To Live 2: Film Notes, cont.
HUM 210 Online Course Pack - Fall 2006 - Prof. Cora Agatucci

PLOT SUMMARY (Film Notes) - The 1950's

Historical Background: 
[From Chow, Timeline, 2003-2004:
"1949: Peking Falls to Communists in January. Mao [Zedung] declares People’s Republic of China. Peking renamed Beijing. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists retreat from the mainland to Taiwan and Chiang takes over the presidency of Taiwan."]

Xu family Reunion #2 and a Reckoning with the Past:  
When Fugui arrives home, he finds
Jiazhen and his children delivering hot water to people of their village, a work-intensive detail assigned by local Chinese Communist Party [CCP] member and town administrator Mr. Nui, to support the new People's Republic of China [PRC]. Fugui also discovers that his daughter Fengxia had suffered a high fever during his absence and now
hears imperfectly and is mute.  Fugui joins in this family work assignment, then one day shortly after his return home is shocked to see Long'er publicly humiliated and condemned to execution as a privileged landlord of pre-Communist China.  Fugui feels this ironic twist of historical fate: it would surely be he, rather than Long'er, being executed as a landlord, had not Fugui gambled away the Xu family estate so long ago.  Desperate to cover up their own past as former members of the despised landlord class, and to produce evidence of their status as good communists and "ordinary townspeople," Fugui and Jiazhen retrieve from the wash and frame the document certifying that Fugui had served in the Red Army.  Mr. Nui, local CCP village leader and comrade in the new China, affirms the value of Fugui's document, and jokes assuredly that Chiang Kai-shek's toilet will be bombed when Taiwan is "liberated." 

Historical Background:  Long’er’s execution was probably part of the Chinese Communist Party's [CCP] early purge of the landlord class, which reached its height in 1950-51.  The peasant and working class was revered in Mao Zedung’s new China; land, wealth, and food were redistributed more equitably; and people of humble origins like Chunsheng, who would become the new “district chief,” rose to places of prominence. 

Youqing defends his older sister Fengxia: 
When the hearing-impaired and mute Fengxia is bullied by other village children, younger brother Youqing defends her. Youqing later administers ultimate revenge on the ring-leader bully by dumping heavily and painfully spiced noodles on the bully's head at the local canteen, where townpeople have assembled to be fed.  Fearful of political repercussions by the bully's family, Fugui publicly chastises his son Youqing for subverting the “Great Leap Forward.”  Later, Fugui tries to make up for his public betrayal of his son by privately offering Youqing the privilege of attending an evening shadow-puppet performance.  Jiazhen conspires with Youqing to accept his father's offer, but negotiates suitable retaliation: Youqing will deliver a vinegar-laced and hotly spiced tea to Fugui during the evening's shadow-puppet performance. The ploy is successful to the general amusement of all.

The Smelting Tragedy:
Service to the CCP requires that Fugui's townspeople, including even the little children, engage in feverish activity to collect and smelt iron for munitions.  Long toil, day and night, with little sleep exacted tragic affects on the Xu family. Though Jiazhen objects, Fugui carries dangerously sleep-deprived little Youqing to school to do work duty.  The new district chief, similarly sleep deprived, drives his vehicle into the very wall behind which young Youqing has fatefully curled up to sleep that night, and the falling wall kills Youqing.  At Youqing's funeral, the district chief turns up and turns out to be Fugui's old comrade Chunsheng, until then a passionate lover of driving.  Jiazhen bitterly refuses to accept Chunsheng's apologies and offerings.

Historical Background:  Fugui's reference during the canteen incident to the "Great Leap Forward" suggests that these events occurred 1958-1960, when Mao Zedong launched his attempt at rapid collectivization of China. 

"The [film] story progresses in terms of temporary advances and crushing setbacks . . . . [One Xu] family loss [Youqing's death] is caused by an old friend [Chungsheng], who vows he owes them a life, and will eventually be called upon for repayment" (Ebert).

PLOT SUMMARY (Film Notes) - The 1960's

The 1960s:
End of the Shadow Puppets:
Changes in China's political climate require that, to stay out of ideological trouble, Fugui must finally give up and destroy his shadow puppets--which are, as CCP town leader Mr. Nui points out, counter-revolutionary “emperors, generals, scholars, and beauties” of China’s pre-Communist past. 

