To Live: Novel Notes
. . . plus commentary on Novel vs. Film and
Historical Context
HUM 210 Online Course Pack - Fall 2006 - Prof. Cora Agatucci
Author of the Novel:  Yu Hua (b. 1960 in Hangzhou [Haiyan], Zhejiang, China)

[Novel Notes: CHARACTERS]

Unnamed Narrator is the first narrator of To Live's "narrative frame" story, a young man who meets Fugui, circa early 1980s, and asks the old man Fugui to tell his story - the main story embedded within the "narrative frame" story. This Fugui does, in several installments, during one long day they spend together in early summer.

Xu Fugui is the second narrator of the main story embedded within the "narrative frame" story
(Xu Fugui is pronounced something like Shoo Foo-gway: family name: Xu; personal name: Fugui).

Fugui, the Ox: see Narrative Frame 1 and Fugui's Story 5

Fugui's father is the patriarch of the Xu family until his ignominious death: see Fugui's Story 1.

Fugui’s mother: Xu family matriarch survives the Xu family’s dramatic change of fortune and her husband's death, dutifully follows her son Fugui and granddaughter Fengxia into impoverished living circumstances, and does her best to bolster up the Xu family until her death: see below Fugui's Story 2.

Changgen, a loyal old servant of the Xu family, is reduced to beggary after Fugui gambles away the Xu estate: see Fugui's Story 2.

Jiazhen (pronounced something like Jya-zhun) is the admirable long-suffering wife of Xu Fugui, who at first neglects, but belatedly comes to love and appreciate his wife and their family. Jiazhen and Fugui have two children: a daughter Fengxia and a son Youqing.

Mr. Chen is Jiazhen's father and Fugui's father-in-law, who takes his pregnant daughter Jiazhen back to live with him in town after Fugui gambles away the Xu family estate: see Fugui's Story 1.

Fengxia (pronounced something like Fung-shya) is the daughter of Fugui and Jiazhen. She develops a close loving relationship with her younger brother Youqing; and during her father Fugui's involuntary absence as a Nationalist Army conscript, Fengxia suffers a high fever that leaves her unable to speak and hard of hearing: see Fugui's Story 2.  When Fengxia is twelve years old, she is "given away" to a town family so that her younger brother Youqing can go to school, but runs away back home: see Fugui's Story 3.  Later she is happily married to Wan Erxi: see Fugui's Story 4.

Youqing (pronounced something like Yoe-ching): the spunky son of Fugui and Jiazhen adores his older sister Fengxia.  He hates going to school, would rather stay home and help out his poverty-stricken family, but becomes a champion runner: see Fugui's Story 2 and Fugui's Story 3.

Long Er is the cheating gambler to whom Fugui loses the Xu ancestral estate in the House of Qing: see Fugui's Story 1.  But the changing winds of fortune and fate, and his own stubbornness, will ultimately betray Long Er: see Fugui's Story 2.

Old Quan [Lao Quan] is a veteran Nationalist Army soldier, originally an involuntary conscript who tried many times to escape/desert this Army.  He dissuades newly conscripted Fugui from trying to run away from the Nationalist Army; and later bands together with Fugui and young Chunsheng to try to survive the Chinese Civil War: see Fugui's Story 2.

Chunsheng (pronounced something like Chwun-shung): Fugui first meets, then befriends teen-aged Chunsheng during their stint as conscripts in the Nationalist Army.  Together with Old Quan, the three comrades struggle to survive the Chinese Civil War: see Fugui's Story 2.  Years later, as County Magistrate Liu, Chunsheng re-enters the Xu family's lives in tragic circumstances: see Fugui's Story 3. Ultimately, even Chungsheng--known as "Liberation Liu" for his valiant war record--will be denounced a "capitalist roader" by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution: see Fugui's Story 4.

Team Leader of Fugui's rural village and surrounding farmlands, reorganized into a people's commune (ca. 1958) during Mao Zedung's "Great Leap Forward": see Fugui's Story 3.  The Team Leader will serve as matchmaker and help find Fengxia a husband; but will also suffer a reversal of fate (like Chungsheng), when the Team Leader is denounced as "capitalist roader" by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution: see Fugui's Story 4.

Wan Erxi, a wealthy town porter with a "crooked head" (175), marries Fengxia in one of the most magnificent weddings the village has ever seen: see Fugui's Story 4.  They have one child, Kugen.

Kugen, meaning "'Bitter Root'" (211), is the son of Fengxi and Erxi, and is Fugui's grandson: see Fugui's Story 4 and Fugui's Story 5.

[PART 1 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 1 (italicized text, pp. 3-8): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

NARRATIVE PRESENT [ca. early 1990's ?] Unnamed Narrator, looking back on his encounter 10 years earlier with the remarkable old man Fugui.
[Note: the novel Huo zhe was first published in 1993, when author Yu Hua was c. 33 years old.]
SETTING [ca. early 1980's?] "When I was ten years younger than I am now, I had the carefree job of going into the countryside to collect popular folk songs.  That year, for the entire summer, I was like a sparrow soaring recklessly. . . . amid the village houses and the open country . . . " (3; emphasis added).  The unnamed narrator enjoys his summer sojourn among Chinese rural peasants, wandering from village to village, watching the girls, talking with the men (3), learning "all those dirty stories and sad songs from them" (4).  "That summer I almost fell in love. . . . [with] an enchanting young girl," sixteen or seventeen years old, who was embarrassed by the unnamed narrator's attentions (5).  One scorching hot and blissful afternoon, he "spoke endlessly and irresponsibly of my plans to take her away to see the world," never stopping "to think about tomorrow" (5).  But this romantic love idyll ends when he is approached by the maiden's three burley brothers: the unnamed narrator, who has no serious marriage intentions, is scared off (5). 

"It was just as summer arrived that I met an old man named Fugui" (6).  "This 'me' of ten years before lay down" to take a nap one hot afternoon (6).  Awakening from a dream two hours later, the unnamed narrator sees "an old man in one of the nearby fields patiently trying to coax an old ox into working" (6).  The old man Fugui brightly cajols his weary old ox into plowing the field, reciting proverbs, singing lines of verse, calling the old ox by many different names: Erxi, Youzing, Jiazhen, Fengxia, Kugen (6-7).  The unnamed narrator's curiosity is piqued and he engages the old man Fugui in conversation (7-8).  Cagey in responding to the young man's questions, the old man Fugui explains that the old ox's name is also Fugui, but calling the ox many names fools his old friend into thinking there are "other oxen around working the fields" so the ox will "work harder and won't feel so depressed" (8). 

[Commentary: Fugui, the weary old man, identifies with namesake Fugui, his old weary ox
The bright talk to stave off depression is probably as much for the old man as for his ox.]

The unnamed narrator describes, and is moved by, the old man Fugui (8). The two sit under a shade tree that bright afternoon, and Fugui begins telling his story (8).

