"To Live": Yu Hua's Brief Masterpiece
Could the novel To Live by Chinese author Yu Hua be one of the greatest novels in the past fifty years? It probably is—at least in this author’s opinion. At any rate, it deserves to be in the discussion.
The book was initially banned in China, a banning which, naturally, led to worldwide fame for Yu Hua and launched his career abroad. The book went on to win a number of international awards and was then made into a movie—also banned in China.
Whatever the critics might ultimately decide about where this book fits into the literary canon, one thing is certain: The combination of emotional power, humor, and storytelling craft in this brief masterpiece is one found rarely, if ever, in contemporary literature.
The plot of the book is simple: As a young man, the protagonist Fugui enjoys whoring and gambling till his family’s entire fortune is squandered. He then works as a peasant farmer, becomes a soldier, and endures the meager Mao years as he becomes a father and grandfather over four harrowing decades in Chinese history. Though the book covers a long stretch of time, it’s swiftly told, in just 236 pages.
At the book’s opening, we meet an old, bare-chested Fugui, plowing with his ox in the provinces. He has white hair, his face is covered in mud, and “the crotch area of the pants is dropping down around his knees.”
The narrator approaches Fugui and hears him calling his ox by several names.
“Why do you call him so many names?” the narrator asks.
“Oh,” Fugui answers, “I’m afraid he’ll discover he’s the only one working in the field, so I call out the other names to fool him. If he thinks there’s others around, he’ll work harder and won’t feel so depressed.”
In the pantheon of human-animal scenes in literature, this and other interactions between Fugui and his ox rival Gogol’s coachman in Dead Souls, who lashes and chats with his beasts as he goads them down the road.
The book’s style is difficult to describe. To Live has the emotional rawness of Elena Ferrante’s work. It has the earthen tones of Alice Munro—yet it’s more vivid. It has the breadth of despair we find in Toni Morrison—and yet every page is ripe with jokes. It has the colloquial, backcountry cast of Mark Twain—yet without Twain’s sentimentalism.
The coarse texture of Yu Hua isn’t for everyone. You have to have a taste for a man falling asleep on a fat prostitute and describing it as “falling asleep in a boat, rocking back and forth as you float down a river.” You have to enjoy hearing how a silk shirt feels like something “made out of snot.”
In Yu Hua’s world, it is not uncommon for a person to be crushed between two slabs of cement into a paste, which is how one of the book’s main characters dies. The harsh landscape of To Live is enough to put the struggle of Karl Ove Knausgard into perspective.
But through it all, the book remains both poignant and hilarious. As an old man, Fugui is stuck caring for his orphaned grandson:
I reached out and discovered he had wet his side of the bed. No wonder his little ass kept coming over to press against me. So I just let it.
Similar scenes of humor and humanity appear on nearly every page. Throughout, Fugui is not outraged. He is not self-pitying. He bears his suffering without knowledge that there could be another life. In a way, he can’t even be said to “bear” his suffering, for he does not think of suffering as something separate from him, something that can simply be thrown off.
Told in brief scenes which flow without chapter breaks, To Live generates its rhythm from misfortunes which beget good fortunes, followed by good fortunes which beget disasters.
To take one example, the rich Fugui gambles away his ancestors’ land and ends up working as a peasant for the very man who swindled him. But soon after, communists sweep through the village and execute all the landowners. If Fugui had not lost the property, he would have been killed.
"The more we thought about it,” reflects Fugui, “the more we became convinced that it all came down to fate.”
The book is a string of such reversals, and brings to mind the famous old Chinese parable:
One day a horse ran away from a farmer. The neighbors said, “What bad luck!” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” A few days later, the horse came back, with a few wild mares. “What good luck!” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” said the farmer. Later that week, as the farmer’s son tried to tame one of the new mares, he fell off and broke his leg. “Bad luck!” they said. “We’ll see,” said the farmer. A few weeks later, soldiers marched through, recruiting for the army. Since the boy’s leg is broken, he remained behind. “What good luck!” they said. “We’ll see,” says the farmer. And so on.
For Fugui in provincial China, there are no political solutions, no economic solutions, no scientific solutions. There aren’t even any spiritual solutions—there’s no God to which this Job turns. The only appeal that can be made in Yu Hua’s world is human-to-human. Some people have heart, others don’t. Sometimes you’re spared, sometimes you’re not.
Fugui is thus rather perplexing. How are we supposed to feel about a man who lives merely day-to-day, without a grand plan, without a coherent philosophy, without a political objective, without, seemingly, any religious faith, and to whom good and bad fortune comes at random? Is he good? Is he bad? Is he pathetic? Is he heroic?
His rash choices mean his wife has to pick roots for food, instead of living in a plush house. Yet later, Fugui will literally carry his wife on his back to the hospital when she is sick. He is so idiotic he calls himself a “beast,” and yet he will also spend the last of his money to save an ox from the slaughter. He is so timid he makes a useless soldier, yet later he bravely intervenes to stop a communist official from beating a friend to death.
Yu Hua himself found something exemplary, and indeed heroic, in his hero. “I have never met anyone who has as much respect for life as Fugui,” Yu Hua has said. “Although he has more reason to die than most people, he keeps on living.”
There’s one last Chinese fable that might shed light on the beguiling, appealing Fugui. It’s from the philosopher Chuang Tzu:
One day, Hui Tzu came to Chuang and lamented, “I have a big tree, the kind they call a ‘stinktree.’ It’s so full of knots, no one can get a straight plank out of it. If you wanted to make a ship, it would soon rot; if you wanted to make tools, they would break. You can't do anything with this tree—it’s useless.”
Chuang Tzu answered, “Useless, hm? But look at the pear, orange, and apple trees. Even before they can ripen their fruit is taken, their branches are broken, their twigs are torn. If your stinktree had been useful, it never would have grown so big, nor lived so long.”
After a life of unthinkable misery, Fugui remains alive, standing near a puddle on a country road, with an old ox as his companion. He is not pathetic. Nor is he admirable. He teaches us no lesson. Like the mysterious stinktree, Fugui seems to have no purpose at all. He just…is.
Strangest of all, he’s happy.
Mark Cecil is a writer based outside of Boston. You can reach him at mark dot cecil at gmail dot com.See other articles by Mark Cecil