To Live under Communism
"To live" by Yu Hua
was originally banned in China when it was first published in 1992 because
the book exposed the faulty rule of the communist party in China. This
literary masterpiece spans across four decades of history that include
such historic events as the Sino-Japanese war, the civil war between the
communists and the nationalists, the founding of the people's republic
of China, the Great Leap Forward movement, and the Cultural Revolution.
Ironically enough, the novel is called "To Live" when so many
of the characters die in the story. Fugui is the only character in the
book that remains alive at the end of the story. Throughout his life,
Fugui is obsessed with appearing to be an enthusiastic communist supporter
because anyone else that is not is deemed a threat to the communist party,
publicly humiliated or sentenced to death. Such was the case of Long'er
who was humiliated and executed for being a privileged landowner in pre-communist
China. The irony that Fugui finds in this case is the fact that if he
had not gambled all of his property, he could have been facing the same
fate as Long'er. The trouble with the communist system in China was the
movement to eliminate or exile anybody who had an education. The problem
with this sort of revolution is that people such as doctors became the
target for the communist revolution. This is the very reason why Fugui's
deaf and mute daughter Fengxia died after childbirth. The people that
were taking care of her at the hospital were inexperienced students and
after childbirth, Fengxia died of blood loss as a result of their ignorance.
If the doctors were still in the hospital, there would have been a better
chance for Fengxia to be alive. "To Live" shows the fear in
which communism has instilled in Fugui because after Youqing gets revenge
on the bully who was picking on Youqing's sister, Fugui publicly betrays
his son because he is afraid that if he does not chastise his son in front
of the public, people would think that he was not a communist supporter
or even an enemy of the communist party. Fugui later on realized that
what he did was bad and later apologizes to his son and offers to make
it up to him. Of course, it would not be too long before Youqing dies
due to Chunsheng's reckless driving. This incident was not entirely Chunsheng's
fault. Everyone was exhausted due to mass movements to realize Mao's idea
of communism. If Chunsheng was not so tired, Youqing might not have died.
This is yet another example of how the communist government has put its
people in danger.
The Power of Simplicity
The simple life is often said to be free and full of ease. To live a simple life, one doesn't need much, just a roof over his or her head, food, water, and a job to generate enough money to get by. The simple life has no deadlines, no worries of constant wealth or material possessions. The point is to enjoy life with no worries of the economy, class or reputations. Within the simple life, the family can also become stronger. Bonds become stronger and the love that families share becomes unconditional. Fugui, the main character of the story, was once in a complicated life, he was once a part of an extremely wealthy family. He lived in a mansion, had servants that served him day and night. When he gambled his life away, he lost everything and was left with nothing. He's life suddenly came to a screeching halt and became quite simple and plain. He made a simple living being a farmer living in a slow paced rural village where all of the families performed the same duties as well as functioned similarly. Although life was simple, it did not mean that getting through this life was simple. Food was scarce, the work was hard, and Fugui's family endured disaster after disaster. A simple life does not necessarily mean a life without pain, emotional trauma and hard work. With simplicity, there also comes a hidden drive of complication. Through that complication emerges a lesson of love and devotion to the family. The family is to be treasured and protected and through all the suffering, Fugui emerged with a new ideal on life.
Throughout his new simple life, Fugui encountered moments of happiness as well as moments of despair. The complications of his life unravel themselves event after event. They all seem to have one connection, family. Every one of the glitches in his simple life takes away a loved one. One by one, he watched his family members disappear before his eyes. First his father, as the result of him losing the house to gambling, then his mother, his wife, his son, his daughter, his son-in-law, and then finally his grandson. All of these deaths were all caused by the simplicity of their life and the lack of resources that they needed in order to survive. The overload on stressful fieldwork, the malnourishment, and the failure to have decent doctors for Feng Xia during her pregnancy all contribute to the gradual disintegration and final collapse of Fugui's family. The simplicity of the village does not allow its inhabitants to have meat, less labor-intensive jobs, or a sense of one's self as an individual, which are luxuries of a leisurely life. Everything boils down to the simple rural community, with a village leader deciding the main issues on behalf of the village. This slow paced simple life filled Fugui's life completely. Coming from a background of wealth, where material possessions are everything and gambling was just for fun, Fugui made a huge turn around and was thrown into a life of constant hunger and physical labor. His routine life was hard, but brought him closer to his family. The simplicity of the family was the most important part of this novel. The family stays strong regardless of the consequences; it struggles when Fugui has wealthy but it flourished and strengthened after he lost everything and became a poor farmer. Material possessions are but a mere distraction for the family and only when the family has nothing left do they truly appreciate each other's company. The love they have for each other emerges and they live in peace. Although the peace does not last because of the many social upheavals in modern Chinese history, the love of the family stays strong and because Fugui is the only one left, he will carry on his family's legacy and story. Through the disadvantages of the simple life, which ultimately lead to the deaths of all of the ones that he loves, he still lives on with a purpose. His loneliness is accompanied with the memory of his simple, loving family.
