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To Live (活著) by Yu Hua 余華 - Review with spoilers


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I didn't post any disclaimer when I posted this on my blog because hardly anyone will read it, but I guess there is a decent chance that someone in this forum might want to read the novel To Live (活著). So, if that person is you, stop reading *here* because there are major spoilers to follow.

That said, the overall direction of the book should be pretty clear from the opening scene of the book when we hear Fugui calling his imaginary oxen the names that we later learn are the names of his loved ones. But we still don't know how those names came to be the names of imaginary oxen. In the case of Youqing and Kugen, there untimely ends came as quite a surprise to me. Jiazhen obviously had it coming, and Fugui's parents were no surpise. Fengxia's end was overshadowed by the pure happiness, which was could only signal doom in this book. The final death of Kugen seemed kind of senseless, as if the story required it for symmetry. I would have been happy if Kugen could have at least served as a token symbol of hope.

Sorry if this isn't the write forum to post in, but it seemed logical.

Here's the review:

To Live (活著)

By: Yu Hua (余華)

ISBN: 9867252098

Yu Hua's "To Live" is one of those tragic stories in which life is one loss after another. Most lives are a combination of ups and downs, but in a novel like "To Live," the moments of idyllic happiness are just preludes to another loss. Such a consistently tragic story runs the risk of sounding hackish, but there is a case to be made for this kind of story; After all, what life doesn't end in death? What happiness doesn't end? Your ability to stomach a whole novel of tragedy will determine whether or not this is a book for you.

“To Live” is the story of Fugui. As an old man, Fugui tells his life story to the narrator of the novel. Fugui's story begins when he was the spoiled son of a rich land-holding family. He gambles away his family's land and home, leaving him a pauper. The rest of the book follows the life of Fugui as a peasant (and as an unwilling soldier), which includes the death of all his past and future family members.

This novel was made into an award-winning film by director Zhang Yimou. Where the film departs from the novel, it is usually for the best. Highlighting some of these differences will indicate some of the flaws of the novel.

The first difference is Fugui's personality. In the beginning of the film, Fugui is obsessed with gambling and is cold toward his wife. In the novel, the early-period Fugui is plain evil. His vice is not limited to gambling; Fugui tells us that frequenting brothels goes hand in hand with gambling. On his way back home from the brothel, he rides on the back of a prostitute, and makes a trip by his father-in-law's shop just to humiliate him. When his wife comes to stop him from gambling, he slaps her twice and has her dragged away. When he loses his family fortune, Fugui is not worthy of sympathy. After that loss, the Fugui of the novel undergoes a miraculous change. He may not be a model father, but we see not a touch of the selfishness of the early Fugui. It is as if Fugui's vices were a product of his family's wealth, and not something intrinsic in his personality. Fugui's rapid transformation makes the first part of the novel ring false, a dramatic story tacked onto the life of a peasant. This transformation seems too amazing, not just in his personality, but also in how he adapts to becoming a peasant. In the film, after losing the fortune, Fugui makes money by performing shadow puppets plays. This is visually interesting, and is more believable than his new profession in the book, in which the spoiled young master apparently had no problems in the transition to being a farmer.

The second major change in the film is in the personality of Jiazhen, Fugui's wife. Jiazhen in the novel is persistently supportive of Fugui. She is a thoroughly flat character who does not really come to life until two-thirds of the way through the book. In the film, Jiazhen, played by Gong Li, is a stronger character. Some of Fugui's lines in the book are given to Jiazhen. We also see a playful side of her that is never shown in the book, when she and her son play a trick on Fugui, substituting vinegar and pepper sauce for his tea.

The greatest difference between the book and movie is simply that the movie is much shorter. The movie ends before Fugui has lost everyone, thereby leaving the audience with hope for Fugui. I don’t think this would have been a better film if it had been an hour longer.