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 1.a

Film: No Frame Narrative & no young second narrator are introduced to whom Fugui will tell his story.  Fugui's final companion, the old ox, is absent as well (Berry 242). Plot events unfold in chronological order.  [~C.A.]

Novel: Opens near the end old Fugui's life and story, which Fugui tells in installments, from past to present, marked by returns to frame of the narrative present.  [~C.A.]
To Live
was first published in serial form in a literary journal (Berry 240)

"To Live is the passionate telling of one man’s life, family and country. The original novel and the film adaptation follow this man, Xu Fugui, from a young and impetuous father to a much older and wiser grandfather. Though there is much in common with the two tellings there are also some dramatic differences. The book evokes more passion while the film brings anger. In the novel we see the inside of Fugui, what he is thinking, feeling and how that turns into action. We see his family’s struggle against the land and personal, continual loss. The film is also wrenching, but from a different perspective, that of an insider as the communist movement takes over. The film can be infuriating as you see these people yanked around by various ideals and governments, still giving everything they can as the rules continue to change" (Elliott).

"The novel To Live by Yu Hua is a story about the struggles of the Xu family through forty years of life in China as it evolves from World War 2 through the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong (Zetung) to the present Communist China.  This is primarily a narration by our main character Fugui, who, along with his wife Jiazhen, represent the second of four generations of the Xu's.  What is hauntingly clear is not just the remarkable character development of Fugui, but his strength and humility in the face of overwhelming obstacles manifested by the communist structure, starvation, the death of his children, and the overall unfairness of life.  When we first meet Fugui, he is an old man, alone with his ox plowing a field.  A traveler prompts Fugui to tell his life story.  In this way, we see the character development of Fugui from his eyes - what he learned, what he experienced, and what he valued" (Hage; emphasis added).

Fugui's Story 1 (plain text, pp. 8-43) - narrated by Fugui

SETTING [ca. early 1940's] : "Forty years ago" in the NARRATIVE PAST, in these same fields (8):  Fugui recalls his father walking these same fields as their owner, and hailed by field workers as "Master" (9). Then Fugui's father had "very high social status," though "every time he squatted down to take a shit he was just like a poor man"; indeed, like common farm animals, the Xu family patriarch belched and preferred to relieve himself "out in the open"  in "the manure vat" (9). 
[ca. 1945?]: Fugui's father - at age sixty - continued this practice, and Fugui's daughter Fengxia - at age three or four - would run out "to watch grandpa taking a shit" (9). At that time, the Xu family still owned "over a hundred mu* of land" (10), father and son revered as wealthy land owners.
[ca. 1940?]
The son, Fugui had married Jiazhen, daughter of a rich rice merchant in town: "A wealthy woman marries a wealthy man - it's like piling all the money up," but it's been [at least] "forty years" since Fugui has "heard that sound [of money]" (10). 
Later in his talk with the unnamed narrator, old Fugui wistfully recalls when he first saw, fell in love with, and determined to marry Jiazhen (24-25).

EXPOSITION: Fugui explains to the young unnamed narrator, "I am the prodigal son of the Xu family": early on, his teachers had warned his father that Fugui would "be nothing but trouble,"  "a rotten piece of wood that could not be carved," and, in retrospect, old Fugui admits that these predictions were right (10). When he was young, privileged Fugui was arrogant, illustrated by stories of being carried on the back of Changgen, a Xu family servant; of whoring and gambling, and of neglecting filial duties to Xu family ancestors (11). His father repeatedly berates his son Fugui for his dissolute habits, but Fugui learns from his mother that his father was a hypocrite: ". . . when my dad was young he'd been just like me," so "Why should I listen to him?" (12). 

SETTING [ca. late 1945 or early 1946?]: Fugui's daughter Fengxia is four years old and his wife Jiazhen is 6-months' pregnant with their unborn son Youqing (12)Fugui has for some time been spending most of his time in town, drinking, whoring, and gambling in the "House of Qing" (13). Neither the disapproval of his father nor of his father-in-law Mr. Chen [Jiazhen's father], head of the city's chamber of commerce" (15), fazes the arrogant young Fugui. 
"The wildest time" of Fugui's misbehavior involving a town whore and particularly shaming his father-in-law Mr. Chen, comes "just after the Japanese surrender
[i.e. just after August 1945], when the Nationalist troops entered the city to recover their lost territory" (14-16).

EXPOSITION:  Old Fugui reflects on the effect of his youthful "colorful" misbehavior in town on his young wife Jiazhen: she was a "good woman," a "virtuous person," "always submissive" to her erring young husband, constantly worried but never explicitly complaining (16).  For a long while, Jiazhen employed subtle, indirect ways to let Fugui know that she knew what he was up to (16-17).   Old Fugui also retraces how compulsive gambling at the House of Qing led him to increasing debt and finally complete ruin when he loses the remaining Xu estate--indeed, everything--to Long'er, top House of Qing gambler--who cheats, by the way (18-22, 25-27). 

Film: Chungsheng is first introduced working in the House of Qing, and will later join Fugui's shadow puppet troupe.

Novel:  Chungsheng is not introduced until later, after Fugui is conscripted into the Nationalist Army see Fugui's Story 2.

SETTING [Sometime in late 1945? (see p. 83)]: Early the very night that Fugui will finally lose everything to Long'er:  Jiazhen, "more than seven months pregnant with [their son] Youqing," makes a desperate last attempt to stop her husband from gambling away their lives, personally humiliating to them both, by confronting Fugui in the House of Qing (21-24).  Fugui behaves very badly - "it hurts me to think about it now" (23) - forcing pregnant Jiazhen to be ejected from the gambling den and to walk home over several miles of bad road (24).
Afterwards, Fugui gambles away the remaining Xu family estate, realizes he is "bankrupt, as poor as a hired worker (25), and considers committing suicide as he drags himself home (26-28).  When he arrives home at the Xu family mansion, he confesses the calamity he has brought down upon his family (28-30).  After exploding, then taking to his bed for three days, Fugui's father at last rises and talks with his son about the necessity of honoring the debt, "the words  . . . as painful as death itself" (31). 
The next morning, transfer of the Xu ancestral property to Long'er begins, and Fugui is made to carry copper money himself several miles into town to pay his creditors (32-34). When the debt is settled and Fugui's shoulders are rubbed raw (35), Fugui's father recites parables of the Xu family's rise and fall (36). 
Two days later, Long'er comes to claim his property and the newly impoverished Xu family must move into a poor "thatched hut" on family estate (36-38).  Fugui's father dies relieving himself for the last time atop the manure vat (38-39).  Fugui is prostrated by his father's ignoble death (39), though his wife and his mother try to comfort him (39-40). 
Ten days after the death of Fugui's father:  Mr. Chen - Fugui's father-in-law and Jiazhen's father, arrives with a marriage-decorated carriage, supported by an entourage of ten young men, with bells and gongs ringing (40).  Mr. Chen confronts "Animal" Fugui, announcing that he has come to take home his daughter Jiazhen, claiming the unborn child in her belly, but leaving their daughter Fengxia with Fugui, and ending all further interactions with the Xu family (41-42).  Grief-stricken pregnant Jiazhen must go with her father; equally grief-stricken by this separation, Fugui, his mother, and his daughter Fengxia must stay behind (42-43).