Tangled Puppet Strings
There were very few families who were not greatly affected by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China. Many times violent and brutal, the revolutionary zeal taking over the nation—mainly embedded in the youth—strayed the movement from its idealistic intentions of replacing old values with new. To Live, first a novel by Yu Hua later adapted into a film by Zhang Yimou, illustrates the effects of the Cultural Revolution, among other political movements led by the communists, on simple people who were quite ignorant of the political situation of China at that time. In Yu Hua's novel, the main character and narrator Xu Fugui says when the Revolution first "hits" his town, "We were just your average everyday folk. It wasn't that we didn't care about national issues, it was simply that we didn't understand that kind of stuff…All it took was one word from the higher-ups and we'd all think and do whatever they wanted." While the Xu family tried to appear faithful to Chairman Mao, they still regretted the abrupt obliteration of some traditional customs and values they had held at heart. Though easily welcoming the Cultural Revolution into his family, as is represented by the character of Wan Erxi, Xu Fugui still feels how the political chaos of the time negatively interferes with his own personal values and respect for the past, whether it is China's past or his own.
The character of Wan Erxi, a loyal Red Guard and the eventual son-in-law of Fugui, represents the Cultural Revolution making its way into the Xu family, most clearly evident in the visual presentation of him and his actions in Zhang Yimou's film. Red band proudly displayed on his arm, Wan Erxi easily works his way into the hearts of Fugui, his wife, and their daughter Fengxia by taking on the project of fixing their leaking roof and painting their dull walls. The warm welcome he receives from the family shows their willingness to adopt the ideals of the Cultural Revolution. Erxi seems to promise a better future for Fengxia especially, and his intentions seem genuine. However, it should be noted that he is handicapped. In the book, he has a crooked head, and in the film, a dead leg. Both the neck and the leg are support for the body, and because Erxi is lacking either the support of a strong neck or a strong leg in either version of To Live, it can be interpreted that the author and filmmaker are trying to suggest that the Cultural Revolution was "crippled," despite the nice promises it made for China. Wan Erxi, described in the book as wealthy, makes Fengxia's wedding very extravagant and in the beginning is always bringing over meat and wine for the Xu family, which impress them very much, but in the end he is driven into debt because of it. The Cultural Revolution initially had a great following due to its big ideas and promised progress, and yet "turned [towns] upside down" and left many families suffering from poverty and personal tragedy.
Though the Cultural Revolution was married into the Xu family through Wan Erxi—who paints portraits of Mao on the Xu property and decorates his pillowcases with Mao slogans—Fugui still feels an attachment to traditional values that oppose the revolutionary thought of the time. This is most clearly represented by the puppet shows he performs as a means of income. This form of storytelling (and telling old stories of emperors and feudal types) as entertainment for crowds is an ancient Chinese custom, so Fugui quickly attracts scrutiny during the Revolution and is asked to burn the puppets, his only possessions to which he felt great attachment and which make him stand out as an individual in such a chaotic world. His puppets he can control with his hands while the society around him slips out of the control. Eventually, though, the team leader who introduced Wan Erxi to the Xu family is the one who orders Fugui to burn his delicate puppets. His personality, individuality, and appreciation of traditional China are swallowed whole by authority attached to the government. Even when the man who accidentally kills Fugui's only son is persecuted for being a "capitalist roader," Fugui remembers the past he had with the same man and their experiences together in the war on the Nationalist side. He can not find himself to wish anything ill for Chuhsheng—though his admired son-in-law Erxi orders that a "line must be drawn between [them and Chuhsheng]"—because it was Chuhsheng who helped keep Fugui alive during the war. In the face of a brutal Revolution, Fugui's loyalty to his past and to his personal relationships, rather than to Mao or even his new son-in-law, demonstrates one simple man's internal struggle with rapidly changing times.
Fate, Retribution, and Karma
"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"(231), is one of the last things Fugui, the main character of Yu Hua's novel To Live says to the narrator of the story. Fugui is an old man when he speaks this phrase, and, after living the life he has, it can be deemed as nothing short of true. As a result of Fugui's addiction to gambling, in the beginning of the novel, the formerly wealthy man loses everything he and the rest of his family have, and all responsibility comes to rest on him, even though his loss was induced unfairly by Long Er. As the story progresses, Fugui finds himself working as he never has before in order to repay his debts, though the real repayment comes from karma, and the way in which it effects his family. At the end of the novel, Fugui is left with nothing but an oxen, every member of his family having died from one incident or another. Was the death of Fugui's family the repayment of his debts, made through the workings of fate and karma?
