To Live (novel)

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To Live
AuthorYu Hua
Original title活着/活著 – huózhe
TranslatorMichael Berry
PublisherAnchor Books & Random House of Canada Limited
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)

To Live (simplified Chinese: 活着; traditional Chinese: 活著; pinyin: Huózhe) is a novel written by Chinese novelist Yu Hua in 1993. It describes the struggles endured by the son of a wealthy land-owner, Fugui, while historical events caused and extended by the Chinese Revolution are fundamentally altering the nature of Chinese society. The contrast between his pre-revolutionary status as a selfish rich idler who (literally) travels on the shoulders of the downtrodden and his post-revolutionary status as a persecuted peasant are stark.

To Live is one of the most representative works by Yu Hua. The story begins with the narrator traveling through the countryside to collect folk songs and local legends and hears an old peasant's life story, which encompass many significant historical events in China including the Land Reform, Great Leap Forward, Great Chinese Famine, Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns and the Cultural Revolution. Over the course of the story, the main character, Xu Fugui, witnesses the death of his family members and loved ones.[1]

The book was originally published in the Shanghai literary journal Harvest. A film rendition, directed by Zhang Yimou, was released in 1994. The novel has also been adapted into a television series and stage play.

The novel has been translated into traditional Chinese, French, Dutch, Italian, Korean, German, Japanese, English, Swedish, Polish, Romanian and Malayalam.

Writing Background[edit]

Yu Hua was inspired and deeply moved by the American folk song ‘Old Black Joe’. Despite experiencing hardships in life and the passing of his family, the elderly black slave still looked upon the world with eyes of kindness, offering not the slightest complaint. This American slave song with the simplest lyrics formed the story of Fugui's life - a life imbued with upheavals and suffering, but also tranquillity and happiness. It was after listening to this song that Yu Hua decided to write his next novel To Live.[2]


Going to the countryside to collect popular folk songs, the narrator “I” meets an old man named Xu Fugui, who begins to recount his story. Fugui is the son of a landlord. After squandering his family’s fortune in gambling dens and brothels and the sudden death of his father, Fugui settles down to do the honest work of a farmer. Soon his mother becomes ill, and going into town to purchase medicine, he finds himself forcibly conscripted into the Nationalist Army. Leaving behind his family, he witnesses the horrors and privations of the Chinese Civil War. Upon returning home years later, Fugui learns that his mother has died and a high fever has left his daughter Fengxia deaf and mute. He begins to face a string of hardships as he witnesses one after another the death of his family members. His only son, Youqing dies due to medical negligence while donating blood to save the magistrate’s wife. Years later, Fengxia finds a suitable husband Erxi, who too has a disability--a crooked head. Their happy life ends when Fengxia dies from giving birth to their son Kugen. Soon, Fugui’s wife Jiazhen dies of osteomalacia and Erxi dies in a construction accident. Finally, even Fugui’s remaining family member, Kugen dies as he chokes to death while eating beans. Having saved up enough money, Fugui buys an old ox, who serves as his companion during his final years.


The Narrator "I"

A popular folk song collector who comes to the countryside where Fugui lives. He listens to Fugui’s story and records the story.

The Xu Family:

  • Xu Fugui (徐福贵)

The protagonist of the book. As the son of a landlord, Fugui spent his youth in a luxurious lifestyle and was only devoted to gambling and interacting with prostitutes. After Fugui gambled away everything and went through all the hardships, he becomes an honest and caring peasant.Also the story talks about how events such as the Great Leap and Cultural Revoulation has affected Fugui's life. At the end of the story, Fugui is alone with the only ox in the field.

Yu Hua said of Fugui "After going through 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."[3]

  • Jiazhen (家珍)

Fugui's wife, Fengxia and Youqing's mother. Jiazhen is the daughter of the rice leader Chen Ji. After Fugui lost all family fortunes, Jiazhen leaves at the beginning.But after knowing Fugui quit gambling, she comes back to support Fugui, bear all hardships and hard work with Fugui, no matter what kind of challenge is in front of them. She is kind hearted as well as tenacious who has never made a complaint despite all the struggles and hardships, but she dies of soft bone disease under the loss of both her son and daughter.

  • Xu Fengxia (徐凤霞)

Fugui and Jiazhen's daughter and Youqing’s elder sister. Fengxia becomes deaf and mute because of a fever, but she is just as beautiful and kind hearted as her mother. This diligent and caring girl later gets happily married to Erxi. However, only after a short period of happiness, she dies while giving birth to their son Kugen.

  • Xu Youqing (徐有庆)

Fugui and Jiazhen's son. Because of the poor family situation, Youqing learns to take responsibilities and help out the family as a child. The long-distance between school and home makes him a great runner and makes his gym teacher loves him a lot. This kind boy later dies of donating too much blood to the magistrate’s (Chunsheng) wife.

  • Wan Erxi (万二喜)

Fengxia’s husband. Erxi is a construction worker who has a crooked head. This quiet and honest man is deeply in love with his wife Fengxia, and after her death, he decides to only live for their son. Erxi later dies in a construction accident.

  • Kugen (苦根)

Fengxia and Erxi’s son. After both of his parents' deaths, Kugen starts to live with his grandfather Fugui and still can not escape from poverty. He dies choking on beans Fugui prepared for him.

