To Live by Yu Hua: A Tremendous Journey into The Meaning of Life

Written by Maria Giglio

活着 To Live – A novel written by Yu Hua is the history of China 20th seen through the history of a family. 

One of the most prominent authors of post-Maoist literature, Yu Hua voices the anxiety and criticism of a generation lived in Cultural Revolution with sharp realism. 

The novel is written in the form of story in a story and uses first-person narration to emphasise the realistic feature of the family facts told by the main protagonist Xu Fugui and intertwined with the historical events that marked China during 20th Century, such as the Land Reform, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine.  The author revealed that for this novel he was inspired by an American folk song, “Old Black Joe”. The song talked about an old slave who, despite having experienced hardship and sorrow, would still look at life as a gift. 

The novel, published in China in 1993, was originally banned for its historical controversy, but it was later proclaimed as one of the most important works of Chinese contemporary literature. Today, To Live is considered a cult and a must-read to those interested in Chinese history and literature. 


The novel takes place in southern Chinese countryside. The plot unfolds with the technique of double narration. The first narrator is a young student who travels across Chinese villages and connect with farmers and peasants to learn their stories. The second narrator is Xu Fugui, the protagonist, an old man who lives a simple, bucolic lifestyle. After having survived the death of all his loved ones, he now spends his days accompanied by an old ox also named Fugui that he once saved from slaughter. gui discloses his life to the young stranger starting from the time he was a young and arrogant rich man. A son of a wealthy land-owner, Fugui used to spend all his family money on gambling and prostitutes, constantly disregarding his father’s admonitions and his responsibilities to his pregnant wife Jiazhen. One day, Fugui squanders all the entire fortune over gambling, which causes his father to die of despair. In poverty, desperation and misery, he finds wisdom and balance and eventually grows a better man. He starts to appreciate the importance of hard work, the value of his wife who after-all has never abandoned him.

He lives through the atrocities of civil war as a brave and loyal friend. He strives for being a caring and generous father to his elder daughter Fenxia and the young son Youqing. Over his hard life, Fugui sees all his loved ones one by one tragically and prematurely pass away.  Nonetheless, he appreciates that he, after all, lives. And so, live he does, in modesty and compassion.   

It’s better to live an ordinary life. If you go on striving for this and that, you’ll end up paying with your life.” 

To Live – Yu Hua

Yu Hua’s writing is overwhelmingly realistic and crude and doesn’t spare violent and excruciating details. However, it is right through his its raw descriptions that he engages the reader with an especially intense and emotionally charging narration. 

Movie adaptation

In 1994, To Live was adapted to the screen with a homonymous movie directed by Zhang Yimou. The script keeps somewhat loyal to the plot, although the rawness of Yu Hua’s narrative is highly sweetened with a rather melancholic tone. More emphasis is given to the historical and social context in which the drama takes place. The ox, which seems quite a fundamental, symbolic character of the book implicitly reflecting the protagonist’s stoic endurance, is also removed from the script. Moreover, the original countryside setting is replaced with a northern city background. Finally, the script adds symbolic insights of shadow puppetry.  

Ironically, even though death, violence and pain are at the centre of this emotionally charging, beautiful Chinese tragedy, the author chooses to name the novel To Live. I read it as an exhortation for everyone to always look at life with kind eyes, no matter what happens. To put it in Fugui’s words:

“No matter how lucky a person is, the moment he decides he wants to die, there’s nothing that will keep him alive.”

To Live – Yu Hua

The novel bares human frailty in all its facets, to send a message of endurance.  

In 2003, an official English version of To Live was edited by Michael Berry (Professor of Contemporary Chinese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara) and published by Anchor Books & Random House of Canada Limited.  

The book in its English version is available on Amazon at less than 15.00 $. Have you read it already? I would love to hear what you think!

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