Course:ASIA351/2021/The Field of Life and Death

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The Field of Life and Death (Chinese Name: 生死場) is a famous novel written by Xiao Hong during the early period of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Field of Life and Death
Book cover of The Field of Life (2006)
Author Xiao Hong
Title The Field of Life and Death
Country China
Language Chinese
Genre Novel
Published 1935
中文原名 生死場

The novel is written in 1934. Half of the article has firstly appeared in Harbin's popular newspaper, Guo Ji Xie Bao's (國際協報) weekend literature magazine, Wen Yi Zhou Han《文藝周刊》, as a weekly serial story from 1934 April to 1934 June.[1] The completed version was published in 1935 along with her most well-known novel, Tales of Hulan River.

Lu Xun, the leading figure of modern Chinese literature, and Hu Feng, the famous modern left-wing Chinese writer, praised the novel and have written the foreword and epilogue for the novel respectively. [2]

The novel is separated into seventeen chapters and set in a village nearby the city of Harbin. It demonstrates the difficulties and challenges of life encountered during the 1920s and early 1930s, especially the suffering of women and influence due to the Mukden Incident (九一八事變) and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Historical Background

The Mukden Incident (九一八事變) happened in 1931
The Mukden Incident (九一八事變) happened in 1931

The Field of Life and Death was written in 1934 and completely published in 1935. Due to the Mukden Incident, Japan has declared partial war on China and the northern part of China is quickly invaded and mostly occupied by the Japanese.[3] The Japanese established a "colonial empire" in Manchuria and the former Qing Emperor, PuiYi (愛新覺羅 · 溥儀), has become the emperor of the new empire.[4] Harsh geographic environments and political changes end the peace of the village. The northern part of China is occupied or heavily influenced by Japanese warfare, living in the village becomes tough and difficult. This causes many tragedies and accidents to happen throughout the story in the village.

Writer Summary

Picture of the author Xiao Hong (蕭紅)
Picture of the author Xiao Hong (蕭紅)

Xiao Hong (萧红), a leading author in Chinese modern literature was born on June 1st 1911 and died on January 22 1942. Xiao Hong had multiple names including her infant name Zhang Ronghua (张荣华) and formal school name Zhang Xiuhuan (张秀环)which was later changed to Zhang Naiying (张乃莹) by her father. Beside her actual names, Xiao Hong also uses several pen names including Qiaoyin (悄吟), Ling Ling (玲玲) and Tian Di (田娣). Xiao Hong was born into a wealthy landlord family in Heilongjiang Hulan District (黑龙江省呼兰县), China, and lost her mother at the age of nine. Xiao Hong’s father is a ruthless man who did not provide much care or love towards her, however, her grandfather Zhang Weizhen (张维祯)played an important role in encouraging her to pursue higher education. In 1927, Xiao Hong noticed her passion towards literature while attending the top female high school within the province. In 1930, Xiao Hong's father immediately arranged a marriage for her and removed her student profile which she was forced to return home[5]. Within the same year, Xiao Hong escaped from her home and travelled towards Harbin, however, her fiance chased after her after one year and they eventually started living together. After owing 600 yuan to the hotel, Xiao Hong's fiance left her as pregnant and never returned. The hotel owner decided to sell Xiao Hong to the local brothel to cover her debt, while Xiao Hong luckily met Shu Qun (舒群) and Xiao Jun (萧军) who took her out of the hotel to the hospital during the Song Hua Jiang Flood and later gave birth to a female baby. Xiao Hong's health issues and budget constraints lead her to send away her baby to someone else and she later started living with Xiao Jun. Xiao Hong and Xiao Jun left Harbin during the Japanese Invasion while continued writing her work “The Field of Life and Death” (生死场) in 1934 and completed this fascinating piece on September 1934.

Synopsis/Plot Summary

There are seventeen chapters in "The Field of Life and Death". The main content of "The Field of Life and Death" narrates the story of the "life" and "death" of villagers and animals in a village on the outskirts of Harbin in the 1920s and 1930s. In the first chapter, "The Wheat Field" through the tenth, "Ten Years" the author describes the dull, hopeless daily life of the peasants here. They suffered from the cruel oppression of the landlord and the persecution of the harsh natural environment. Years by years, they are living like animals, they do the same labor work and activity every day, they suffer from endless hunger and disease, and in this inferior life, some women give birth to deformed children. The harsh living conditions make it impossible for them to meet even the most basic physiological needs. Their spiritual world is very poor, and each one of them is like an animal governed by the primal desires. The status of women here is very low, only the tool to satisfy the man’s physiological desire and serve them. Their temper is rough, their behavior is only governed by natural instinct, and those most important moments in a human’s life, for example, birth and death, are filled with indifference in the eyes of these villagers.