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 1.b

Novel: Countryside vs. Town Settings.  Translator Michael Berry notes, "In the film, the locale has been changed from China's rural south to a small city in the north" (242).
Countryside = location of Xu estate, of "thatched hut" where
impoverished Xu family must move, & where Fugui's father dies ignobly atop a manure vat. Impoverished Xu family must eke out living as farmers on land they formerly owned.  Mr. Chen, rich town merchant, takes back his daughter Jiazhen, separating her from Fugui, his mother, & Fengxia.

Film: Town = key setting of Xu mansion, where Fugui's father dies of heart attack right after signing away the ancestral estate; impoverished Xu family must eke out a meager living in town. Mr. Chen does not appear in the film; Jiazhen leaves Fugui because of his gambling, taking Fengxia and unborn Youqing with her.   [~C.A.]

          "Both stories depict a young Fugui who is blinded by his desire for whoring and gambling. Like his father before him he accumulates a large number of loses and in the end loses the family’s home. Fugui’s wife, Jiazhen tries and fails to stop his destructive cycle and returns to her father’s home.

          "The novel displays a more colorful picture of Fugui’s misdoing, including the relationship with his “fat prostitute”. An obnoxious Fugui rides the woman about the town, repeatedly and openly mocking his father-in-law (Hua 14). In the end Jiazhen’s father takes her away from Fugui’s home against her will and “wailing with grief” (Hua 42). Reduced to poverty, Fugui is forced to move with his daughter and parents. They settle in the country, live in a thatched hut and are forced to rent their land back for farming in an effort to survive.

The film focuses more on Fugui’s wayward addiction to gambling at the House of Qing (To Live). Through the gambling house the viewer is introduced to the art of shadow puppets. Shadow puppets were a popular art form of the time until the communist party sent them into extinction. When Fugui finally loses his family’s home he moves his parents along with him to the city to make money through working a puppet troupe (To Live)" (Elliott).

Historical Background:  

"To Live takes place during the Chinese Revolution of the 1940's through the 1970's.  The story is about a farming family and the hardships they face during the Revolution.  We learn first hand the effects the Revolution had on the people, especially the farmers, in the novel and the townsfolk of the film.  To better understand the events that occur in the story it is essential to know the history of how the communist party and its leader Mao Zedong came into power and the reforms he made in China" (E.S.).

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[PART 2 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 2 (italicized text, pp. 43-45): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

NARRATIVE PRESENT [ca. early 1980's]
"When Fugui's story got to this point," the Unnamed Narrator can't suppress a nervous, exhilarated giggle before this wrinkled, sweaty, mud-covered old "scoundrel of forty years ago" and his weary ox wallowing in the golden pond behind them (43).  The unnamed narrator explains his complex mindset at this moment in his life: "Never before had anyone so completely confided in me the way he did when he vividly recounted his history.  For as long as I was willing to listen, he was willing to talk" (43-44).  Of all the rural folk that the unnamed narrator would encounter during his sojourn in the countryside, ". . . I never again met anyone as unforgettable as Fugui.  Never did I meet anyone who was not only so clear about his life experiences, but also able to recount them so brilliantly.  He was the kind of person who could see his entire past.  He could see himself clearly walking as a young man, and he could even see himself growing old.  It's very rare to meet this kind of man in the country. Perhaps the difficulties and hardships of life destroy the others' memories.  They often face the past with a kind of numbness. . . .
   "But Fugui was completely different.  He liked thinking about the past.  He liked talking about his life.  It seemed that in this way he could relive his life again and again.  His story grabbed me in the same way the talons of an eagle clutch the branches of a tree" (44-45).

Fugui's Story 2 (plain text, pp. 45-85) - narrated by Fugui

NARRATIVE PAST [ca. late 1945 or early 1946 ?]
After Jiazhen is taken away by her father, Fugui's mother often cries and reassures her son that Jiazhen can never belong to anyone else but her husband (45).  During the many sleepless nights and aching days that follow, Fugui is consumed with self-hatred, finding solace only in his beloved daughter Fengxia (45-46). To survive, they sell off everything of value left, and Fugui anguishes over the sight of his gray-haired mother, walking on her "twisted little feet," learning to do "hard physical labor for the first time in her life" (46).  Fugui hatches a plan to start a little shop in town and seeks financial help from his new landlord Long'er (46-47).  Instead of lending Fugui money for a shop in town, Long'er agrees to rent Fugui "five mu of good land" on his former estate (48). Unused to farm work, Fugui is slow and quickly exhausted working his rented land, but learns from the other farmers, and, despite his protests, is aided by his loving mother (48-49).

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 2.a

Novel:  no shadow puppets appear; instead, new landlord Long'er rents Fugui five mu of good land to work on former Xu estate in China's southern countryside, & hard farm labor is very difficult for Fugui and his remaining family. [~C.A.]

Film: Introduction of shadow puppets, an old art form, gives Fugui an identity as artist and entertainer, by which he makes a living for his family, makes himself useful by entertaining both Nationalist and communist Liberation armies, as well as comrade laborers in his town. [~C.A.]

Three months after Long'er agrees to rent Fugui the land: Changgen, aged former servant of the Xu family, visits them (51).  Changgen, who had grown up working in the Xu family household, had suffered much after Fugui lost the family estate, being reduced to a life of begging when the Xu family could no longer employ him (51).  Fugui's heart breaks when Changgen, too old for the hard labor of farmwork, takes his leave (52-53).  Meanwhile - Fugui and Long'er both must adjust to their new tenant-landlord relationship (53-54).
[Ca. early 1946?]:  Fugui receives news from town that Jiazhen has given birth to their son, named Youqing; but his mother dissuades Fugui from going immediately into town (54). 
Six months later [early Autumn 1946?]: Jiazhen comes home, walking some miles from town, so that newly born Youqing on her back can meet his father Fugui (54). Beside herself with joy, Fugui's mother calls Fugui and Fengxia in from the fields (55).  "As soon as Jiazhen came back, our family was complete. . . . and for the first time I began to love and care for my wife" (56). From an upper-class family, Jiazhen is unused to hard, heavy farm labor, but throws herself into the work with a smile (56).  Fugui's Mother reminds them that "as long as a person is happy at work, then poverty is nothing to be ashamed of" (56).  "Fengxia was a good kid," and spends every free moment with her young brother Youqing, Fugui reports (56), but he feels the suffering of his family and blames himself (57). 

