"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. 

About the Author

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
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