Historical Background: Mao Zedung’s “cultural army” and interest in a new role for the arts and literature which glorified workers, peasants, and soldiers—including women—led to banning of decadent and “counter-revolutionary” art forms like Fugui’s shadow puppets.  They were, as Mr. Niu pointed out, “emperors, generals, scholars, and beauties” of China’s dynastic past, and Fugui must have them burned to stay out of ideological trouble.  So too were writers, artists, playwrights, and intellectuals of the wrong kind of elitist arts and letters persecuted during the 1960s, especially during the Cultural Revolution (formally launched in 1966 and lasting until Mao’s death in 1976). 

Fengxia's Courtship & Marriage.  After several failed match-making attempts, Fugui and Jiazhen learn that Wan Erxi, a young Red Guard leader of "solid working-class background" who limps from a factory accident, is interested in courting their deaf-mute daughter.  The first formal meeting between Wan Erxi and Fengxia is brief and uncertain, leaving her parents fearful of personal and political consequence--but Jiazhen is reassured because Fengxia likes Wan Erxi, and Fugui is relieved when he discovers that Wan Erxi has returned to the Xu dwelling with several of his Red Guard comrades, not to arrest them but to construct repairs and decorate with politically-correct Mao Zedong home improvements.  The personally-satisfying and politically-advantageous match is made, and a huge joyous wedding follows.  The principals are garbed in Mao-favored cap and plain comradely clothes, photographed before a huge hand-painted mural honoring Mao Zedong, and their guests are generously gifted with unending supplies of Mao souvenirs and little red books of wisdom.  At the end of the wedding day, the joyous crowd departs, following Wan Erxi and his wife to their new home.  Closing this extended scene, he camera fixes upon Fengxia's face, looking back at her parents and her former home--a face expressing--what?--mute love, fear, sadness, longing not to go..?

Chungsheng's Visit Fugui's old comrade Chungsheng comes quietly to pay honor to their daughter Fengxia's marriage and beg forgiveness once again for causing the death of their son Youqing, but Jiazhen refuses to receive Chungsheng, though Fugui is more willing to forgive and lay the past to rest.

Historical Background:  Wan Erxi is a member of the Red Guards, a new radical young socialist aristocracy of Mao Zedung’s Cultural Army. Thus to Fengxia's apprehensive parents, despite his disability, Erxi can proudly present himself as a working class hero, a young CCP Party leader at his factory with a “solid working class background.” Mao Zedong was nearly worshipped during this time (though revered perhaps more out of fear for families like the Xu)--as evidenced by Wan Erxi’s and Chunsheng’s gifts (Mao buttons, Mao’s little red books of wisdom, Mao’s photograph), Mao’s favored cap and plain clothes style, Erxi’s huge painting of Mao, the singing of a tribute to Mao at the wedding.

Fengxia's Death after Childbirth:
History's tragic twists of fate will once again devastate the Xu family. Ready to bear her child, Fengxia is taken to the local hospital, where young, inexperienced medical students have been left in charge, because experienced doctors such as Professor Wang have been imprisoned as "counter-revolutionaries" during the
Cultural Revolution. Wan Erxi uses his Red Guard power to release Professor Wang, the hospital's former OB-GYN head, from prison and bring the mal-treated doctor back to the hospital so that he can assist in Fengxia's delivery. Jiazhen sends Fugui out to buy food, but the starved Prof. Wang eats too many buns too quickly, and he is further incapacitated when given hot water.  Thus, Prof. Wang cannot help, nor are inexperienced medical students skilled enough to prevent Fengxia from bleeding to death, once she begins to hemorrhage after giving birth to "Little Bun."

"The [film] story progresses in terms of temporary advances and crushing setbacks, one caused when a starving doctor, jailed by the Red Guards, cannot assist at a crucial time because he has gorged himself on seven sweet buns" (Ebert).

Historical Background: During the Cultural Revolution decade, when the notorious “Gang of Four,” led by Mao Zedung’s wife Jiang Qing, wielded power, many who had formerly held powerful political, cultural, and professional positions—like Chunsheng, Mr. Niu, and Professor Wang—were denounced as counter-revolutionary “capitalist roaders," lost their positions, were persecuted, publicly shamed, banished to hard labor in the country, imprisoned, or worse. 