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 2.b

"The difference of where Fugui would settle proves to be of great significance. While settling in the country his family is faced with the intense struggle of harsh physical labor. Fugui’s mother works along side, “…[doing] hard physical labor for the first time in her life” (Hua 46). Though circumstances are hard the family is together and when Jiazhen returns with their son Youqing, “…[the] family is complete” (Hua 56). In the country the Xu family is away from most of the political unrest and violence happening within the city.

"In the film, Fugui settles in the city. The city reflects all of the political struggling and the rise of communism. In the city we see the Xu family always cautious of what they say, whom they speak with or how they are viewed. In the city, Fugui wants it to be clear that he is a Mao supporter. Seeing Fugui’s life in the city is more of a propaganda film, watching as the Chinese people are taken over by forces larger than they are" (Elliott).

[Ca. early Autumn 1947? (see p. 80) ]: A year later, Fugui's mother gets sick (57).  Jiazhen gives Fugui her last two silver yuans [coins] to go into town to fetch a doctor (57).  In town, Fugui sets out to find Dr. Lin, but enroute is insulted by and gets involved in a fight with the town magistrate's servant (58-59).  Bad luck!--senior official of a brigade of National troops in yellow uniforms happens upon this "pathetic" scuffle and commands Fugui and the magistrate's servant to help pull cannons (59-60).  The protesting servant angers the official and nearly gets killed running away.  Fugui, however, is caught: faced with the choice of getting shot or pulling the cannons, Fugui starts pulling the cannons, weeping as he feels Jiazhen's two silver coins in his pocket (62). 
Fugui is conscripted into the Nationalist Army (58-62).  Thus is Fugui conscripted into the National Army, goes north with the cannon battalion, and veteran soldier Old Quan explains that escape is impossible, for deserters are regularly caught and shot (62-63).  Old Quan's story: p. 63.  The battalion crosses the Yangtze River, and Fugui's dreams of desertion die (63).  Among the soldiers are teen-aged boys, including Chungsheng, from Jiangsu province, whom Fugui befriends (63-64).

Mid-Winter [early 1948?], Surrounded by the [Communist] Liberation Army:  The battalion finally stops at a deserted village--not even the company commander knows where they are--sets up the cannons, and prepares for battle, though no enemy is yet in sight (64).  Within days, many more Nationalist Army units join them, totaling "a hundred thousand Nationalist troops" in a small "twenty li square area," and the company commander announces, "We've been surrounded" (64).  The Liberation Army does not attack at first (65), and the Nationalist Army does not even fire a shot, but, surrounded, begins to run out of food and ammunition (66).  They hide in tunnels, scrambling out and fighting among themselves over bags of rice and bread cakes dropped by plane (66-69).  Fugui, Old Quan, and Chungsheng band together and help keep each other alive (68-70).  Fighting commences; sounds of guns, cannons, and bombs grow closer; but the three comrades remain hunkered down in their tunnel, freezing, venturing out only when hunger drives them to seek food (70-71). 

[Later in 1948?]  The size of the Nationalist Army has steadily shrunk, and thousands of wounded are no longer evacuated but are dumped, left for dead, in the vicinity of the three comrades' cave (71). 
One night:
Hungry and cold, wounded and dying men screaming and moaning outside their cave, the three realize the "Generalissimo" [Chiang Kai-shek] won't be coming to save them; but when Fugui and Chungsheng begin to despair, veteran Old Quan bucks them up, telling them they've got to live, and they will so long as they believe they will make it (72).  All Fugui can think about is his family (72-73). 
The next morning: All is silent. When Fugui, Chungsheng, and Old Quan stick their heads out, they see that all the wounded men around them are dead - "It's terrible" (73).  Old Quan goes out among the field of dead to investigate, finds four soldiers he knows, then falls, hit by a sudden outburst of flying bullets (74); then, not even knowing the name of the place, he dies (75).  Dressed in civilian clothes and trying to escape, the company commander is also shot down (76).  Chungsheng leaves Fugui in search of food
By noon that day: Along with all the other survivors hiding in the tunnels, Fugui is taken prisoner by the communist Liberation Army, marched south, fed, and given the choice either to join the Liberation Army or to go home (77-78).  Fugui is astounded: "The Liberation Army let me go home, and they even paid my travel expenses.  Heading south, I rushed the whole way home" (79). 

[Early 1949?]  Fugui's rush to get home is delayed at the Yangtze River, for Mao Zetung's communist Liberation Army had not yet "liberated" the south (80).  Fugui's progress is slow, "Keeping behind the Liberation Army as it fought its way south" (80).

[Early Autumn 1949?]: Nearly two years after leaving home and being conscripted into the Nationalist Army, mud-covered Fugui finally reaches home (80). He breaks into a run when he nears their thatched hut (80).  Fugui first comes across his children cutting grass: Fengxia, "around seven or eight" years old, and Youqing, "around three" years old (81). Fengxia smiles but does not speak and Youqing hides, not recognizing his father (81).  Crying out Fugui's name, Jiazhen runs to her husband (80).  Amid the tearful reunion, Fugui is devastated to learn that his Mother died just two months' after he was forced into the Nationalist army two years' earlier (81). A year later [ca. 1948], Fengxia had contracted a high fever, lost her voice and hadn't spoken since (81). Fugui is overjoyed to be home again with his family (81).

[ca. 1950?]: "After I got home, the village began land reform, and I was given five mu of land, the same five mu that I had originally rented from Long Er.  Long Er was really in deep trouble--he was labeled a landlord, and after not even four years of putting on airs.  Liberation came and he was finished.  The Communist Party confiscated his land and divided it among his tenants.  But Long Er would rather die than admit he was finished. . . . In the end he was executed" (83).
The day Long Er was executed, Fugui goes into town to watch (83). Fugui is chilled, recognizing this irony of "fate" (84, 85): had he not gambled away the Xu estate, it would have been Fugui, rather than Long Er, being executed as a landlord (84-85).  Seriously shaken, Fugui vows, "I've got to keep on living"; then later calms down, figuring "it is all fate," and hoping that "good fortune" will follow (85).  Jiazhen responds, "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 every year" (85).  Fugui understands his wife's words to mean that nothing mattered more than that "our family could be together every day" (85).

Fugui's Turning Point "When we first meet Fugui, he is an old man, alone with his ox plowing a field.  A traveler prompts Fugui to tell his life story.  In this way, we see the character development of Fugui from his eyes - what he learned, what he experienced, and what he valued.  He began as a prodigal son gambling away his family's fortunes (land and home).  He became a lowly worker after having put his whole family into poverty.  He is then conscripted into the Nationalist Army under Chiang Kai-shek without being about to contact his family.  'All I thought about was my family.  I imagined Fengxia sitting by the door holding Youqing, and I pictured my mom and Jiazhen.  I thought and thought about them until I was all blocked up inside and couldn't breathe.  It felt as if someone were holding my nose and covering my mouth' (Yua 72-73).  Miraculously, Fugui survives the war by surrendering to the Liberation Army under Mao.  He reunites with his family and quickly realizes his life long goal is the same as that of his remarkable wife, who always knew what she wanted.  Jiazhen wished only "to live" a quiet and peaceful life (Agatucci 2).  Fugui and his family continue to struggle and starve, battling to stay alive and together under the communist structure mandated by Mao Zedong" (Hage; emphasis added).

