Xu Fugui (pronounced Shoo Foo-gway) was the son of a moderately wealthy landowner in rural south-eastern China. Over several generations of stewardship his family had turned chickens into lambs, lambs into oxen, and into several hundred mu of land. His father had lost half of it in his younger years and was now stewarding it in his old age. Fugui was a spoiled young man, who insulted his father-in-law, disrespected his beautiful wife, and gambled a lot. He gambled on credit and without realizing it gambled the whole thing away to Long Er, the new owner of the gambling house. His father had tried to physically beat the gambling out of Fugui, but now they had to move out of the ancestral home and work for a living in the fields that they once owned. Fugui’s father-in-law, who hated him, came to their new house gloatingly in a wedding procession to take his daughter back, and Fugui’s young daughter, Fengxia (pronounced Fung-shya) could not understand why her mother did not come back. After Fugui’s wife gave birth to the child they she was pregnant with, he returned her and Fugui’s son, named Youqing (pronounced You-ching).

Fugui’s father had died shortly after Fugui lost all their land, and now his mother was sick. Fugui’s wife, Jiazhen, gave him the two coins that was all the money she had, and told him to go to town to get his mother a doctor. So he went, but before he found the doctor, he was conscripted at gunpoint into the Guomindang army to fight the Japanese. He had no choice but to pull the cannon and leave his family wondering where he went. His squandron eventually got surrounded, and had less and less food to eat. Eventually the Communists captured the area, and gave him the choice to either fight or they would pay his way home. Once he realized it was a genuine choice, he asked to go home. After two years, he arrived home to his faithful wife, who knew he had not been gambling. While he was away, his mother died, and Fengxia had a high fever that left her unable to hear or talk.

After the Communists took over, Long Er—who was arrogant and could not read the times—was executed for being an oppressive landowner. Fugui and Jiazhen were a little scared how narrow their escape was (via the gambling). Fugui had scraped together money to send Youqing to school by selling his daughter’s labor in the field. She could not hear and she was young, so she did not understand why she had to leave the family and live at this other person’s place. Eventually she ran away and came back. Fugui took her back again, but when he saw her face, he could not do it, and resolved to figure out some other way to feed his family. Youqing did not like school. He was responsible for cutting grass to feed their lamb, and then he had to run five kilometers to school to get there on time.

The commune smashed everyone’s iron pots and took them away to make iron, so everyone ate at the cafeteria. Initially everyone was impressed that there was lots of food, even meat. But there was a famine, and there was no food to be had and the cafeteria closed. They also killed the lamb that Youqing loved, even though Fugui made the work leader promise not to kill it when the commune took everyone’s lamb into a collective pen. Eventually Fugui had to walk to town and buy a new pot out of what little money he had left. Nor was the commune successful at melting down iron. Youqing had mentioned that you had to put water in the pot to avoid the bottom falling out, which the work leader thought was a good idea. The commune kept a gasoline fire burning night and day, but naturally the water did not let the temperature get high enough. Eventually Fugui fell asleep when it was his turn to keep watch, and the bottom fell out of the pot, but it had been hot enough to melt the iron, so the work leader was happy that they had fulfilled their quota.

At a foot-race competition at the school, everyone discovered that Youqing could run laps around everyone else (since he had been running five kilometers every day). Fugui had not been pleased with his son’s poor grades, but this made him pleased.

The county leader’s wife needed blood transfusion, and Youqing was eager to donate. It turned out that he was the only person with the right blood type. However, the woman needed a lot of blood and they took far too much of Youqing’s blood, and he died. To make matters worse, the county leader turned out to be one of Fugui’s companions in the army. He tried to compensate them with money, but Jiazhen refused to be bought off, and even refused to let him into the house.

Some time after this, Jiazhen became increasingly dizzy and became confined to bed. The doctor said she had an incurable disease and that she would die soon. It looked like she would die, but she came back from the brink. She was still weak and could barely work, though, which was a problem because the amount of food they were allotted was based on their work points. Fortunately, Fengxia was a teenager and could take over Jiazhen’s work points. Fengxia liked working with her father.

Gradually the other girls Fengxia’s age in the village got married, and Fugui could tell that she wanted that, too, and was hurt when other people insulted her. Fugui tried to find someone to marry her, but although she was beautiful like her mother, since she could not hear or speak, no one wanted to marry her. Eventually someone from the town came by. He did not have much of a neck, so his head sat on his shoulders, so Fengxia’s disabilities did not bother him and Erxi (pronounced “R-she”) was pleased to marry Fengxia. Fugui asked that he have a lavish wedding so that Fengxia would feel honored, and he did so, even going into debt. The wedding was so lavish that “like Fenxia’s wedding” became an comparison adjective for the next decade. Fengxia learned knitting from the other women and really took to it. Erxi himself was a great son-in-law, respected Fugui, took his advice, and they had a good relationship. However, Fengxia died in childbirth about a year later from loss of blood.