Throughout Yu Hua's novel, the concept of fate and, more specifically, the Buddhist idea of karma is a consistent theme, starting with that one night in the teahouse that would change Fugui's life forever, as well as that of his family. Fugui's early life was one of extreme selfishness, filled with little more than self-indulgent nights of gambling, frequent visits with prostitutes, as well as the complete disregard for his deeply devoted wife and family. In gambling away all of his family's fortune, that which was not his, Fugui was really setting himself up for the wrath of fate, which sent his life into something resembling a downward spiral. After his possession, his home, and his land are taken away, Fugui's family members begin to die, one by one, of mostly accidents and strange twists of fate, starting with his father who falls during his daily morning routine. In losing each of his family members, his mother, his wife, his daughter, and his son, Fugui is left with nothing but himself, and is really forced to come face to face with the mistakes that he has made in life. It is somewhat strange, however, that Fugui's family comes to suffer for his mistakes, even going so far as to sacrifice their lives. Were Fugui's mistakes in life really horrible enough to justify the death of his entire family? Though his life took such an awful turn for the worse, Fugui was also rewarded with some kind of revenge when Long Er, the man who originally unfairly won all of his land was killed in the process of land reform, also arguably the works of fate, retribution, and karma.
However, despite all of this evidence, one has to wonder whether this story is really a representation of karma, retribution, and carefully plotted fate, or whether it is simply the depiction of a series of chance, unfortunate coincidences and accidents. Perhaps that is the point that the author, Yu Hua, is trying to get across. Are any of us truly in charge of our lives? Are we simply pawns and accessories in the game of fate? Does fate even exist at all, or is the world made up entirely of accidents and unrelated happenings? Whether it was a result of luck or a more carefully planned course of events, Fugui is still alive after the death of all of his family, and has to continue living with his consciousness and his memories.
To Live Is To Slip By
Yu Hua's To Live embodies the span of four generations of change in China. It blends themes of Daoism, simplicity, and the value of family to create a portrait of the struggle the average Chinese person endured during the Civil War, the land reform, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China.
Fugui is the main character and only person of his family to survive the four decades covered in the book. While he initially is foolhardy and gambles his family's fortune away he, even at this young stage of his life, still has his family in mind, "thinking that [he] was just about to bring honor back to [his] ancestors," by winning more money.
His bond to his family is a prominent theme throughout the whole story. When he is conscripted into the Nationalist army, all he thinks about is his family. He realizes that he is "the only flame the Xu family still has burning. If [he] is extinguished, the Xu family will be finished." Therefore, when he is taken in by the Liberation army and allowed to go home, he is more than willing to go and help the family he has missed. He had reduced his family to poverty, but now he realized that "as long as [his] family could be together every day, who really cared about good fortune?"
When he returned home he was also faced with the first instance of obvious karma portrayed in the story. Long Er, the man whom he'd gambled his family's home and fortune away to, had been labeled a despotic landlord by the Communist Party and was consequently executed. Fugui went to watch his execution only to leave because Long Er shouted "Fugui, I'm dying for you!" Fugui had escaped death on the battlefield, and now had escaped Long Er's fate. Having faced death twice, he decided that "this time…I've got to keep on living."
The Buddhist theme of karma and cycles occurs several times during this story. Fugui's father cried "retribution, it's retribution," when he discovered that Fugui had made the same mistake of gambling the family fortune that he himself had made. Yet facing death twice made Fugui feel that "the graves of [his] ancestors must have been in the right place." Fugui, in reference to his wife, also states that "for me to have had the good fortune to marry such a virtuous person in this life must have been repayment for having been a barking dog in the last."
Daoism is also revealed in the story through themes of simplicity. Nearing the end of his life, Fugui remarks that "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." This statement criticizes those who died chasing the Communist dream. While he initially wanted to kill himself after losing everything in the beginning of the story, by the end he is happy that the longer is the one that lived in his mansion and died because of it while he has managed to "squeeze by, the more useless [he's] become, but in the end [he's] lived a long time."
When Fugui first starts the backbreaking work of farming, his mother says "poverty lowers the ambition of man." This seems to echo the Daoist theme of living a simplistic life, and being able to live because you strive towards nothing in particular. Fugui's wife, Jiazhen, reflects this theme of being content with what fate offers you by telling Fugui that "I don't want any kind of good fortune…I'll be happy if I'm able to sew you a new pair of shoes each year."
To Live is one man's survival through some of China's most tumultuous changes by living a life of simplicity. He initially wants to die because he has reduced his family, which he cares so much about, to nothing. Yet facing death, he finds he really wants to live on. Many Chinese got caught up in the revolution, but Fugui reflected the Daoist idea of letting things be without attempting to rationalize life. He is able to slip by during such hard years, because he allows himself to want for nothing but life.
The Political vs. Private
In his film To Live, director Zhang Yimou explores the relationship between the political and the personal in attempting to answer the profound question of what it means “to live”. He accomplishes this through the juxtaposition of the life of a Chinese family with the major political events of their time, taking the viewer on a visual and emotional journey through three decades of Chinese History, from the Civil War to “The Great Leap Forward”, seen through the eyes of protagonist Fu-gui and his family. However, despite the prevalence of politics, Zhang is not making a film intended to extol the virtues of Communism. On the contrary, politics are depicted as being a detrimental force, responsible for much of the despair in the lives of the characters. It is more appropriate to describe To Live as a film about Fu-gui’s development from one who is highly idealistic about politics, to one who realizes that true happiness is to be found within his private life with his family.