Historical Background:  

The execution of Long’er probably occurred during the early purge of the landlord class by the victorious Chinese Communist Party [CCP], led by Mao Zedung, which reached its height in 1950-51.  The peasant and working class was revered in Mao’s new China; and land, wealth, and food were redistributed more equitably.

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 2.c

"In the film, Fugui settles in the city. The city reflects all of the political struggling and the rise of communism. In the city we see the Xu family always cautious of what they say, whom they speak with or how they are viewed. In the city, Fugui wants it to be clear that he is a Mao supporter. Seeing Fugui’s life in the city is more of a propaganda film, watching as the Chinese people are taken over by forces larger than they are. In the novel, upon Fugui’s release from the army the family continues to live in their thatched hut. The Communist Party gives Fugui the same land to work and contribute from and the family survives in relative peace for several years. It appears they will have all the food they need in the communal meal house, but as easily as it came the supplies run out and the family is again forced to scavenge for nourishment" (Elliott).

[PART 3 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 3 (italicized text, pp. 85-87): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"Fugui's narration stopped here," with the hot mid-day sun turning toward afternoon (85).  Fugui makes a ribald joke, which causes the young unnamed narrator to laugh (86).  Fugui calls his old ox, Fugui, saying "Jiazhen and the rest of them have already started working.  You've rested enough" (86). Fugui observes to the unnamed narrator, "When oxen get old, they're just like old men" (86). Noticing more physical resemblances between Fugui, the old man, and Fugui, the old ox, the unnamed narrator settles back against a shade tree until dusk falls.  "I didn't leave because Fugui's story wasn't finished" (87).

Fugui's Story 3 (plain text, pp. 87-161) - narrated by Fugui

Later, Fugui resumes his story: "Those years after I returned home were difficult, but I guess you could say they went smoothly. Fengxia and Youqing got bigger by the day, and me, I got older and older" (87).
Fengxia turns seventeen years old, coming into her womanhood, and Youqing is twelve years old (87).

Fugui then goes back in time - "Some years earlier" - when Fengxia is twelve or thirteen (88; twelve according to a later passage on p. 88), and thus Youqing would be seven or eight years old and approaching school age.  Fugui and Jiazhen are faced with a difficult decision: should they go on as they are with their poverty and hard life certain to ruin both their children's lives?  Or should they give Fengxia away to a good family that can afford to give her a better life, and thereby be able to save the money needed to send Youqing to school? (88).  Though smart, Fengxia is deaf and mute and the only family that will take her is only concerned about how hard she will work (88, 89).  Everyone is devastated when Fengxia is given away, particularly Youqing (90-93).  
Two months later
when it is time for Youqing to start school, he refuses to go until Fugui beats him (93-94). When things start off badly for Youqing at school, Fugui beats him some more (94-95). 
"A few months after Fengxia is taken away, she came running back . . . in the middle of the night" (95). Youqing is overjoyed to have his sister back home, but the next evening after dinner, Fugui takes Fengxia back to town, but finally cannot bring himself to leave his daughter once again with that family, and carries her all the way back home (95-97). 
Two years later: Youqing is ten years old and has been in school for two years, and things are going a bit better for the Xu family (98).  Youqing's responsibility is getting up early before school and returning during mid-day break, to cut grass and feed their two lambs - which always threatened to make him late for classes and required that he always run back and forth between home and school (98-99). To ease the hardship on his worn out mother always making him new shoes to replace the ones he wore out running, Youqing would run barefoot (99-100). 

1958 [Mao Zedung's "Great Leap Forward"]: Xu's five mu of land go to the newly established people's communes (100). This new movement toward communism means the village head is now called the "team leader," all families work the collective fields, even cooking pots must be turned over to "smelt iron," everyone is to be fed in the "communal dining hall," and all private stores of food and livestock turned over to the commune--including Youqing's lambs (100-102).  At first everyone is happy and people enjoy meat in their meals, but the Xu family narrowly misses having their house taken when the "fengshui expert" scouts out the the most fortuitous location for the village commune's iron smelting cauldron (103-106; on Fengshui, see note p. 105). Fugui and Jianzen decide it is "fate" (108).  No one knows how to smelt iron: It is young Youqing's bright, but bad, idea that water should be added to the smelting pot (109-110). 

During this period, Jiazhen gets sick; after two months of unsuccessfully trying to smelt iron, it is Fugui's turn to watch the smelting fire and add water: that night Fugui falls asleep and doesn't add water, and Youqing's lambs are slaughtered (111-116). The next day, seriously concerned about his ailing wife, Fugui takes Jiazhen into town to a doctor, who diagnoses her with an incurable "soft bone disease" [rickets: see note, p. 117).  When they return to the village, Fugui discovers his "mistake" of not adding water to the cauldron, has finally enabled the iron to be smelted so that Taiwan can be bombed(118); but Youqing is weeping inconsolably about the slaughter of his lambs (119).  Food runs out, and villagers are told they must now buy pots and do their own cooking; fortunately the harvest is due in a month (120).  The new system of work points (120-121) devastates Jiazhen, who cannot do her share of the work, which falls to her strong daughter Fengxia (122).

[We've nearly caught up to the time period when this installment of Fugui's story began on p. 87]:

Youqing is now twelve years old, and wants to quit school to help his family at home (122-123). Trying to be kind, Fugui goes to town to sell firewood in order to buy his son some candy, but then becomes furious when he sees that Youqing is not studying in school, hits his son, makes a scene before the school, and causes his son "lose face" (123-125).  For over a month after that incident, Youqing snubs his father (125-126).  Contrite, Fugui makes peace by buying his son another lamb, and Youqing goes back to running back and forth between town school and feeding the lamb twice a day (126-127). 
Youqing is in fourth grade when a town-wide athletic meet is held (128).  To Fugui's surprise, Youqing beats everyone in the footrace, is genuinely bright-faced and happy, and his gym teacher rewards him with candy (129-130). THe gym teacher visits the Xu's at home and praises Youqing lavishly, but Fugui dampens his son's joy by reminded him that excellence in running is hardly why Youqing is being sent to school (130-131).
That same year, before the rice can ripen, it rains hard for a month; then a heat wave rots all the rice and the harvest is ruined (131-132).  Two months of near starvation means Youqing's lamb must be sold (132-133).  Youqing is more adult and resigned this time, and Fugui assures him that it is lambs', animals' "fate" (134).  In town, Fugui gets much less for the lamb than he had hoped - only forty jin of rice, which lasts less than three months (134-137).  Everyone is starving and an incident when a villager tries to claim a rare sweet potato that Fengxia has dug up erupts in a violent fight between Fugui and Xang Si (138-141).  Things are so bad that frail Jiazhen makes a painful pilgrimage into town to beg food from her father and returns home with a small bag of precious rice (142-143).  But the smell of cooking rice draws many hungry villagers, which the Team Leader finally drives off, but for a price (144-145).  This desperate situation continues until the next rice harvest, which once again supplies everyone with some grain (146).
Jiazhen becomes bedridden, spends her time unraveling all her own clothes to make new ones for her children (147).  Jiazhen begins discussing her funeral wishes with Fugui, and asks him to find Fengxia a husband (148).

