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History of China in Novel “To Live” by Yu Hua Essay


Literature works of different periods mirror the background of the country in the period the author lived and worked. One of such works representing the history of China in the twentieth century is a novel To Live by Yu Hua, which together with Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, and the best-seller Brothers belong to the later works of critical realism created by Hua (Li 132). The novel is a four-decades family history of Xu Fugui which discovers such issues as filial devotion, personal development, and the crossing of personal life and the events in the political life of the country.

The novel was banned in China soon after it was published. The ban was caused by the fact that Hua criticized the rule of the communist party. On the whole, the novel is an example of intersection of personal and historical aspects of life depicting an individual and his changes under the impacts of the political history of the country.

Politics and History in the Novel

The plot of the novel comprises four decades of Chinese history. The most significant political and historic events that make the background for the novel include the Sino-Japanese war, the civil war in China (between the nationalists and the communists), and the becoming of the people’s republic of China. However, the special attention is concentrated around the Great Leap Forward movement, and the Cultural Revolution (Doll 1). In the context of these events, the title of the novel looks ironical. Naming the novel “To Live” is strange enough because many characters in this story die. However, this title can reflect the ides that Fugui, the main character, is the only one to survives by the end of the novel.

The novel mirrors the real situation that existed in the country of that period, both social and political, presenting the history of China. Thus, similarly to many other Chinese citizens of that time, Fugui was making an impression of an eager communist supporter. Behavior other than supportive could be considered threatening to the communist party. It could cause public humiliation or even death penalty. The example of Long Er, a rich landowner who got his property already in in pre-communist China, proves this fact. Fugui describes a land reform that was performed in his village.

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. (Hua 83).

Thus, Long Er was arrested and taken to the city prison. After some time, the man was executed for being a landlord. The fact that “a crowd of people from all the neighboring villages came to watch” the execution is a reflection of values shift in the society resulting from the aggressive communist ideology (Hua 84). The execution of a landlord became an entertainment for the poor people. In this case, Fugui was ironically fortunate to gamble his property years before, otherwise he could have been executed as well.

The novel provides direct proof of the consequences of the actions of the communist system in China. Its intention to eliminate or get rid of through deportation of individuals with education who, according to the party’s considerations, could be dangerous, resulted in many problems. For example, doctors were among those unwanted people and their elimination caused many deaths. To Live” is the story of people’s basic needs neglect by the government created by the communist party.

It policy was focused on keeping the citizens in fear rather than attempts to lead the country to prosperity. The tactics of bringing up of fear of the power and hatred to landlords or other prosperous people was effective the government but not for the citizens. In fact, To Live is a mirror of global destruction that was brought in by the communist party. The story of one family is a reflection of the order of life typical of the majority of common families of that time. The destruction experienced by Fugui and his family is just one example of the overall situation in the country. Finally, Fugui is left alone with his grandson Kugen. He was not afraid of communism any more. He was telling his grandson about the future and there was no place for communism in it.

The Story of a Person

Apart from the political and historical background that the novel has, it is a life story of an ordinary person. Of course, the impact of communist party and it policy is a significant part of the novel. Still, according to Quan (qtd. in Doll 3), Hua “places a greater emphasis upon the frailty of the human condition than upon the politics behind the given scenarios.”

From his early years, Fugui was considered a “rotten piece of wood that could not be carved” by his teacher (Hua 10). In fact, his life probably was the process of deterioration similarly to that rotten piece of wood that become even more rotten after some time passes. He was a gambler and spent days and nights gambling. He even could stay away from home for weeks (Hua 15). It was an addiction that he was not going to get rid of. Fugui claimed, “Every time I gambled I lost, and the more I lost, the more I wanted to win back” (Hua 18).

He was naïve enough to believe that the prosperity of his family would have been able to support his careless and parasitic way of life. In this respect, his behavior can be compared to the policy of the communist party that “has similarly assumed that the peasants could easily withstand and endure unsustainable grain-taxation while selflessly serving as an omnipotent workforce to provide sufficient sustenance for the rest of China’s overbearing population” (Doll 5). Fugui demonstrates his immaturity in diverse life situations.

For example, he considers exciting the fact of Nationalist troops entering the city. “The wildest time was just after the Japanese surrender, when the Nationalist troops entered the city to recover their lost territory. That was truly and exciting day—both sides of the city streets were flooded with people holding small colored flags” (Hua 14-15). Another line obviously traced un the novel is the significance of the family for an individual (Li 158). The images of father as well as those of mother and wife are positive and important for the development of the main character.

Liu (qtd. in Doll 8) claims that To Live is a story covering a very broad theme of life and suggesting that “experience is a labyrinth waiting to be disentangled.” In this context, the important of a narrator in the novel as a person who guides the reader through this labyrinth of life events becomes evident. It helps to reveal the person’s life facts and provide some evaluation. Moreover, it is important not to omit the value of “individual’s subjective experience” for the relation between history and literature (Doll 19). Yu Hua provided a critical assessment of Fugui’s life but left space for the readers’ interpretation of the actions and decisions of the main character. Thus, it is up to the reader to decide what is the essence of “to live” and how the life can be influenced by the historic events.


On the whole, the novel provides an ambiguous impression. On the one hand, it is a family story with its challenges and tragedies. On the other hand, the impact of historic events of that time on the family and the outcomes of its members is significant and cannot be denied. It can be concluded that the family of Fugui is a collective image of a common Chinese family. Some generations of the family had to live in the time of changes and had to change themselves to fit the epoch. The novel provides the evidence of events of that time giving freedom to the reader to evaluate the correctness of choices and decisions that were prompted by the events the characters had to go through.

Works Cited

Doll, Abbie. “Analyzing To Live through the Mediums of Literature and Film: Two Vastly Contrasting Presentations of Twentieth Century China’s Radical History.” International ResearchScape Journal, vol. 1, 2014. Web.

Hua, Yu. To Live. Anchor, 2003.

Li, Hua. Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Su Tong and Yu Hua. Brill, 2011.

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