Fu-gui’s idealistic journey begins early in the film, when he
returns from the Civil War, and, with his newfound social status as a
revolutionary, becomes highly enthusiastic about communism. His enthusiasm
is exemplified in a scene depicting a conversation between Fu-gui and
his son, You-qing. In the scene, You-qing is riding on Fu-gui’s
back, and Fu-gui tells him, with much enthusiasm, “…when the
chicks grow big, they will turn into geese; when the geese get big enough,
they will turn into lambs; when the lambs have grown, they will turn into
oxen…and then from the oxen …communism, and everybody will
eat meat every day!” It is clear from this exchange that Fu-gui
regards communism as the surest way of attaining a good life. Ultimately,
he becomes so absorbed in communism that he places his political life
as a party member above that of his private life as a father and husband.
It is thus that in the movie’s closing scene Fu-gui has come to understand, through these sufferings, that communism is not the answer to life’s problems. This is revealed in an exchange between Fu-gui and his grandson, Little Bun. In the final scene, he tells Little Bun a variation on the same story he told You-qing years ago, saying, “when the chicks grow big, they will turn into geese; when the geese get big enough, they will turn into lambs, when the lambs have grown, they will turn into oxen…and then Little Bun grows up and life gets better.” The idea of communism has been replaced in Fu-gui’s story by the idea of Little Bun growing up and life getting better, just as the ideal of family life has eclipsed that of politics in Fu-gui’s mind. This dialogue is therefore symbolic of Fu-gui’s transition from idealizing public living to idealizing private living. In reaching this understanding, he has at last learned “to live”.
The Great Leap Into Fear
The Great Leap Forward Movement, which took place in China during 1958, did not live up to its great expectation. Throughout this era, Chinese life consisted of 'just getting by.' The country put on a superficial mask of happiness. People were afraid to speak up because of the title they would acquire: counter-revolutionary. To Live, a novel written by Yu Hua, was an interpretation of one man's experience through this dubious era.
The main character in To Live, Fugui, was the only person who did not die in the novel. Fugui was a compulsive gambler during the land reform movement, eventually losing everything to Long Er, his gambling partner. However, later on in the novel, Long Er was executed for Fugui's possessions he won.
Long Er acquired the fate of Fugui. Because Long Er was considered a member of the landlord class he had an obligation to give his property to the government. He was uncooperative and was killed, rather murdered, for being a counter-revolutionary. Long Er was so uncooperative because he had a rather large ego. Because he won Fugui's house, he thought he had an impervious life: "Long Er was extremely foolish. He thought that they'd lock him up for a few days and that would be that. Never for a second did he believe they'd execute him." Long Er did not understand that Mao wanted the counter-revolutionaries dead. The most important thing to Mao was social progress and Mao wanted nothing standing in his way.
Fugui had a wife named Jiazhen. Together they had a daughter named Fengxia and a son named Youqing. Both of their children fell victim to Mao's great idea of social progress. The first to die was Youqing. He died giving blood for the cause of the revolution. The second to die was Fengxia, who died giving birth because all the doctors were labeled counter-revolutionaries, unable to practice. It seems very odd to imprison experienced doctors when striving for social progress.
Fugui represented the experiences of China as a whole. China knew what it wanted, but at the same time realized what really was going on. People all over China were losing family members and friends in the wake of one revolution after another. However, people never spoke up, so caught up in the revolution that they never felt it was all that terrible.
In my opinion, Mao represented a modern day Machiavelli. He brainwashed the people of China with the aid of fear. In To Live the chief of Fugui's town, Chunsheng, was always saying, "Things will get better someday." But, until the day came where things were better, Mao used fear to rule his country. Counter-revolutionaries were either killed or imprisoned. People could ruin the reputation of their entire family if and when labeled a counter-revolutionary. Mao made people's lives easiest if they followed his orders.
This is why Fugui was the only person who survived. He followed Mao's orders, and was easily swayed by fear. He had no opinions or future ambitions. The only thing Fugui had was his motive to live.
The Blissful Ignorance in a Tragic Life
To Live is an incredibly bittersweet and real tale of an average man's life. Fugui spent a great deal of his youth indulging in guilty pleasures and it is only when he hits rock bottom that he begins to see the error in his way of living. Although Fugui reforms his life in order to get his wife and children back, hardships and misfortune still plague him. Despite these hardships Fugui finds a way to never give up on living, which appears to be the corner stone in his life. Above love and duty the importance of just living is reiterated though out the entire book. Fugui is a respectable man and practices what he preaches. He outlives everyone he loves and still finds a way to make the most of his life. One has to ask himself, was it truly Fugui's fate to survive his entire family or was it just pure stubbornness and to a degree stupidity? In the end life took a greater toll on the ones Fugui loved and though he managed to just live I can't help but wonder, was it worth it?