PLOT SUMMARY (Film Notes) - The 1970's

“Some years later”:
In time, Little Bun begins to grow up and his Grandmother Jiazhen dies.
Near the end of the film, it seems significant that Fugui, usually anxious not to appear “politically backward” or run foul of the current powers that be, makes reference to a future for Little Bun of riding trains and plains, rather than riding the glorious ship of communism. 

Historical Background: The 1970s were marked by first steps toward reconciliation between People's Republic of China [PRC] and the U.S., the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. 

"The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76):
A Basic Outline of Events"

--Prof. Eileen Chow, Chinese Literature 130: "Screening Modern China: Chinese Film and Culture,"Harvard Univ., 2001-2002.  18 April 2003.
[NOTE: Prof. Chow's web has been revised in 2003-2004, and some of the 2001-2002 information reproduced below is no longer available of her web.  ~ C. Agatucci, March 2004]

1957 Feb-April:  Mao Zedong advocates rapprochement with non-Party intellectuals and invites them to criticize the "bureacracy, sectarianism, and subjectivism" plaguing the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].  Also known as "Hundred Flowers Period."

May-June In the face of criticism and challenges to the CCP authority, Mao calls for a crackdown, resulting in the "Anti-Rightist" Movement.

Winter The Anti-Rightist movement climaxes when more than 550,000 intellectuals are labeled "Rightists"; many are forced to leave their positions in the cities to work on farms in the country.

[From Chow, Timeline, 2003-2004: "1957: Hundred Flowers movement
A short-lived period of liberalization in which Chinese intellectuals were permitted to criticize the [Chinese] Communist Party [CCP] as Mao [Zedung] encouraged "the blooming of a hundred flowers and the contending of a hundred schools of thought." When a deluge of critiques came forth, the movement was halted and an "anti-rightist campaign" launched against those who had spoken out."]

1958 August:  "The Great Leap Forward" is commenced, with the stated objective to increase industrial and agricultural production by abolishing private plots and organizing people's communes throughout rural China.

[From Chow, Timeline, 2003-2004: "1958-1961: Great Leap Forward
This was a feat of utopian engineering by Mao [Zetung] to increase productivity through revolutionary fervor and mass mobilization. Exaggerated reports of success hid disastrous falls in output. At least 20 million died famine-related deaths as a result."]

1959-62: Agricultural production falls far short of exaggerated estimates, and a nationwide famine hits China.  An estimated thirty million people die of famine-related causes.

1965 November:  Mao prepares the ground for what will be called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by having the young literary critic Yao Wenyuan (later known as a member of the Gang of Four) write an editorial attacking a play by Beijing’s vice mayor, Wu Han--The Dismissal of Hai Rui from Office.  Yao’s piece, published in a Shanghai newspaper, is a scathing attack on revisionist trends in Chinese culture, and it is endorsed by Mao.

1966: The Cultural Revolution begins. Mao blames officials for the bureaucratization and stagnation in the CCP, blaming them for having taken the 'capitalist road'.

June 1 "Sweep Away All Monsters" appears in the People's Daily, urging people to purge bourgeois ideology from the cultural sphere. Many high ranking officials are ousted.

Mao declares: "Who are against the great Cultural Revolution?  [He compares it to the Paris Commune of 1871] . . . American imperialism, Russian revisionism, Japanese revisionism, and the reactionaries...But China would depend on the masses, trust the masses, and fight to the end."  Total chaos on university campus ensues; mass rallies and kangaroo courts replace ordinary classes. 

[The Red Guards] In Beijing’s middle schools, the children of the Party elite secretly organize themselves into so-called Red Guards.

Aug 8:  The Central Committee issues a sixteen-point directive calling on the people to guard against counter-revolutionary subversion.  The Red Guards--radical students devoted to Mao, many in middle-school--are organized to safeguard the revolution, resulting in widespread violence. Intellectuals are persecuted and tortured; some commit suicide.  Millions are sent to rural areas to be transformed through labor.

Attack is called on the “Four Old” elements (si jiu) within Chinese society--”old customs, old habits, old culture, and old thinking”--but left it to local Red Guards to apply these terms however they saw fit.

The Cultural Revolution turns increasingly violent, and by the end of the month of September, 33,695 households have been “ransacked” and 1,772 persons killed by Red Guards in Beijing.  Red Guards begin traveling across China in what becomes known as the “great exchange of revolutionary experience.”  Destruction of public property continues and escalates.

