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Literature / To Live

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To Live (in traditional Chinese: 活着; in simplified: 活著; pronounced Huózhe in Mandarin) is a 1993 novel by Yu Hua. Our nameless narrator meets an old man in the countryside who tells him his life story. This is how it goes.

After losing all of his family's land and fortune to gambling debts, Fugui stops being a Rich Bitch Jerkass and begins life as an honest, hardworking family man. Too bad life doesn't let him.

After he is conscripted by the Guomindang and must leave his family, Fugui fights and sees the horrors of the Chinese Civil War, returning to him home years later to suffer the tumultuous changes that the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward has wrought.

The book's most prevalent theme is that people should keep on living for the sake of life, despite their various mishaps and tragedies. To Live is also rather well-known for its description of Chinese life in Red China, such as its illustrations of backyard steel furnaces and communes.

A movie of To Live came out in 1994, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Ge You and Gong Li.

This novel provides examples of:

  • The Atoner: After being a gigantic asshole for most of the beginning of the novel, Fugui turns into a deeply penitent man after he loses his family's fortune to gambling debts.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Jiazhen's shown to be a quiet, submissive person up to the point of an Extreme Doormat, but goes into full Mama Bear completely when she meets the man who inadvertently helped kill her son.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The novels ends with Fugui's entire family tragically dead and Fugui as an old farmer with only an ox with as his companion. The only reason it isn't a flat-out Downer Ending might be because Fugui remains optimistic about life, despite the terrible losses he had to experience.
  • Break the Haughty: It takes Fugui losing all his family's funds and plunging them into poverty to make him stop being such a gigantic selfish Jerkass.
  • Brick Joke: When Jiazhen tearfully leaves, she tells Fugui that their unborn child is going to be named "don't gamble." When he returns, he's relieved she didn't actually do it. Much later (after many years and chapters) when the two wonder what Fengxia's child will be named, Fugui offers "don't gamble" and it's actually funny.
  • Character Development: Fugui starts off as an arrogant Jerkass who blatantly disrespects his family, spends all his money on whorehouses and gambling, and hitting his pregnant wife, but eventually grows into a hardworking man who is extremely devoted to his family.
  • Conscription: Fugui and his companions are pressed into serving first the Nationalist army, then the Communists when they're captured.
  • Cute Mute: Fengxia
  • Daddy's Girl: Fengxia
  • The Determinator: Fugui is one, of sorts. Even though his entire family dies, he still keeps on living and refuses to give up.
    • Jiazhen is also an excellent example, despite being an Extreme Doormat. She kneels at Fugui's feet at the gamblehouse and refuses to leave, even when he beats her. She only leaves when Fugui gets two men to carry her away.
  • Domestic Abuse: In addition to being a generally shitty husband, father and son prior to his Character Development, Fugui also slapped and beat Jiazhen when she was pregnant with Youqing.
  • Deus Angst Machina: Most of Fugui's family die in most senseless ways, the most notable being Erxi being the first porter to be crushed by the slabs of cement, and his grandkid dying by choking on beans.
  • Extreme Doormat: Jiazhen
  • For Want of a Nail: If Fugui didn't lose his family estate and holdings through reckless gambling early on, he and his family would have been killed in the revolution as capitalists. He recalls being horrified that he narrowly avoided the fate of the man who ended up living in his house.
  • The Gambler: Fugui's downfall earlier on in his life.
  • Jerkass: Fugui when he was younger. He even lampshades it himself:
    Fugui: :It hurts to think about it now. When I was young I was a real asshole.
  • Love at First Sight: Fugui said that when he saw Jiazhen walking down the street, she looked so beautiful that he immediately asked her father for her hand in marriage.
  • Love Martyr: Alas, Jiazhen.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Youqing and Fengxia, Fugui and Jiazhen's children, die throughout the story. Even further played with their grandson, who dies too.
  • Now, Let Me Carry You: When Jiazhen gets soft bone disease and becomes so weak she can't walk, Fugui carries her on his back, and, when she protests, hushes her and says there is absolutely nothing wrong with showing his love for his wife.
  • The Pollyanna: Downplayed example. Despite everything that's happened to him and everyone that he's lost, Fugui still holds onto life by believing that things will get better.
  • Rich Bitch: Young Fugui had his family's fortune and was generally an awful human being.
  • Twice Shy: Erxi and Fengxia. He's a quiet, hardworking Party official and she's, well, mute.
  • Villain Protagonist: Initially, Fugui appears as a negligent Spoiled Brat who spends his family's entire fortune on gambling and as an uncaring and even abusive husband who has no qualms about hitting his pregnant wife. He becomes better as the story progresses.
  • War Is Hell: Fugui is forcibly recruited into the Nationalist Army during the Chinese Civil War, and, well...see the Nightmare Fuel entry above.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: When Fengxia finally gets married and there's a brief period where all is well, she dies in childbirth. But hey, Fugui still has his wife, his son-in-law, and his grandkid to mourn with and comfort him, right? Then Jiazhen dies, Erxi dies, and his grandson (Kugen) dies by choking on some beans.

The the film based on the novel contains:

  • Film of the Book
  • Lighter and Softer:
    • Zhang's vision for the work is far less grim than Yu's; for one thing, Jiazhen, Erxi, and the grandson (named Mantou in the adaptation) all survive.
    • The movie version downplays Fugui's abuse of Jiazhen, and ends after Fengxia's death so as not to be quite so soul-crushing as the book.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Jiazhen, Erxi and Fugui's grandson all survive to the end of the movie. In the novel, they all die under various circumstances, leaving Fugui the only main character to live.