From European literature, with the likes of Shakespeare, to America's Hollywood, love has obtained supreme status. We are taught to think that a life without love is no life at all and even worth killing oneself. Therefore I find it a truly amazing feat that Fugui was able to live such a long life when it was a life filled with such heartache. Fugui's tale is one that could obtain a unique symmetry if only Fugui himself had died of a broken heart. After his wife had passed away he still had other people to live for but even after his grandson tragically died he still wouldn't give up. In fact the story ends with Fugui still plowing his fields and talking to his old and trusty ox.
It is my cultural upbringing that influences my interpretations of literature just as it is Yu Hua's cultural surroundings that influences his writing. In Chinese culture, especially religion where acceptance of one's place is crucial to their lives, Fugui's actions could be less fascinating. In Western cultures and Christianity the notion of sacrifice is imbedded which would make Fugui's lifespan a little perplexing.
Personally, I try to read any work of fiction with an awareness of cultural differences. There are things that can be lost in a story if you only try to look at them in a way you are used to. Also, I consider myself to be a more 'spiritual' person than a religious one partly due to the fact that Western religions were originally presented to me in a more scholarly fashion than a faithful one. All these factors aside I still found myself to be a little bit of a hopeless romantic. Here is this poor man who has already been through so much and has lost so much and still keeps on going. For many people, they rationalize the hardships of the world as meaningful so long as they feel they are living for something or someone. Fugui doesn't need an excuse to live. Whether that be from his beliefs or his inability to fully understand what life has thrown at him, To Live is a fascinating novel about the cruel ironies in life as well as the simple pleasures a nonentity can find in candidly living.
Old Doesn't Mean Bad: Satisfaction in Simplicity
| Zhang Yimou's adaptation of Yu Hua's To Live
is a critical reflection of what Chinese people as a whole went through
during times of social upheaval, from the ruling of Chiang Kai-shek to the
rise and fall of Mao Ze-dong. In support of the view that such continuous
social upheaval had needlessly destroyed the family, the film shows the
desire of the Chinese people to return to such traditional values which
embrace familial bonds, simplicity, survival and trust.
During this time of the "uninterrupted revolution," families were broken apart. No one was to be trusted, not even mothers, fathers, or the siblings. This period in Chinese history mindlessly destroyed traditionalism; there was no distinction made between the traditional valuing of patriarchy and the valuing of family ties. Anything remotely classifiable as traditional or ancient was dismissed as being counterrevolutionary and was, in turn, destroyed.
In Zhang Yimou's adaptation of To Live, Fugui and his family can be seen fighting to strengthen the family structure and fighting to bring back the enjoyment of life and satisfaction with simple pleasures. They take joy in even the smallest of events such as Fengxia's trying on the hat Wan Erxi left as a gift after his first visit. However, Maoist China had not only crushed the family structure but had instilled dissatisfaction in the people, pushing for constant revolution. With such continuous revolution as a goal, people must be perpetually dissatisfied about one thing or another.
Fugui and his family represent the tradition countervailing Mao's desire for a communist revolution that often destroys the joys in their daily routines and their refusal to push for greatness or success or money. On several occasions Fugui and his family had even been offered large quantities of money, such as after the death of their son Youqing. However, they realize that money will not fix their loss and instead yearn for their family to be whole again, an unrealistic dream, but one that symbolizes their desire for the traditional Chinese values which held family above fame and glory.
After seeing the needless destruction of traditional values, the Chinese people were no longer interested in revolution but wanted simply to survive. Materialism became the most recognizable and easy-to-attack aspect of modernity, and rejecting such materialism became one means of reaching simplicity and satisfaction in life. Fugui's family's survival is attributed largely to Long'er's attainment of the family estate. Had Fugui not striven towards material gain during the beginning of Mao's social upheaval, turning to gambling for money and goods, he would never have lost his property to Long'er. Long'er's desire for materialism was so strong that it cost Fugui his prosperity. However, his greed for Fugui's estate resulted in his death during the land reform. This shows the general consensus among the Chinese that wealth is not the key to happiness. Only when Fugui loses his estate and returns to the traditional art of puppetry to earn his livelihood does his family reunite and manage to survive.
Because of the punishments inflicted upon many during Maoist China, a sense of fear had been instilled among the common Chinese person. The common man had to embrace simplicity in order to survive. Any extravagant actions would attract attention. Anything from owning too much land to writing novels could result in execution. Because of such terrorization, simplicity became the means of survival, and extravagance was shied away from. After the decline of Maoist China, this embracing of simplicity didn't end. It had proven to be a sufficient means for surviving, and with this simplicity came a desire to return to traditional values such as trust and strong familial bonds. The Chinese people had seen what could happen in the name of social progress and just wanted to be happy as they were.
Living By Coincidences
Yu Hua's novel, To Live, is a tale about Fugui, the main character, and his struggle to survive during the tumultuous period of Chinese history in which the Chinese Civil War, land reform, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution took place. From the beginning, one can see the parallels between Fugui and the prodigal son and how well Fugui fits in that role. This story is, however, more than just about one man's transformation. It is also a story about family, about life as a series of meaningful coincidences, and about the negative consequences of having desires.