December In Shanghai, more than 100,000 people clash in a major street brawl.  In Beijing, on his seventy-third birthday, Mao toasts the unfolding of a nationwide all-round civil war.

1967: Red Guards seize power everywhere, ousting Party and government officials.

[Gang of Four:] By summer, all "counter-revolutionary" organizations are ordered disbanded.  However, Jiang Qing (Madame Mao and head of the Gang of Four) calls upon radicals to “attack with reason, defend with force!” and announces the commencement of a nationwide movement to “cleanse the class ranks,” a movement that continues well into 1969 in most parts of China.

1968 Dec 22: The People's Daily publishes Mao's directive for educated young people (zhiqing) to go to the countryside for re-education by the poor and lower-middle peasants. Thousands of students respond to the call. 

Between 1968 and 1978, a total of more than 16 million urban youths are “sent down” to China’s countryside. [Zhang Yimou is among these Chinese youths].  In institutions of higher learning , teachers of bourgeois class background are labeled “birds and beasts” and put on public display in so-called “class struggle education exhibits.”
[See also short essay on "The Fifth Generation . . . " of Chinese filmmakers: "During the Cultural Revolution, the Beijing Film Academy, the prime teaching institution for anyone aspiring to a career in the cinema, remained closed. The most significant development for Chinese cinema came with the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy in 1978, after more than a decade of inactivity."] 

1969 January: In its New Year editorial, the People’s Daily declares decisive victory in the Cultural Revolution to have been won.  Mao is quoted as calling for simultaneous intensification and moderation of the “cleansing of class ranks” movement.  In Beijing, as the number of victims continues to rise, suicide alone accounting for 3,512 of those deaths.

April: The CCP convenes its Ninth Party Congress.  Mao calls the congress a meeting of unity; and a new Party constitution, describing Lin Biao as Mao’s successor, is adopted.  The “unity” proclaimed by the congress is short-lived as tensions grow between army and Party, between coteries of leaders, and eventually between Lin Biao and Mao himself. 

1971 September Lin dies in a plane crash in Mongolia.  Afterwards, Lin Biao is denounced as a “counter-revolutionary conspirator.” 

1976 marks the official end of the Cultural Revolution.  Zhou Enlai dies, and mass demonstrations on April 5 (Qingming Festival) on Tian’anmen Square are violently suppressed. 

Sept 9 of the same year, Mao Zedung dies.
October 6:
the Gang of Four is arrested, marking the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Dec 5: those persecuted for their opposition to the Gang of Four are declared 'rehabiliated' by the CCP Central Committee.

1977 August: Deng Xiaoping reinstated.

Prof. Chow's recommended further readings:

The Politics of China, ed. Roderick MacFarquhar (Cambridge UP)
The Search for Modern China, Jonathan Spence (Norton)
Voices From the Whirlwind, Feng Jicai (Pantheon)
Son of the Revolution, Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro (Vintage)
Wild Swans, Jung Chang (Simon and Schuster)
Red Azalea, Anchee Min (Random House)

Works Cited

Chow, Eileen.  "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76): A Basic Outline of Events."
        Screening Modern China: Chinese Film and Culture,  Chinese Literature 130, Harvard Univ.,
        2001-2002.  18 April 2003.  <>.

Ebert, Roger. "To Live."  [Film review.]  Chicago Sun-Times 23 Dec. 1994. Rpt. Current Reviews, 2004.  23 Feb. 2004

To Live  [China: Huozhe, 1994 ]. Dir. Zhang Yimou.  Wr. Yu Hua and Lu Wei. [Based on the novel
         Huozhe by Yu Hua.]. 
Perf. Ge You [Fugui] and Gong Li [Jiazhen].  Shanghai Film Studios -
         ERA International, 1994.
DVD. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Home Entertainment: World Films,

Yu Hua.  To Live: A Novel.  [Mandarin Chinese: Huo zhe, 1993.] Trans. Michael Berry.
New York: Anchor-Random House, 2003.

See also:

 Introduction to To Live
About Yu Hua, the novelist | About Zhang Yimou, the film director |
To Live Film Notes: 1940s Plot Summary; Characters; Works Cited
 Paper handout distributed in class & also available online:

To Live Novel Notes
 Paper handout distributed in class & also available online:


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Last updated: 26 October 2006

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Humanities Department, Central Oregon Community College
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