Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin

By Clark, Benjamin | Chinese Literature Today, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin


Clark, Benjamin, Chinese Literature Today


Xiao Hong. Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin. Howard Goldblatt, trans. Fiction. Seattle. University of Washington Press. 2015 (1st ed. 1986). 160 pages. $25.00. ISBN 9780295994239

Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin is a collection of forty-one autobiographical vignettes by Xiao Hong that recount her life in the city from 1932 to 1934. Born Zhang Naiying in 1911, Xiao Hong is most famous today for her works The Field of Life and Death, a novel also set near Harbin and also composed of vignettes related by a common theme, and Tales of Hulan River. These works were translated into English by Howard Goldblatt, who also translated the edition of Market Street being reviewed here.

Xiao Hong's life story sheds a good deal of light on the approach to writing that gained her so much notoriety, so, though it is painfully tragic, it should be addressed when examining her works. She was born into a minor land-owning family in the northeastern county seat of Heilongjiang Province. Her mother died when she was nine years old, and she grew only to resent her abusive father, relying on her grandfather instead. Though she was granted some respite from this situation as a teenager while attending a boarding school in Harbin, her father arranged for her marriage in 1930 and thus threatened any chance she had of pursuing a life of education and independence. Rather than submit to this fate, Xiao Hong cut herself off from her family and moved in with a young man she'd met in Harbin. Unfortunately, this man abandoned her in Peking, and the twenty-yearold Xiao Hong, now homeless and pregnant, returned to Harbin in 1931. After several grueling months of destitution, she moved in with aspiring writer and local newspaper editor Xiao Jun, with whom she would live until 1938. In 1940, Xiao Hong was newly married and living in Hong Kong, where she worked on a planned trilogy of satirical works and published Tales of the Hulan River, but the promise of her oeuvre was cut short by her untimely death in 1942.

One more aspect of the setting needs explanation: the city of Harbin. Like her later home of Hong Kong, Harbin's culture was foreign, first that of the Russians, and later that of the Japanese occupiers; Xiao Hong found the lifestyles of even Harbin's Chinese residents to be generally distasteful. From the time of the Japanese occupation onward, Xiao Hong never returned to China proper. It is curious that just as she estranged herself from her father's home, Xiao Hong would enter a self-imposed exile from China, which soon found itself in a crisis of masculinity as both its sovereignty and status as the fatherland were challenged by Western powers and Japan. Indeed, Xiao Hong is a rare case of the writer whose personal story is perhaps as dramatic and moving as the fiction she published. …

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