The last seven chapters of the novel describe the miserable living conditions of these peasants a decade later, during the Japanese invasion of China in the early 1930s. The Japanese went door to door in search of animals and women. The men of the village were brutally slaughtered, and the number of widows grew. Everyone began to gradually wake up the national consciousness and resistance as the Japanese brutality became more intense. Story comes to the end in Two-and-a-Half farewell to his old sheep, and follows Li Qingshan to participate in the anti-Japanese team.

Main Characters

Chao San

Mother Wang's husband.[6]

An ambitious man that does not want to live in poverty and hardship. He has the wish of going to the city and making money. However, after being imprisoned for a few months, he transitions from the brave and vigorous man to a guilty and dispirited individual. Ten years later, in the revolutionary movement he is awakened and is able to regain his original self.[7] From Chao San, we are able to see a bright side of males in the story; he is brave enough to stand up, find his way to salvation and influence others.[7]

Mother Wang

Chao San's wife, has appearance similar to an owl a fandom.[6]

A brave woman with an independent personality. Mother Wang has been through various hardships in her life, but she stays strong and is unwilling to be dictated by fate. She is a representative of women resisting the humble life they have in the feudal society.[8] Near the end of the novel, she participates in the liberation movement and joins in the act of defending the nation, taking an initial step to spiritual liberation.[8]

Golden Bough

Has appearance of a weak and vulnerable chick.[6]

A naïve and young girl who holds imagination toward her lover Ch’eng-yeh.[8] Yet her relationship with him is only based off of sexual love and he has no true love for her.[9] She suffers from the idea that women are inferior to men and had a tragic life experience.[10] Although she shows resistance to her life by travelling to the city, returning to the village, and trying to become a nun, she fails to find a sense of belonging.[9]

Xiao Hong claims that Golden Bough shows similarity to herself as they have overlapping life experiences of being disrespected and going through years of wandering.[11]

Old Mother Pokeface

Looks like a bear and has voice similar to a pig.[6]

A humble woman who shows no resistance toward the sufferings in her life.[8] She is a representative of women in the male dominating society where the husband is everything. She is foolish, lacks independent thinking, and spends all her life obeying her husband.[12]

The Themes of the Work

Humans vs. Animals

The characters in the novel live a pitiful and numb life that are not even as good as animals.[13] Xiao Hong relates each of the characters to a certain animal, degrading them unconsciously to better reveal their chaotic and “inhuman” state of living.[8] Their poverty limited their knowledge and imagination, leaving only animal instincts.[13] For the villagers, the lands, livestock, and materials are extremely important. They value more and hold more feelings toward a wheat field, a horse, and even a blade of grass than a person.[13][14] Xiao Hong insists how people should not be physically surviving only, rather, they should be different from animals by pursuing their own values, respecting life, and gaining knowledge about the world.[13]

Life vs. Death

Another major theme of the novel is the tragedy of women under the male dominating society. For men, women are just tools to satisfy their sexual or animal desires, and sadly, women fall into this absurd norm in the story.[14] There are various death scenes of female characters in the story, either caused by cruelty of husband or from giving birth. Giving birth is described as an extremely suffering event, and women do not feel any sense of value from it. It is as if “passing the ghost gate” where no men show any care for them, and whether one can survive through it is only dependent on luck.[14] Xiao Hong depicts a vague boundary between life and death since living and giving births are so terrible that they are almost the same as facing death.[15]

“In the village men and beasts busied themselves at living and at dying”[6]

Xiao Hong’s profound perception about the value of life can be highlighted by the quote above.[16] In this primitive, feudal, and rural environment, families are exploited by landlords, women live under the dominance of men, children grow in hardship and repeat the tragedy of their parents when they grow up, living hopelss lives just like animals.[8]


In the last one-third of the novel, during the Mukden Incident, patriiotism is introduced as a minor theme.[17] Xiao Hong depicts a hopeful image for the future of the country when people are awakened and start to show resistance.[18]


A depiction of the May Fourth Movement (五四運動) in 1919

Xiao Hong’s portrayal of women suffrage in the novel was praised by many left-wing writers at the time. Many called her an “orthodox May Fourth critical-realist”. Her work had influenced many other realist writers attributed with China’s New Literature that emerged out of the May Fourth Movement and continued in the left-wing literary movement that continued into the 1930s. [19]