During the Cultural Revolution, some girl from the city accused the team leader of being a capitalist roader and ordered the Red Guards to taken him away. He was gone three days, and hadn’t been allowed to sleep. When he had slept for a long time, he said to everyone that he had treated everyone like his children, but no one had defended him against her accusations that he mistreated them. (They had been too scared to do anything, but they also did not participate in condemning him like she invited.) However, the county leader, Fugui’s army friend, was beaten every day. Even Jiazhen agreed that they had been too hard on him previously. One day he came to see Fugui and said he wanted to die. Jiazhen still would not let him in the house, but Fugui told him he needed to live for his wife and child. At the end Jiazhen called out of the house that he still owed them a life, and that he should repay them by living his. He agreed, but a month later he killed himself.

Fugui had treated Jiazhen poorly for most of his life, but by the time she got sick he had learned to treat her much better. As she got weaker, she wanted to talk a lot, and hear all about Erxi’s son, Kugen. So Fugui walked to town a lot to get news of them. Finally Jiazhen died in Fugui’s arms.

Erxi had to take care of a young child while he carted people around as a rickshaw puller, which was really hard work for him, but he persisted, and eventually his son, Kugen, grew old enough that it was less difficult. But Erxi was killed in a construction accident when some blocks of cement fell on him. Fugui took care of Kugen, who was a bit of a wild child. However, Fugui was happy. Kugen took his duties in the field seriously, and helped feed the chickens. Fugui explained that he needed to take good care of the chickens, because they would turn into a lamb, which would turn into an ox. Kugen watched for them to turn into an ox. However, he got a fever, and Fugui boiled some ginger because it is supposed to be good for illness, and also some beans. But Kugen choked on the beans and died.

The chickens did turn into a lamb, and eventually Fugui, now all alone, had enough money to buy an ox. He went into town, and there was an old ox on the ground, crying, because he knew that the butcher was sharpening his knife to kill him. Fugui turned to go, but could not get the ox out of his mind, and so he bought the ox. The villager’s thought he was crazy, since the ox was only going to live a few years. Fugui did not think he was going to live very long either. The ox understood that Fugui had rescued him, and was grateful, and served him well, living much longer than predicted. Fugui thought that he and the ox were the same; both had kept on living far longer than they were expected to. Fugui knew that if he was tired, the ox was probably tired and they should rest. And when he had recovered, the ox had recovered, so he called to the ox, which obediently came to him and they started up plowing again.

To Live is one of the best-known books of modern Chinese literature. Personally, I am not entirely sure of the appeal, as basically everything bad in China’s 20th century happens to Fugui. At least it is not as painful as the movie, which is shown to westerners going to China to understand the pain of modern China’s history. Yu Hua does manage to compress much of the experience of rural China into one life, though, and so he is able to concisely convey a sense of what life was like. His characters are also vivid, revealed through anecdotes that Fugui tells that flow from one to another. I assume that Yu Hua’s real purpose is to show the appropriate response to pain. Fugui’s father gets angry at him, Erxi never gets over Fengxia’s death, Fugui’s army buddy kills himself. But Jiazhen is the model woman, faithful to Fugui even though he mistreated her for much of her life. At one point Jiazhen lost the will to live, but she recovers it and lives on for a few more years. And Fugui endures tremendous pain, but is never overcome by it. He does not become depressed, morose, act like a victim, or take the easy way out by suicide. He maintains the family as well as he is able, and even at the end, he redeems his misspent youth by going from chicken to lamb to ox, just like his virtuous forebears.

One non-literary thing I noted was that the parents get angry at their children for not behaving, but over the course of time they realize that they did not handle the situation well, and that their children need love more than discipline. The documentary “Last Train Home” also has a similar dynamic with the children, where the parents do not have healthy conflict, but they do decide to change their actions. In neither case are they shown communicating that to the children, which would be difficult for parents to do, especially in a face-saving culture. But perhaps it does happen and the book assumes the reader knows that it does happen; I do not know. But this dynamic does feel very rural-Chinese.

This is a kind of painful book to read (although seeing the movie first makes it less painful, since it is not as painful as the movie). However, at the same time, there is also something beautiful about the construction of the story, as well in the beauty of the characters. The characters are pretty realistic; the rural farmers that I have seen act consistently with the book, although of course I have not had any sort of intimate interaction. But even when they make choices that I do not believe are wise, Yu Hua shows the loving motivations of the characters, and you can understand the choice they have to make and why they might choose that way, even when, to modern American eyes, there are better ways to make the choice than the ranges of options the characters understand. So in portraying Fugui’s perseverance in caring for his family through hardship and his humility in accepting pain and not trying to run from it, there is a certain beauty in the pain. I am not fond of reading about pain, I can only dimly perceive what the author seems to be going for (not being Chinese and therefore lacking the assumptions of cultural values and correct behaviors), but nonetheless there is clearly a beauty here as well. This is not necessarily a fun read, but it is a beautiful story.

Review: 9
I lack the cultural background to properly evaluate this book, so the value should be considered very blurry. As a story it is definitely a 10, I just think there are better ways to tell a story than unremitting pain. (Unless he is trying to portray history, but even then, who enjoys reading pain? And it’s hard to rank something a 10 if you do not enjoy the pain part of it?) However, the story is well-told. It is clearly much tighter than what an actual old man would tell, but it does retain that sort of flavor. The anecdotes weave in and out, although they always go forward. Between the anecdotes and Fugui’s vulnerability (and self-awareness) that includes his motives, the story feels very real and vivid. Realer than real, in some ways.