Other Characters:

  • Long Er (龙二)

A gambler who comes after the Japanese surrender. He takes Mr. Shen’s place as the top gambler in the town. After Fugui lost all his property to him, he also takes away the Xu family’s house. Long Er is finally executed during the Chinese Land Reform Movement as a landlord.

  • Chunsheng (春生)

A young boy Fugui meets on the battlefield. Fugui and Chunsheng has good friendship with each other. He latterly becomes the county Magistrate. In order to save his wife, who is the principal of Youqing, students are forced to donate their blood and Youqing dies because of being taken too much blood. He tries so hard to achieve Fugui and Fengxia's forgiveness. At the later story, Chunsheng is labeled as anti-government, he commits suicide during the Cultural Revolution.

  • Team Leader

The one who is in charge of the production and management of the village. He is implicated in cultural revolution. He also is the matchmaker of Fengxia and Erxi’s marriage.




A film adaption (To Live) of this book starring well-known actors such as Gong Li and Ge You was released in 1994, premiering at the New York Film Festival, after numerous discussions between film director Zhang Yimou and the novelist author Yu Hua upon the proper film adaptation, keeping the plot within the frame of Yu Hua's artistic vision.[4] Yu Hua has previously stated that he prefers his own novel to the film.[5] The film changes the setting from rural southern China to a small city in northern China and added the element of shadow puppetry. The second narrator and the ox are not present in the film.[1] Michael Berry, the translator of the English edition of the novel To Live, said that the novel has a "darker and more existential" message and a "much more brutal" reality and social critique, while the film renders the failure of Communist ideals and capitalist China as a more optimistic future.[1] Berry says that the film "allows more room for the hand of fate to hold sway."[1] The movie was first banned in China, and was not theatrically released because it was viewed by the government to be an anti-Communist campaign.[6][verification needed]

Television Series

On December 16, 2005, the 33-episode television series adaptation, Fugui 富贵 was broadcast on Chinese television. Directed by Zhu Zheng, the TV series features lesser known actors and actresses such as Chen Chuang (陈创) as Fugui and Liu Mintao (刘敏涛) as Jiazhen.[citation needed]

Stage Play

Two decades after the novel's release, it was adapted into a stage play titled To Live 活着 directed by influential contemporary drama director, Meng Jinghui (孟京辉) and starring actors Huang Bo (黄渤) as Fugui and Yuan Quan (袁泉) as Jiazhen. The play premiered at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing between September 4, 2012 to September 9, 2012, and later made its way to cities such as Hangzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Taipei. [7]

Critical Reviews[edit]

“A work of astounding emotional power.” —Dai Sijie, author of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

“A Chinese Book of Job, To Live is a heart-wrenching saga, written with beauty, defiance, and hope. Yu Hua’s books deserve a place on the highest shelf.” —Wang Ping, author of Aching for Beauty and Foreign Devil

“A major contemporary novelist, Yu Hua writes with a cold eye but a warm heart. His novels are ingeniously structured and exude a mythical aura. Though unmistakably Chinese, they are universally resonant.” —Ha Jin, author of Waiting

“A book of subtle power and poignant drama. You love Yu Hua’s characters because they are flawed, vibrant, soulful, and real: you celebrate with them the small wonders of life, and feel their pain as they overcome tragedy. Ultimately, To Live is a redemptive story of the human spirit, one that is universal in its emotional depth.” –Terrence Cheng, author of Sons of Heaven

“Yu Hua is the most profound voice coming out of China today. To Live reaches not only into the very essence of the Chinese people but into the blood and bones core of what it means to be a human being.” Lisa See, author of On Gold Mountain[8]

See also[edit]


In 1994, Scmp Book Publishing Ltd and Rye Field Publishing Co. published the traditional Chinese version.

In 1994, Phillippe Picquier and Hachette published the French version.

In 1994, De Geus published the Dutch version.

In 1997, Donzelli published the Italian version.

In 1997, the Korean version was published by a South Korean publisher.

In 1998, Klett-cotta published the German version.

In 2002, the Japanese version was published by a Japanese publisher Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co., Ltd..

In 2003, Random House, Inc. published the English version.

In 2006, Ruin published the Swedish version.

In 2006, Companhia das Letras published the Portuguese version.

In 2007, DC Books published the Malayalam version in India.[9]


  1. ^ Doll, Abbie (February 2014). "Analyzing To Live through the Mediums of Literature and Film: Two Vastly Contrasting Presentations of Twentieth Century China's Radical History". International ResearchScape Journal: An Undergraduate Student Journal.
  2. ^ Yu, Hua, 1960- (2003). To live : a novel. Berry, Michael, 1974-. New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 1400031869. OCLC 51752247.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ Yu, Hua (2003). To Live: a novel. Translated by Michael Berry. New York: Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. p. 244. ISBN 1-4000-3186-9.
  4. ^ "FILM REVIEW; Zhang Yimou's 'To Live'". The New York Times. 1994-11-18. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-11-21.
  5. ^ "Introduction to To Live (Film & Novel)". Retrieved 2019-11-21.
  6. ^ Gateward, Francis (2001). Zhang Yimou. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 63–64.
  7. ^ "话剧《活着》大剧院揭开神秘面纱". Retrieved 2019-11-04.
  8. ^ "IST Library and Information Literacy Center | Book Review: To Live, by Yu Hua". Retrieved 2016-10-21.
  9. ^ "余华研究中心". Retrieved 2019-11-05.