Blair Peng

China

To Live by Yu Hua

January 18, 2021

What is the purpose of life? When should we make the conclusion of what is the purpose of life? After having gone through only 16, 17 years of my life, I don’t think I can come to a conclusion about how I want to live out my life.

Perhaps we never know when we will be able to find the meaning of our own lives. Yu Hua’s To Live offers one interpretation. Yu Hua's protagonist Fugui shows us his understanding of what it means to truly live after experiencing both life and death.

From the wildness of his youth, to the messy issues of middle age, to the loneliness of his old age, Fugui experiences unspeakable tragedies and joys, but even more importantly the mundane, everyday things that make life what it is. In the process, he finds that the meaning of living is to make effort to survive in this strange world.

To Live is set against the backdrop of China's civil war and political movements after the founding of the new China. Under such a strict system, the destinies and lives of many people were greatly influenced. Fugui’s circuitous story reflects the fate of a generation of Chinese people.

The story opens with Fugui, an aristocratic playboy, gambling even while his pregnant wife, Jiazhen, kneels at the gambling table, begging him to come home. Fugui’s gambling addiction eventually leads to him gambling away all of his property, even forcing him to use his father’s money to pay off some of the debts. His father abruptly dies, leaving Fugui’s mother in bad shape. Still, Jiazhen remains by her husband’s side. As the Civil War breaks out, on his way to deliver medicine to his mother, Fugui is seized to serve in the Communist Party. When he finally returns home two years later, he finds his daughter deaf and mute due to a fever, his mother dead from that serious illness, and his family still impoverished. He experiences despair again. It is only then, however, that the real tragedy begins to unfold, and the rare warmth of life is torn apart by death. One by one, his relatives leave him due to the Cultural Revolution or life accidents, until only the aged Fugui is left, sitting in the sun with an old cow and reminiscing on his life.

To Live shows the relentless procession of death, one person after another, setting off waves of endless suffering. Living is hard; to continue to live is to live hard. Because staying alive is so difficult, living has profound meaning. Nothing is better than to live, and nothing is harder. After experiencing so many births and deaths, Fugui is still optimistic, unbothered by the trivial troubles around him. His story shows that sometimes losing may not be such a bad thing. Losing can help us to grow and realize our values in life. For Fugui, the losses of loved ones in his life have taught him to endure pain. He learns to endure the responsibilities life gave him, and to endure the reality of his own suffering and mediocrity.

This kind of misery is not purely novelistic, but actually common in China in the 1940s to 1960s—the generation my grandparents grew up in, and the generation in which my parents were born. Growing up, my grandparents told me often about how they would squat on the side of the road after school and play a game of bouncing stones with a group of friends. "Long live the great, glorious, and correct Communist Party of China" was plastered all over the walls in front of the house. Reading about Fugui’s experiences of the Cultural Revolution made this historical period, which I’d only heard snippets about or read about in textbooks, truly come alive. From it, I could really feel the things my grandparents’ generation went through, and I gained a new empathy for and understanding of them. What makes this book so brilliant is that Yu Hua weaves the story of Fugui into decades of struggling Chinese history. Yu Hua shows the great fate of a generation through a single, small character.

The book’s language is very simple and popular, fully reflecting Fugui’s passivity and tolerance of life. Because this language is so life-like, I think it is suitable for people of all ages. As a teenager, I can feel the beauty and joy of my own life, but also see the pain and memories of my grandparents' generation. Younger readers will benefit from the easily readable history lesson and compelling storyline. Older readers with more life experience will be better able to appreciate the story's deep, complex themes on life and death.

The book ends where it begins. A man and a cow standing in a vast field, watching the distant sun slowly set. This is the end of the story, the end of Fugui’s tragic path, the end of the old era. As smoke curls up from the farmhouse roof and disappears into the sunset, Fugui begins to tell the story of his life.

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