The novel had a strong influence on Xiao Jun, with who Xiao Hong had escaped to Qingdao from Japanese Manchuria in 1934. Together, Xiao Hong wrote The Field of Life and Death while Xiao Jun finished Village in August. The two submitted their novels to Lu Xun, who approved their entrance to the Young Leftist Authors group in Shanghai. [19]

The novel also contains Anti-Japanese sentiment, which had also been praised as a model for patriotic literature and Anti-Imperialism by other left-wing writers. [19]

In the 21st century, scholars also consider The Field of Life and Death as social-relational literature. Xiao Hong’s portrayal of women's suffrage within the book, such as when Yueying and the Fifth Elder Daughter were abandoned and abused by their husbands. In the end, they were unable to take care of themselves and had to rely on the peasant women to collectively care for them. In addition, Golden Dough's punishment for running away with her boyfriend is also speculated to be related to Xiao Hong’s past and her experience with her abusive father.[20]

The theatrical adaption of The Field of Life and Death in 1999, directed by Tian Qin Xin
The theatrical adaption of The Field of Life and Death in 1999, directed by Tian Qin Xin


  • In 1979, an English translation was completed by Howard Goldblatt and Ellen Yeung.
  • In 1999, a theatrical adaptation of the novella directed by Tian Qin Xin (田沁鑫) was played in Beijing.
  • In 2014, two more theatrical adaptations were played in Beijing.

Further Reading

Chinese Sources

  • Hu Feng, who was considered to be the “spiritual leader of the leftist writers” at the time wrote an epilogue on the novel, titled Duhou Ji (Appendix II: Epilogue to The Field of Life and Death).[19]
  • Lu Xun published Xiao Hong's The Field of Life and Death along with Xiao Jun’s Village in August under the title “Nuli congshu” (Slave Series).
  • In 2004, Chen Shu-Ping published a paper relating Xiao Hong's novella to nation-state literature and feminist literature titled “Return to the Field of life and Death Queries to Text and Criticism and Nation-State Literature”.[21]
  • In 2007, Wang Guqing published a paper analyzing the experience of the female body in the novella under the title "The Fatal Experience of the Female Body and Self-salvation——A Re-interpretation of The Field of Life and Death".[22]
  • In 2017, Chen Da published an article comparing and analyzing the criticisms received by The Field of Life and Death. The article is titled "The Second Life of Literary Works with “Creative Treason": An Analysis of Some Examples in Howard Goldblatt’s English Version of The Field of Life and Death".[23]
  • In 2017, Zhou Mi published a paper discussing the metaphors of the sun, life, death and the people within in the novella under the title "To Ramble the Sun Image in the Novel The Field of Life and Death".[24]
  • In 2019, Li Yaping published an article analyzing the "image of mother", the comparison of human to animals, and the "spiritual enslavement" of women within the story under the title "Brief Analysis of the Narrative Art of Xiao Hong’s Novel of The Field of Life and Death".[25]

English Sources

  • In 1980, Friedrich A. Bischoff published a journal article titled “Hsiao Hung's Wheel of Birth and Death” in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews.[26]
  • In 1994, Lyndia H. Liu wrote a chapter titled “The Female Body and Nationalist Discourse: Manchuria in Xiao Hong’s Field of Life and Death” in the book Body, Subject & Power in China edited by Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow.[27]
  • In 2003, Amy D. Dooling published a chapter titled “Xiao Hong’s Field of Life and Death” in the book The Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literature.[28]

Comments/Book Review

Famous Writer Lu Xun (魯迅)

In the "life and death", one can saw the early Harbin before the anti-Japanese war. This is only a sketch, the narrative and the scene is better than a description of the characters. However, the northern people are strong of life and their struggles in death are fully developed in this novel. The meticulous observation and deviant writing of the female author add a great deal of brightness and freshness.

--Lu Xun(鲁迅)

"The Field of Life and Death" is written in a remote village near Harbin, but it foreshadows China's a part and all, its present and its future, its dead and its life.

--HU FENG(胡风)

In the book "The Field of Life and Death", farmers were living a hard life. Suddenly the northeast fell, and groups of kind-hearted people were slaughtered and raped. It was no use to escape to anywhere, but there was only one real way -- resistance.[29]

--WANG YAO(王瑶)

The effect is powerful...prosaic, effective clarity.

--Kirkus Reviews

Marvelously cinematic...explains each sight and sound as if it were an ideograph.

--The New Yorker

Extraordinary...In a few broad strokes, Xiao Hong makes us see how characters arrive at the end of their tether and are pushed beyond it.