This story's emphasis on a simple family life and the struggles to keep one's family together speaks greatly to the effects of Mao's policies even though they aren't spoken about in length or depth in this book. To Live instead portrays the harsh realities of Maoism and its ultimate failure to provide the necessities for all people like promised by the Communist ideal. The disastrous consequences that came from such a time had a troublesome effect on the lives of almost all in China. This story does not, however, just portray the political landscapes of China during that period in time.
To Live also portrays life in China from a particular perspective. It tells the story of Taoism and the belief that life is guided by meaningful coincidences or chance to be accepted as one's fate. Under such a belief, people are expected to adopt the philosophy of inaction or of "taking the easy road" represented by Fugui in this novel. An example of such is when Fugui says, towards the end of the book, "The longer I've managed to squeeze by, the more useless I've become, but in the end I've lived a long time. One by one, everyone I knew died, but I'm still living." One can see by this proclamation that Fugui is more than happy to have lived a modest, simple life even though he himself recognizes that it has been somewhat meaningless. His acceptance of that is due, in part, to the author's portrayal of life as not being rational.
An instance in which life's irrationality can be seen in the novel is the story behind the oxen. Throughout the book, Fugui says something like, "our ancestors raised but a single chicken. When that chicken grew up it turned into a goose, the goose in turn grew into a lamb, and the lamb became an ox. After the ox comes Communism." At the end of the novel, however, he has his ox and is completely alone in the world. He has no family, no wealth, and no happiness. I believe the author is not only speaking about the inconsistencies and irrationality of life, but also the irrationality of communism. The ox in the end of the story did not lead to the great life he once envisioned and nor did communism live up to the great expectations Mao exalted. These dreams seemed to go nowhere and be nothing more than pipe dreams. Yu Hua's novel is about just getting by in life and the fact that hopes, dreams, and aspirations get someone nowhere.
Long Er's desire to own Fugui's home and his land, ultimately, was his death sentence because he was unwilling to give up on his desires even when his life was on the line. Fugui and his family's attachment, but willingness to give up the home served them well in the end because they were restored to life as opposed to the death that came with landowners status. Another person that fell victim to desire was Chunsheng. In the movie, he wanted so badly to be a truck driver that when he finally did he ended up driving when he was sleep deprived and killed Fugui's son. This is one of the many examples in which Yu Hua portrays what he sees as a life filled with meaningful coincidences and irrationalities.
A Fall From Riches to Ruins
When one becomes accustomed to amenities that most can only dream of, it becomes even harder for them to cope with the real world should they be stripped of such privileges. In Yu Hua's story, To Live, the novelist dwells on this topic through the dramatic and horrific telling of one family's fall from the upper class and their inability to live as a unit under new circumstances. He relates this to the idea of karma for past deeds coming back to collect its toll on those who have wronged in the past.
In the story Fugui and his family live in wealth although not all of them would claim to be living in happiness as well. Fugui spends his money on other women and gambling, obviously not living the most moral life, and his wife has to live knowing this. As a gambler Fugui gets caught in debt and loses everything he has. This is where karma can first be noted as impacting the story. Bad fortune falls upon the main character in response to the way he is living his life in spite of financial good fortune.
On a wider scale this novel mirrors the materialistic society of China, questioning what is truly necessary just to live. Fugui's family falls into despair buts makes do as family. Once all is lost they pull together as a family and Fugui realizes what a loving family he has. Bringing to light the moral of the story, that happiness cannot be found in material things. The story has a very strong message supporting moral behavior, strong family ties, and the idea that karma is a serious force in one's existence. Even after Fugui discovers how lucky he has been in life he must now still support those whom he now realizes represent his true happiness.
Now met with a new unselfish struggle to support his family he must make sacrifices he may never have considered making before. He sells his daughter in an attempt to send his son to school but in turn his son hates him for it. Separated from his daughter and son in one action it becomes clear that rebuilding his family will not be easy for him. Again Fugui cannot find a way to just live as his wife, who loves him so, works through sickness until she dies. Karma seems to be punishing Fugui for the way his life used to be by showing him how happy he could have been and then slowly ripping it away from him.
Eventually everyone Fugui cares about dies and he lives through each traumatic event. One must question whether he would have been so distraught over each loss had he still been a rich womanizing gambler. This novel is very well focused at relating one's actions in life to moral consequences. Through a story that is not so far fetched, even for today's readers, this message remains strong by bringing the struggle and pain of one man to reality. On the level of allegory, on which the story is emblematic of China as Mao's brainchild, the story calls into question the legitimacy of communism supported by the belief that it was to bring happiness to the people. Over all by using a realistic story of a fall from riches to ruins, Yu Hua delivers a message of moral good to those engaged in personal and national struggles for riches and happiness.