Another difference between film and book is that political movements are more visible in the film. This might make the film more interesting, especially for foreign viewers, but this change does not reflect a flaw in the original story, it is just a change in focus. For example, in the movie, Fugui’s daughter Fengxia dies as a direct result of the Cultural Revolution. Some critics see this as a sharp criticism of communism, and indeed, the film was banned in China. However, criticism of the Cultural Revolution does not necessarily mean criticism of the modern communist party. In my opinion, the book makes a harsher criticism in its description of the death of Fugui's son Youqing, which comes as a result of literally bloodsucking toadyism. Doctors draw Youqing's blood to aid the wife of a county official, drawing his blood until he collapses. This criticism is not linked to any specific political movement; it's not even necessarily linked to communism.

I've focused on the flaws in the story, but there is plenty to praise in the book. One of the best parts of the book is the characterization of Youqing and his relationship with his father, Fugui. We see Youqing pursuing his own interests, namely goats and running. Fugui uses his primitive methods to guide his son to more practical things, struggling to be a good father when he is mostly clueless as to how fathers should act. In this context, the death of Youqing is the most painful death in the book. The well-portrayed father-son relationship extends to Fugui's grandson, Kugen. In one amusing passage, Fugui has the blacksmith make a child-size sickle for the young Kugen. However, like all the relationships in the book, it comes to an end by death, this time by choking on food, leaving this reader also a little fed up by the relentless tragedy.

(From http://taiwanonymous.blogspot.com/2005/10/book-review-to-live.html)

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Hey, I thought I left a comment on your blog last nite, but apparently, that didn't get through.

Basically what I was saying is that I saw much more hope in the book. There is a sentence that features prominently in both book and movie, something about trading up from a small chicken I believe it was. Forgot how exactly it went, but I guess you'll know what I'm talking about. So for me, one of the major points of the book was how people pick themselves up everytime they fall (even though thinking about it, hope may be too strong a word for that. Maybe it is somewhere between 'hope' and 'surviving'...)

This theme might have different implications for someone having gone through the cultural revolution, but me, at that time having lived neither in China nor anyplace else, can't really further explore this issue...

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The most hopeful theme about surviving that I could draw would be something like "Life's not over until you die." Not exactly something for a greeting card :)

That saying about the chicken was something like "if you have a chicken you can trade it for a goat and then eventually trade it for a ox." But at the end of the story, Fugui has an ox, and not much else. It makes the saying lose its value.

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  • 2 years later...

I finally finished the book. I expected it to be very sad mostly, and there were some really sad parts, but also some really happy ones that had me smiling while I read, like when Fugui eats mantou and then comes home, when Youqing wins the running match, and Fengxia's marriage. I didn't find it as sad as I thought it would be.

The final death of Kugen seemed kind of senseless, as if the story required it for symmetry. I would have been happy if Kugen could have at least served as a token symbol of hope.
I don't quite agree. Kugen's death finished the novel, would he still be alive by the end of the book then the story would not be complete, he had to die, and so does Fugui, who doesn't die within the book, but he does describe exactly what will happen when he does die.

I liked it how the ox was basically the same as Fugui, and that's why he couldn't let it die and bought it. He says he's trying to fool the ox by calling all those other names, I was thinking inhowfar he is trying to fool himself as well as the oxen.

But at the end of the story, Fugui has an ox, and not much else. It makes the saying lose its value.
Without that ox he would have nothing, I felt that that ox rather saved his life, in a way.
So for me, one of the major points of the book was how people pick themselves up everytime they fall (even though thinking about it, hope may be too strong a word for that. Maybe it is somewhere between 'hope' and 'surviving'...)
I agree with this. They cry, they are sad, but then they live on with what is left. Except for Chunsheng.

Another difference between film and book: the book blames nothing, absolutely nothing on communism. In the film, Fengxia would have lived if it wasn't for the craziness of the CR; in the book she just dies despite doctors.

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  • 1 year later...
Another difference between film and book: the book blames nothing, absolutely nothing on communism. In the film, Fengxia would have lived if it wasn't for the craziness of the CR; in the book she just dies despite doctors.

I gotta say I disagree about this.

Youqing's death was perhaps the most well described of any of the other deaths in the family (Besides his father). His death was because all his blood was literally sucked out of him to save the wife of a Communist official (the magistrate). Powerful symbol there. Blood of the people, of an innocent kid, to save a party official's life.

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