  1. Hu, Ying Nan (2011-09-29). "Xiaohong "The Field of Life and Death" yùnyù hé juéqǐ (蕭紅《生死場》的孕育和崛起)". 哈爾濱新聞網 (隸屬國務院新聞辦). Retrieved 2021-03-14.
  2. Cheng, Jian (2015-02-25). "Lu Xun comments Xiao Hong (魯迅婉言評價蕭紅)". Yangcheng Evening News. Retrieved 2021-03-14.
  3. S. C. M, Paine (2003). The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 65.
  4. Guo, Ting (2016). Surviving in Violent Conflicts: Chinese Interpreters in the Second Sino-Japanese War. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 132.
  5. 杨馥菱 (2012-04). "对萧红漂泊人生的再审视". 知网文化. Archived from the original on 2012-04. Retrieved 2021-03-20. Check date values in: |date=, |archive-date= (help)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Xiao, Hong (1979). The Field of Life and Death and Tales of Hulan River: Two Novels. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Jia, Yong (2015). "《生死场》中的赵三形象分析". 中文科技期刊数据库(文摘版)经济管理 – via 文档之家.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Li, Yaping (2019). "Brief Analysis of the Narative Art of Xiao Hong's Novel of The Field of Life and Death". Journal of Huaihai Institute of Technology (Humanities & Social Sciences Edition). doi:10.3969/j.isn.2095-333X.2019.02.011 – via CNKI.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Deng, Zengdi (2017). "浅析《生死场》中金枝的悲剧命运". 参考网. Retrieved 2021-03-18.
  10. Tan, Jinmei (2017-07-16). "《生死场》中金枝的形象分析". 道客巴巴. Retrieved 2021-03-18.
  11. Ye, Jun (2020). "Yes, I am JInzhi". Journal of Jilin Normal University (Humanities & Social Science Edition). doi:10.3969/j.issn.2096-2991.2020.06.008 – via CNKI.
  12. "生死场写作结构和人物特点". 文档之家. Retrieved 2021-03-18.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Lu, Zhuhui. "论萧红《生死场》中人的动物性寓言". 名作欣赏 – via CNKI.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Wu, Fang (2020). "On the Tragedy of Women's Marriage and Love in XIAO Hong's The Field of Life and Death and Its Practical Significance". Education Teaching Forum – via CNKI.
  15. "生死场 (萧红著中篇小说)". 百度百科. Retrieved 2021-03-19.
  16. Huang, Xiaojuan (2002). "Confrontation of Human Benightness ———On the theme of The Life and Death Fair". Journal of Guangxi Teachers College (Social Science Edition). doi:10.16601/j.cnki.issn1002-5227.2002.04.006 – via CNKI.
  17. Hong, Liang (2020). "论萧红《生死场》中两种"意义"的交锋". 广播电视大学学报(哲学社会科学版). doi:10.16161/j.issn.1008-0597.2020.02.007 – via CNKI.
  18. Zhao, Xin (2017). "谈《生死场》的独特思想内涵与爱国情怀". 参花(下) – via CNKI.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 Huang, Nicole (2007). "Hong Xiao". Gale Literature Resource Center.
  20. Ho, Felicia Jiawen (2012). "Full Spectrum of Selves in Modern Chinese Literature: From Lu Xun to Xiao Hong". eScholarship: 201.
  21. Chen, Shu-Ping (2004). [淮阴师范学院中文系 江苏淮安223001; "Return to the Field of life and Death Queries to Text and Criticism and Nation-State Literature"] Check |url= value (help).
  22. Wang, Guqing (2007). "The Fatal Experience of the Female Body and Self-salvation——A Re-interpretation of The Field of Life and Death".
  23. Chen, Da (2017). "The Second Life of Literary Works with "Creative Treason":An Analysis of Some Examples in Howard Goldblatt's English Version of The Field of Life and Death".
  24. Zhou, Mi (2017). "To Ramble the Sun Image in the Novel The Field of Life and Death".
  25. Li, Yaping (2019). "Brief Analysis of the Narrative Art of Xiao Hong's Novel of The Field of Life and Death".
  26. Bischoff, Friedrich (1980). "Hsiao Hung's Wheel of Birth and Death". Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews: 249–257 – via JSTOR.
  27. Lydia, Liu. "The Female Body and Nationalist Discourse: Manchuria in Xiao Hong's Field of Life and Death".
  28. Amy, Dooling (2003). "Xiao Hong's Field of Life and Death".
  29. 苗玉娟.《生死场》主题研究综述[J].商业文化(上半月),2011-08-15.