"That year Youqing was in the fifth grade.  There is a common saying that 'Calamities never come singly.' . . . How could I have known that just as Jiazhen was starting to feel better, something would happen to Youqing?" (149).
The principal of Youqing's school, wife of the county magistrate, loses a lot of blood giving birth in the city hospital, so teachers at Youqing's school called on all the fifth graders to donate blood, and Youqing is first in line to give blood (149). Youqing is the first of the students to have the right blood type, but "the people in the hospital wouldn't stop taking Youqing's blood--they just kept extracting more and more" until they extracted "almost every drop of blood in my son's body" (150-151).  A school child arrives in the country to find Fugui and take him into town to the hospital, and when he arrives, Youqing is dead (151-153).  Weeping in disbelief, Fugui grows murderous, and finally confronts County Magistrate Liu - who turns out to be his old war comrade, Chungsheng (155).  Surprised, his anger quelled, Fugui and Chungsheng catch up on old times, but then Fugui's sorrow and despair returns (156).  He carries his dead son home and buries him (156-158), but keeps the news from Jiazhen and Fengxia for several days, spending his nights in devastated vigil beside Youqing's grave (159-160).  Without being told, Jiazhen knows that her son is dead and Fugui carries her to visit her son's grave, a scene of excruciating sorrow and beauty (160-161).

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 3

          "When times are already difficult the hardships seem to multiply. Youqing is a schoolboy now and anxiously awaits the opportunity to be a blood type match with the magistrate’s ill wife. Finally he is tested and matches. Devastatingly the technician takes his blood even when he turns pale, dizzy and slumps in his chair (Hua 150). Youqing dies and Fugui is devastated.
          "The film depicts an 'overworked for the cause' Youqing who is taken to school. Exhausted Youqing falls asleep on the floor and is crushed by the falling wall that the magistrate’s car runs into, Fugui is devastated (To Live)" (Elliott).

"Compared to the novel, Zhang Yimou's film . . . allows more room for the hand of fate to hold sway; here Youqing's death is attributed purely to accident, while in the novel it occurs after his blood is literally sucked dry to save the life of an important cadre.  Yu Hua's reality is much more brutal, as is his social critique [than that of Zhang Yimou's film]," Michael Berry concludes (243).

[PART 4 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 4 (italicized text, pp. 162-163): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"I spent the afternoon with the old man" (162). Even after the two Fuguis go back to plowing the fields, the narrator says, ". . . I didn't think of leaving.  I was like a sentinel watching over them from under the tree" (162).  The narrator listens to the voices of the farmers working the fields, and Fugui approaches them to share the "four rules" of life (162-163).  "Later he sat back down with me in the shade, and I asked him to continue his story.  He looked at me with a thankful expression, as if I was doing him some kind of favor.  He felt a deep happiness because someone had expressed interest in his life experience" (163).

Fugui's Story 4 (plain text, pp. 163-212 ) - narrated by Fugui

After Youqing's untimely death, Jiazhen also seems to be dying and broken-hearted Fugui begins preparing for her funeral, determined to buy her a coffin and bury beside her son (163-165).  Only Fengxia does not give up hope, and after twenty days in bed, Jiazhen is found sitting up in bed, asking for porridge, and begins a surprising recovery (166-168).  Then Fugui falls ill, overnight seems to have grown old, his hair gone gray (168).  A month after Youqing's death, Chungsheng arrives (see his background as "Liberation Liu" 169), but an outraged Jiazhen blames him for her son's death, throws Chungsheng out, and refuses to accept his money (169-170).  Fugui observes, "It would be years before I saw Chungsheng again . . . [not] until the Cultural Revolution" (170).

[1966:] "When the Cultural Revolution hit, the whole town turned upside down" (170). Violence erupts in town, and country folk stay away.  "Chairman Mao's supreme directives were always issued in the middle of the night" (171).
Jiazhen and Fugui worry about Fengxia and are determined to find her a husband (171). They watch painfully to see Fengxia mesmerized by another young woman's wedding, then Fugui is outraged when their daughter is ridiculed (174).  The Team Leader is asked to help find Fugui a husband, and he does (174-175):  Wan Erxi, a rich town porter with a "crooked head" (175). Dressed well and bearing expensive gifts, Wan Erxi visits the Wu family and meets Fengxia, but the outcomes does not seem promising (176-178).  But to Fugui's surprise, Wan Erxi returns, bringing men and materials to repair the Xu family's poor home, and more expensive gifts of meat and spirits to regale the Xu family with a fine meal, a fine cotton print for Fengxia, and the giggling young couple get along very well (178-182).  The date is set and Wan Erxi promises to make the wedding a fine event to compensate for Fengxia's hard life (183).  And indeed the wedding is one of the most sumptuous that the village has ever experienced (183-185).  Fengxia is tearful when Wan Erxi takes her away to live in town, and after she has gone, Fugui and Jiazhen feel a new emptiness (185-186).
Instead of the customary month later, Fengxia and Wan Erxi come home to visit within ten days (187).  After that, Fugui, too, says "to hell with the old custom and started going into town just about every other day" to visit his daughter and new son-in-law, urged on by Jiazhen (188).  Hardworking and intelligent, Fengxia is truly appreciated by her new town neighbors, and Fugui is delighted "to see how much Wan Erxi loved her" (190).  When Fugui returned home from these frequent visits, Jiazhen, too weak to accompany her husband into town, made Fugui retell all in great joyous detail (190-191).

"Meanwhile, the Cultural Revolution was raging more and more intensely in town" (192).  Big character posters, or da zi bao, blanket the walls, violent fights and frequent beatings make Fugui's visits to town increasingly dangerous, and he avoids crowded areas (192).  The village commune's Team Leader is afraid to go into town, and one day a group of Red Guards come to get him (193).  The Red Guard leader, a cocky young woman of scarcely seventeen years old (193),  interrogates the villagers and denouces the team leader as a "capitalist roader" (194). Despite village testimonies that he never bullied or oppressed them, the team leader is taken screaming away into town (195).  Three days later, the badly beaten team leader comes limping back into the village (196).  One day Fugui goes into town to visit Fengxia and is shocked to see Chungsheng, who lived in town, had also been denounced as a capitalist roader, being dragged through the streets and severely beaten (197).  Fugui tries to intervene, but to no avail.  Jiazhen is contrite when she hears (198).
A month later, Chungsheng pays Fugui and Jiazhen a secret visit in the middle of the night. Unwilling to come into their home, Chungsheng confesses to Fugui that he doesn't want to live anymore, that he is tied up and beaten every day (199).  Fugui tries to persuade Chungsheng that he must live (200).  Overhearing this sad discussion, Jiazhen calls out to Chungsheng:  "You've got to keep on living," she says; "You still owe us a life . . . Hold on to your life to repay us" (200).  Fugui forces Chungsheng to promise to keep on living, "But in the end Chungsheng didn't keep his promise.  Just over one month later I head the news that Magistrate Liu had hung himself" (200-201).  Jiazhen regrets blaming Chungsheng for her son Youqing's death (201).

