Some months ago I saw The Golden Era, a recent movie by Ann Hui about a ground breaking Chinese woman writer of the 1930s, during the Japanese occupation.  Though the movie itself needed some shortening, I was attracted to its subject, Xiao Hong.  A protege of the more famous Lu Xun, patriarch of Chinese modern realism, she didn’t live long enough to fulfill her promise, dying in 1942 at the age of 30.  The two short novels she wrote, however, are available and ably re-translated in 2002 by Howard Goldblatt from his earlier 1979 translation with Ellen Yeung.

Books Filed of Life and DeathThe Field of Life and Death, 1934-35, isn’t so much a novel as we think of them today, as a detailed scroll painting of a small rural village in northeastern China, where she was from.  A small boy named “Tunnel Legs,” and a young woman named “Golden Bough” appear through much of it, along with a Mother Wang and a fellow named “Two and a half Li” (Li being a measure of distance, now, a half kilometer.)

It is, shall we say, not a happy life.  This is China. And this is real, rural, grinding poverty. Under the sway of powerful landlords. And Japanese invaders.  A new infant’s life means nothing, and is often terminated by crude knife work. If born, severity is the rule:

“The village mothers acted as if the children were their enemies.  When they sneaked out with their fathers’ woolen caps, their mothers always chased after them, beat and scolded them, and then snatched the caps back.  Mother’s persecuted their children mercilessly.”

There is some tenderness, of course, but:

“Her mother had always been like that.  She loved her daughter, but when her daughter ruined some vegetables, then she directed her love toward the vegetables.”

There is love, and passionate love, at first:

“The flowers trembled and swayed, and the long grasses behind them were crushed.  Not far off, an old wood-cutter was cutting wild grass.  Having been interrupted, the well-developed young man went down to the sorghum field with the girl, like a hound with its prey.  As they fled, his hand traveled under her clothes.”

As always, in the hands of a translator who tries to bring language and color to the reader, not simply plot, we learn to see in new images:

“Golden Bough dried her tears in the dark. She felt like a mouse sleeping under the tail of a cat.”

Or

“… time seemed to spin out as long as the spider’s silken web.”

When spring pushes back the winter snow and cold,

“The peasants, like hibernating insects, began to stir.”

New to Chinese writing at the time, Xiao brought a voice for women:

“She began to feel that men were heartless human beings, a feeling shared by the rest of the village women.”

Well into the story, the Japanese appear, portrayed as the cruel conquerors they were.  It is for this, more than the picture of rural life,  that the novel became widely popular in China:

“… Japanese soldiers came over.  Most of them had just thrown on their helmets; they hadn’t even time to lace up their boots, and the villagers knew they were coming for the women again.”

Rumors fly:

“Haven’t you hear that the Japs are using pregnant women to counteract the Red Gun Society?    They slit open women’s bellies and take the fetuses with them into battle.”

There is no climax to the story, no revelation after following a growing mystery.  We close the hundred or so pages and hold the village, its animals and plants, its people, in our mind, indelibly.

Tales of Hunan River (1940) is somewhat similar but more clearly autobiographical.  Although image follows image of poverty and mistreatment of adult and child alike, they are alleviated by Xiao’s memories of her tender and forward-thinking grandfather.  She gardened with him, played tricks on him.  He protected her from the meaner forms of child-rearing, recited poems to her every morning.  She spends happy hours investigating cast-offs in a dim storeroom. At a large family funeral she meets cousins from all over, and kid-like, wears a pickle barrel top as an oversized hat to keep the rain from her.

Written a few years after the first,  Xiao has found a bit of irony as she looks over her villagers:

“Two young apprentices were fighting over a woman on the street, when one of them pushed the other into the dyeing vat and drowned him.  We need not concern ourselves here with the one who died, but the survivor was sent to prison for life.”

Again, the miserable poverty, a child’s hands so filthy they don’t seem to be hands. Bean curd is a luxury not all can afford.  And superstition: douse the candle light so it won’t attract the lightning; toss a few coins in the river before crossing to appease its hunger and ensure against drowning;  buy paper-maché artifacts to send on with the dead.  Novel or sociology, it’s sometimes hard to tell. And unnecessary.

Even more than in Field of Life and Death, she speaks out for women, some of whom are so shamed and mistreated by the husband’s family they throw themselves into wells and drown. She asks:

“Why is that no words of praise for the courage of these women who jump down wells are included in the memorial arches for chaste women?  That is because they have all been intentionally omitted by the compilers of such memorials, nearly all of whom are men, each with a wife at home.  They are afraid that if they write such things, then one day when they beat their own wife, she too many jump down a well.  If she did she would leave behind a brood of children, and what would these men do then?  So, with unanimity, they avoid writing such things, and concern themselves only with “the refined, the cultured, and the filial…”

She includes some lovely scenes of festivals, candle lanterns floating down a river at night, of noodles draped on poles, “drying, hanging like waterfalls,”  and the noodle makers, happy, singing.  “The songs that emerged from that noodle shop were like a red flower blooming atop a wall, a desolate the feeling.”

But the part we will remember, for weeks to come, is the harrowing story she tells of “The Child Bride.”  A young girl is brought to the house next door and soon the “discipline” starts, beating after beating until she falls ill.  A sorceress is brought in, and a Taoist priest, each with cures more loopy than the other, and finally so cruel one cannot read without effort.  The child dies.

These were the stories Xiao Hong brought to the Chinese people, restive after centuries of rule by Emperor and mandarins, suffering and resisting under the Japanese.  Existing in a misery and a darkness, alleviated only occasionally by fragile light, it is no wonder so many joined the ranks of Mao’s army as it began to sweep the old away, to promise a new life better than the old.

Not a book for every reader, but about a China on the verge of change, a searching look at rural poverty, an almost anthropological look at customs, festivals and village life, it’s an excellent place to start.