Yin and Yang in To Live
Zhang Yimou’s film To Live applies a
traditional Taoist worldview to modern-era China. Most obviously, he exploits
the duality of nature and all in it, showing at every opportunity how
for every force there is a complementary force to copy it. For every gain,
there is a loss; for every advance, there is a step back; for every fidelity,
there is a betrayal.
Still Left Standing
In his novel To Live, Yu Hua uses the life of his main character Fugui to present support for more traditional beliefs about karma. Yu Hua also uses extensive characterization to give his story a sense of realism in addition to his deeper message.
Fugui is the most obvious example of a character whose life is an example of the back and forth nature of karma usually through loss or death. Like his father, Fugui is extremely wasteful and loses his entire family's fortune from gambling and prostitutes. As a result both his father and his mother die shortly after they have lost their fortune and Fugui is forced to farm the land he once owned. However, his wasteful spending appears to be a blessing in disguise when the land reforms come through and Long Er, the man whom now owns Fugui's land, is shot five times and killed in front of a mob. This series of events presents the ideals that those who are in power will always fall, that seemingly bad things are not always such. Fugui indeed has already lost his fortune, but had Fugui been the landowner at that time he would have been condemned as a landlord and chances are he would have been killed instead of Long Er.
From then on Fugui's life is riddled with tragedies in the deaths of his children both of whom lose their lives while giving life. Youqing dies while giving blood to help out his schoolteacher and Fenxgia dies while giving birth to her son. In both cases their lives seemed to be sacrificed for the life of another. Once again however, fate seems to step in and even things out. Chunsheng's wife was the one that needed the blood that Youqing gave, so when the purges arise, Chunsheng is beaten and eventually commits suicide while in prison.
Fugui and his entire family are all examples of flawed but in general good people. Fugui as mentioned previously is wasteful and is often too harsh with his son, Youqing. Despite this, Fugui truly wants the best for his family and is capable of admitting his faults. Like his father, Youqing seems to waste the opportunities put before him by not taking a more active role in his education and instead focusing on track. The woman of the family, Fengxia, seems to be the only one who is not jaded. Her only flaw is that she is mute but otherwise she is a huge help to her family and even when she gets married she visits frequently and keeps in touch with her family. Jiazhen, Fugui's wife, is an incredibly devoted woman and does all she can to help her family. Even when Fugui has wasted the family's fortune and her father takes her away she comes back shortly thereafter. The characters of To Live are not perfect but they do the best they can.
These examples demonstrate Yu Hua's emphasis on karma, though his main message is far simpler. Based on the ending in which Fugui goes on living with his ox though everyone he has loved is dead, and based on what the reader can gather from the title, one can see that Yu Hua wants to his reader to understand that Fugui is living the best life he can and whatever happens he can't change and though he's suffered he is still alive.
Life As A Series of Motions To Go Through
Yu Hua's "To Live" was written in 1994 at the end of the Communist Era after China's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. The novel takes place during a time when Mao's influence was still clearly present in China and primarily focuses on the aftermath that follows when one man, Fugui, squanders away all of his family's fortune. It deals with the themes of fate, consequences for one's actions, and karma. Because Yu Hua's "To Live" is a very emotional story, much more so than other novels such as Zhang Xianliang's "Half of Man is Woman" written within the same approximate time period, the reader is able to greatly sympathize with Yu Hua's down-to-earth characters. "To Live" is a simple and much less intellectual story than "Half of Man is Woman" with less internalized action and a more active plot that keeps the reader hooked from the beginning.
Fugui, the novel's narrator, is a husband and father of two children who squanders away his family's fortune in brothels and through gambling. Without regard for his family or their future and despite their warnings and begging him to stop, Fugui acts in this self-centered manner. Therefore, because of these actions, Fugui is forced to trade in his life of luxury for one of poverty without much money, a nice house, or servants and has to become a farmer to pay off his debts and support his family.
However, this hard labor comes nowhere close to the hardship that Fugui goes on to experience in the novel, specifically in the form of karma, as a result of his selfish actions. Shortly after Fugui loses his house and wealth, both of his parents die. Then, later on in the novel, both of Fugui's children end up dying while trying to give life to someone else. Fugui's son, Youqing, dies while giving blood to save his schoolteacher's life and Fugui's daughter, Fengxia, dies while giving birth to her son. Finally, Fugui's wife, Jiazhen dies after her many battles with illnesses. Fugui is the only member of his family that does not die from a manmade or natural disaster.
At the end of Yu Hua's "To Live," Fugui is an old man left only with his ox and the traumatic experiences of his life; not one of his loving family members remains at his side. Letting the story end in such a manner, Yu Hua leaves his reader with many questions. Was it completely fair for Fugui to lose all of his family members as punishment for his selfish actions? Was losing his house and all of his wealth not enough? What is the point of the novel's title and by the end of the novel, is Fugui even actively living or merely just going through the motions of each day? Finally, what does one have to do to make life more meaningful and was Fugui's life, even though it was filled with grave mistakes and hardships, truly meaningful and enjoyable in the slightest? Or, was it completely ruined by the effects of karma?