Afterwards, Fugui cannot go into town very often to visit Fengxia, working himself into exhaustion in the village communal fields (201-202).  One day, Fengxia and Wan Erxi arrive to announce that Fengxia is pregnant, and the family celebrates as well as weeps over lost Youqing (202-204).
In a winter snowstorm, Fengxia gives birth, but the delivery is a hard one and at one point the doctor comes out and asks whether they want him to save Fengxia or the child (204-205). Wan Erxi asks them to save Fengxia, but a baby boy is born, the doctor announces that Fengxia is okay, Erxi and Fugui relax and Fugui goes out to get some sleep (206-207).  "But who could have guessed that the moment I left, something would happen to Fengxia?" (207).  Fengxia begins hemorrhaging and dies before dusk: "My two children both died during childbirth--Youqing during someone else's delivery, Fengxia during her own" (207), both in the same hospital.  Erxi is inconsolable.  Fugui is traumatized by these losses that have both occurred in the same hospital (207).  Snow falls heavily, as Erxi lifts Fengxia on his back and they head home (207).  In Erxi's home, Fugui holds vigil until dawn: "I wanted to cry, but there were no tears left" (208).  Knowing that Jiazhen had almost died when she lost Youqing, Fugui feels sure his wife will not survive the loss of Fengxia (209).  The next day they carry Fengxia and the newborn baby home to the village and Jiazhen, and Fengxia is buried next to Youqing (209-210).  Fugui is terrified by the look on Jiazhen's face.  Erxi asks Fugui to bury him next to Fengxia and to name the new baby boy (210).  It is Jiazhen who names the boy "Kugen, 'Bitter Root'" (211).
"Less that three months after Fengxia died, Jiazhen also passed away" (211).  Jiazhen is at ease during her last days, loving to talk, and promisng to spend her next life together again with Xu Fugui, who has proved to be a good husband (211).  Jiazhen dies at peace (212).

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 4

      "This [novel] is, by no means an endorsement of communism.  One of the great things about historical fiction is that one gets an education about the history of a particular place and culture in the context of a story.  In "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976): A Basic Outline of Events" by Eileen Chow, one gets a great snapshot of the progression of Chinese communism.  There are many events in the book and move that parallel actual events or situations.  One such situation that comes to mind is the Red Brigade moving out into the countryside to instruct the working class.  Another is the young Red Brigade student 'doctors' replacing the 'intellectuals' (actual doctors).  This sort of madness was commonplace during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976.  In the movie Fengxia loses her life to one such group of 'doctors' who did not know how to stop her bleeding during childbirth.  It is fair to say that however noble . . . our Fugui and Jiazhen were, they were only more so because of the decrepit, backward, violent, unworkable and unfair system of communism.  The novel and especially the movie show this convincingly" (Hage).

[PART 5 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 5 (italicized text, pp. 213-214): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"It was really nice the way Jiazhen died . . . . When she died it was all so simple, so peaceful," Fugui observes (213). Hearing Fugui speak this way of his wife Jiazhen "who had passed away over ten years ago," gives the unnamed narrator "an almost indescribable feeling of warmth deep inside . . ." (213).

Realizing that Fugui still hadn't finished his story, the unnamed narrator tries to encourage Fugui to continue by asking how old his grandson Kugen is now (213).  "A strange look appeared in Fugui's eyes," both sad and joyful (213). Finally Fugui responds, "If you're going according to years, he should be seventeen" (214).

Fugui's Story 5 (plain text, pp. 214-234) - narrated by Fugui

"After Jiazhen died, all I had was Erxi and Kugen" (214).

Erxi and Kugen live in town, and Fugui goes into town to see them whenever he has time (217).

Kugen is four years old (218) when Erxi dies, crushed between two slabs of cement (218-220).  Fugui brings his grandson Kugen home to live with him in the country (220-222). The second night, Fugui must try to make Kugen understand what death is and that his father Erxi is never going to come for him again (222-223). 

Six months later, "the village fixed the output quotas for each family" (224), and aging Fugui, beginning "to fall apart," can hardly keep up (224).  By this time, Kugen is five years old, and a "good little helper" to his grandfather Fugui, who has a little sickle made for Kugen  (224-225).  Kugen eagerly watches their chickens grow, and accompanies Fugui into town to sell the chickens' eggs, waiting for the time when they will have enough money to buy an ox (226-227). 

Kugen is seven years old (227): Rain is forecast, which would ruin Fugui's cotton crop, so they rush out to harvest, but Kugen complains of dizziness (227-228). Fugui realizes his grandson Kugen, now burning up with fever, is really sick; picks fresh beans to make Kugen a special meal, then leaves him to eat it and returns to harvesting his cotton crop (228-229).  Returning at dusk, Fugui finds Kugen's little twisted body and raises an alarm in the village (227-228).  Kugen is pronounced dead (228).

"Kugen had choked to death on the beans," because his "muddle-headed" grandfather had given his beloved grandson, who "hardly ever had the chance to eat beans,"  "too many beans at once, . . . . In the end it was my own clumsiness and stupidity," old Fugui declares, "that killed Kugen" (230).

"From then on I had to get by alone," and Fugui did not expect to live much longer - but he does live on (230-231).  "It seems this life of mine will be over soon.  It's been an ordinary life" (231).  But Fugui, the survivor who has outlived so many others, including Long Er and Chungsheng who "each had their day in the sun, but in the end . . . lost their lives," concludes that "It's better to live an ordinary life" (231). 

Two years after Kugen's death, Fugui, still alive with perhaps a few more years left, decides to buy an ox with his savings and heads for the town of "Xinfeng, where there's a big animal market" (231-232). At a nearby village, Fugui happens upon an old ox, tears streaming from the ox's eyes because he knows he's  about to be butchered; Fugui is moved by the old ox's plight, tries to move on, but finally must come back to buy and save the old ox from slaughter (232-233).  The "smart" old ox, realizing Fugui has saved him, immediately stops crying, stands up, nuzzles Fugui with affection, and readily follows his new master home (233).  Fugui observes, "Oxen have feelings just like people do" (233).  Everyone agrees that Fugui is a fool to waste his money on this old ox, who probably has less than three years of life left in him (233-234), but old Fugui and his old ox have already outlived such predictions.  "Once the ox was home he became a member of my family, so I thought it only right that I give him a name" and decides to name the ox "Fugui": "He really does resemble me" (234).  "Fugui is a good ox"; the old man knows that when he is tired, so much be his ox and gives him a rest; and "When my energy returns, then it's time for him to get back to work" as well (234).

