family),Xiao Cheng San Yue (A Small Town in March), Niu Che Shang (On the Oxen Cart), Hou Hua Yuan (The Backyard), Ma Bo Le (Ma Bole), Nan Shi Jie (South of the Fair) are also indispensable readings for the posterity.Xiao Hong belongs to the second generation of modern Chinese writers. Her literary career started in 1933, her masterpiece Field of Life and Death completed the next year and published in 1935 in Shanghai, which won her immediate reputation. The publication and success of the bookowes much to the support of Lu Xun, who soon became her only mentor in the following years.
Field of Life and Death, which established Xiao’s name as a major writer, was the precursor of the so called anti-Japanese Literature, and it is because of this definition that she was misunderstood for over a decade. The Anti-Japanese War marginalized all literary activity and Xiao has never again turned her attention to the depiction of the Japanese occupied Manchuria. Retired from the mainstream literature of the time, Xiao began to look back at her childhood in her hometown. The riotous situation makes it impossible for her to go on with her writing, however, and since September 1937 she was on a trip that leads her to tragic death. When the mainstream literature was fully focused on the anti-Japanese War, Xiao’s personally writing seems, even to us today, a courageous and wise act. Following her own instinct and observations, Xiao’s writings are more concerned with the life of the ordinary people than with the war. When she wrote about the war,she did it through ordinary characters whose life was affected by it rather than who participated in it. It is in these personal writings that Xiao Hong developed her individuality, her slogan being“there are different writers and therefore there are different writings”, “the thing you write about need be directly attached to your feelings”. In 1940, Xiao retreated to Hong Kong, where she started the two of her most “obscure” novels: A Life of River Hulan, and Ma Bole, the former marks the irreplaceable beauty of Xiao’s literary creation.
In general, Xiao Hong’s writings are realistic, continuing the May Fourth tradition of using literature and arts to transform the Chinese soul. Her output, though, is divided into two main types: the first, as represented by A man Outside the Family, The Backyard, and the Small Town in March, concerns her own individual observations of human suffering while the second, as represented by The Field of Life and Death, A Life of River Hulan, Ma Bole, manifests her deep concern about the reality of the nation during the War.
The Xiao Hong criticism started as early as the 1930s, with Lu Xun, Hu Feng and Mao Dun playing significant roles in the judgment of her works. The misunderstanding of The Field of Life and Death led to depreciation of her works in general. In the 1980s, the reevaluation by Howard Goldblatt in his A Critical Life of Xiao Hong, initiated a new vogue and The Field of Life and Death became the focus of a new fashion. The multi-phased reevaluation of the book also started a general change of attitude toward Xiao’s literary canon. She is now considered a unique, major writer rather than a war writer only. Xiao Hong’s novels are all based on her sensitive observations of the sufferings of the Other. The fact that she had been disliked by her parents caused the paradox between her internal weakness and external strength, her over-sensitivity toward thesufferings of other people, particularly of the unfortunate, such as the poor, the old, women, andchildren. Her sensitivity to suffering manifests itself in almost all her novels, and constitutes thehumanistic connotation of her works.
The way Xiao wrote her novels is now recognized as unique, too. In her masterpieces, time is no longer the unifying element. Instead, space serves as a main structuring frame, the juxtaposition of various scenes is used to produce an effect of a “city” and its history. In addition,her depiction of sceneries, her description of characters through conversation, and her simplicity of diction all combine to produce the charm of her novels. The omnipresent narrator in her novelsalso helps to exhaust all aspects of the story. Xiao Hong allows the reader to observe the world through her eyes and thus every thing that is seen is pregnant with full feelings. The suffering sheherself experienced has thus a universal appeal. The uniqueness of Xiao Hong lies in herself-distancing from both the Leftist writers of the time and her contemporary women writers.This is the very reason why she is considered impossible to imitate.