Silver Lining in the Cloud
| From the very beginning of the movie to the
very end, it always seemed as if something was going wrong for Fu-gui. He
started out as a wealthy master with a beautiful wife and two adoring children,
Feng-xia and You-qing. Things in Fu-gui’s life started to go wrong
when he became a gambling addict, and ended up losing everything, including
his house and nearly his wife and children. It seemed as if nothing was
going right for Fu-gui throughout the entire movie, but it is my opinion
that some of the things that went wrong in Fu-gui’s life were actually
better for him in the long run.
Fu-gui had a serious gambling problem and every night he would go to the local gambling dwelling and spend hours upon hours gambling away with money that he was losing uncontrollably. He ended up becoming broke, and once he left the gambling arena, his wife told him that she and their two children were leaving him to live a life better then what he was putting them through. Once his wife left him, he realized that he had nothing left and understood how much his wife and kids truly meant to him. Fu-gui had to go through a period of time where he had absolutely nothing, and it was one of the toughest periods for him throughout his entire life. Having his wife leave him was one of the best things that could have happened to him due to the fact that it made him realize how truly blessed he was to have his wife and kids in his life. He had a much greater appreciation of his life with his family with him, then what he had without his wife and kid’s love and affection.
Another possession that Fu-gui lost through his gambling difficulties was the house that his father had owned during his entire life. The house was so dear to him and his entire family that he had felt as if he let his entire family down. That house was so popular among the entire Chinese community that the new owner of the house, Long-er, ended up burning it down which he was supposed to turn over to the conquering communists. Had Fu-gui not lost his house to Long-er because of the gambling debts that he accumulated, he would have been in the same predicament that Long-er was in. The house was so beloved and cherished by Fu-gui and his family that Fu-gui might have done the same thing that Long-er did. By Long-er burning down the house it ended up costing him his life, and the same could have happened to Fu-gui if he had not lost his house to Long-er.
The last, and most important loss to Fu-gui, was the death of his child You-qing. It was obvious how much Fu-gui loved his son, and how devastated he and his family were when You-qing died, but what You-qing would have had to go through if he had been alive was worse for him than being alive. You-qing had to work countless hours at the steel mill and never had enough time to eat or even sleep. You-qing had an extremely difficult life, but was always happy and always seemed to have a smile on his face. I believe the most important reason that You-qing’s death was a good thing to Fu-gui is because You-qing did not have to go through the trauma of witnessing his older sister die. You-qing loved his sister dearly, and always stood up to bullies whenever she was getting picked on, and always stood by her side. Because You-qing died, it made it easier on Fu-gui to not have his son witness such a tragedy in his life and not having his son go through the suffering of his sister dying.
Fu-gui went through many traumas and ordeals throughout the entire movie, but it seemed as if some of these set backs bettered himself for his future. His gambling problem cost him both his family and his house, but because he lost his family he realized how important his wife and his children were to him. He had time to spend with them, and watch his children grow up happy and successful. Losing his house was great for him, because in the end it could have cost Fu-gui being killed by the communists. Lastly, having his son pass on was important because his son wouldn’t have to go through the trauma of watching his sister die while she was giving birth to his newborn nephew. Even if things look as if they will be bad at the given time of his life, some of those events ended up being better for Fu-gui in the end.
The Value of Life
"To Live” is a film about hope
in a time that is full of despair. It shows the significance of life,
that is, life is valuable. One should not give up his/her hope for life
not matter what. The film includes some of the traditional Chinese thoughts,
such as Buddhism and Confucianism. It also teaches us one’s responsibilities
Some of the traditional Chinese thoughts, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, are given expression as well. In Buddhism, it is believed that suffering is caused by human desires. Therefore, one should live a simple life and be happy. In the film, Chun-sheng loves cars very much. Driven by this desire, he joins the army and becomes a driver. However, Chun-sheng kills You-qing, his best friend’s only son, with his jeep. This twist shows that too much desire can result in tragedy. Chun-sheng’s strong passion for driving destroys his relation with his best friend.
Fugui’s experience in the film shows the responsibilities in life, which is an idea from Confucianism. In the beginning, Fugui, as the son of a landlord, does not understand the hardship and responsibilities in life. After losing everything, including his house through gambling, Fugui as the husband in the family realizes that he has to take responsibilities to provide for his family. He starts to earn his living by becoming a puppeteer. When he was forced to join the army during the Civil War, he always says, “I have to be alive. I have to go home. I have family back home.” Fugui’s experience shows one should always take his/her responsibility in life no matter what kind of situation s/he is in.
“To Live” is a film that is full of hope. It shows that even in hard times when people suffer physically and emotionally, they still hold a very strong belief in life. They believe that life will get better and better if they remain hopeful about life and try their best to live it. At the end of the film, Fugui's conversation with his grandson highlights the theme of the film. "Chicken becomes geese when it grows up, geese becomes sheep when it grows up, sheep becomes ox when it grows up, after ox, it is new life with trains and airplanes..." Life in China is hard, but there's always hope. Life will be better if we believe in it.