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 5

Grandson Kugen (Bitter Root) is renamed Mantou, or "Little Bun," in the film; and translator Michael Berry discusses at some length other key differences between film and novel, including Zhang Yimou's use of the "recurring parable of the Xu family's transformation from a chicken to an ox" to comment on changing political climates (242-243).

[PART 6 Novel Notes - Conclusion]

Narrative Frame 6 (italicized text, pp. 234-235): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"As he finished, the old man stood up, patted the dust off his bottom and called out to the old ox beside the pond. . . . The two Fuguis swayed slightly as they walked off," the old man telling his old  ox how much Youqing, Erxi, Jiazhen, Fengxia, and even little Kugen had planted that day (234-235). Listening to the old man's fading song in the dusk, the unnamed narrator observes "the death of sunset" and the village fields fall into silence.  "Just as a mother beckons her children, so the earth beckoned the coming of night" (235).

Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 6 - The Endings

Michael Berry contrasts the different endings of film and novel: ". . . the film ends with Fugui, Erxi, and Kugan [Little Bun] gather around Jiazhen in bed, an image that suggests the possibility of a post-Communist utopia.  The novel, in contrast, closes with Fugui prodding his ox, showing Yu Hua's version to be darker and more existential, with survival an end in itself" (Berry 243). 

         "A final difference between the novel and film would have to be the fact that in the book all Fugui’s family dies, including his little grandson, Kugen.  This leaves the reader feeling pretty hopeless until you recognize that the “older, wiser” Fugui has been telling the story all along. He has persevered and endured and still has the capacity to work the fields joking with his ox along the way. Somehow his story of sadness is also one of hope. It is his life, it was his to choose and he chose to live.
         "To Live
is both a powerful book and a powerful film. Each story could be independent of the other while the common thread remains; a man named Xu Fugui" (Elliott).

Yu Hua has explained the life philosophy of his protagonist Fugui:
"After going though much pain and hardship, Fugui is inextricably tied to the experience of suffering.  So there is really no place for ideas like 'resistance' in Fugui's mind--he lives simply to live.  In this world I have never met anyone who has as much respect for life as Fugui.  Although he has more reason to die than most people, he keeps on living" (qtd. in Berry  244).

"Having grown up near hospitals and operating rooms during modern China's most vicious and chaotic period, Yu Hua has created a fictional reflection of this reality, a world imbued with violence, death, and unspeakable cruelty.  At the same time, his world is touched by moments of poetic brilliance, a passion for life and sublime beauty . . . . and now readers of English will finally be able to enter that reality, in all its beauty and brutality" (Berry 245).

       "What is remarkable (by American standards) is that through all the trials and tribulations, too numerous to mention, Fugui and his family accepted everything that came their way.  Fugui did not complain about his lot in life, perhaps because when he had an advantage early on, he wasted it.  In a way, it was his penance to carry whatever burden for however long so as to provide for his family and have them by his side.  So much of what happened to the Su's was a result of the communist state but they embraced it in a way that ensured their survival.  Fugui and his family never really questioned the legitimacy or fairness of Mao's Red China - perhaps because it was useless to do so.. What seemed more important to Fugui and Jiazhen was the immediate welfare of their family.  this idea of a successful, loving family amidst all the brutality of communism struck me as strangely beautiful.  Our author, speaking in the traveler's narration (italicized) says it best: 'Hearing this old man across from me talk like this about his wife, who had passed away over ten years ago, created an almost indescribable feeling of warmth deep within me.  Like a blade of grass swaying in the wind, I caught a glimpse of the movement of a distant tranquility' (Hua 213) [ Narrative Frame 5].  
       "I truly doubt that there are many Americans who can understand or even be moved by such profound prose.  We should all be so lucky as to experience that depth of love and the tranquility it supports.  It may just be that only such suffering by Fugui and Jiazhen can give one the true depth of such feelings.  It may also be that modern capitalism has no time or room for such tranquility.  It certainly is true that novels like this are vitally important to provide perspective in the on-going debate about what is most important in life.  Perhaps it is just 'to live'" (Hage).


Works Cited

Agatucci, Cora.  To Live: Novel Notes . . . plus commentary on Novel vs. Film and Historical
         Context. [Online handout.]  Humanities 210, Central Oregon Community College, Winter 2004.
         March 2004.  <>.
Agatucci, Cora, ed.  "Introduction to To Live."  Handout, Humanities 210, Central Oregon Community
         College, Winter 2004.
Berry, Michael.  "Translator's Afterword."  Yu Hua, To Live: A Novel 237-245.
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.  <>.
E. S. [HUM 210 student contributor].  To Live: Final Discussion Paper.  Humanities 210,
         Central Oregon Community College, Winter 2004.
Elliott, Sarah [HUM 210 student contributor].  To Live: Final Discussion Paper.  Humanities 210,
         Central Oregon Community College, Winter 2004.
Hage, Thomas Shoemaker
[HUM 210 student contributor].  To Live Considered: Final Discussion
         Paper.  Humanities 210, Central Oregon Community College, Winter 2004.
To Live
 [Film - 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.  "Author's Postcript."  Yu Hua, To Live: A Novel  249-250.
Yu Hua. 
To Live: A Novel.  [Mandarin Chinese: Huo zhe, 1992/1993.] Trans. Michael Berry.
New York: Anchor-Random House, 2003.

Short Cuts on this webpage: NOVEL NOTES: CHARACTERS
PART 1 Novel Notes: Narrative Frame 1 (pp. 3-8) | Fugui's Story 1 (pp. 8-43)
Novel vs. Film Notes Part 1.a | Part 1.b
PART 2 Novel Notes: Narrative Frame 2 (pp. 43-45) | Fugui's Story 2 (pp. 45-85) | Fugui's Turning Point
Novel vs. Film Notes Part 2.a | Part 2.b | Part 2.c
Novel Notes: Narrative Frame 3 (pp. 85-87) | Fugui's Story 3 (pp. 87-161)
Novel vs. Film Notes Part 3
PART 4 Novel Notes: Narrative Frame 4 (pp. 162-163) | Fugui's Story 4 (pp. 163-212)
Novel vs. Film Notes: Part ....
PART 5 Novel Notes: Narrative Frame 5 (pp. 213-214) | Fugui's Story 5 (pp. 214-234)
Novel vs. Film Notes: Part 5
PART 6 Novel Notes: Narrative Frame 6 (pp. 234-235)
Novel vs. Film Notes
Part 6 - The Endings | General Observations

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 2: Film Notes, cont.
Film Plot Summaries: 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | Historical Background: Cultural Revolution
 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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