Book Review: To Live by Yu Hua

I finally got a library card. The librarian asked me if I was older than eighteen-year-old when she handed me the library card application. She must be blind because if she would have looked a bit closer, she’d noticed I have a few white hair strands, which I like to think it’s the effect of gaining wisdom over time. Although, I did take her question as a compliment. It means I have a youthful aura! Who can say no to that? I do have the curiosity of a five-year-old when it comes to consuming knowledge.

The first book I checked out at the library is To Live by Yu Hua. It must be destiny because I accidentally found it browsing through the bookshelf. I watched the film version directed by Zhang Yimou many years ago. I believe I checked out a copy of the film from the library as well. The film is great, but I love the book more! The book is so good that I had a hard time putting it down, and now that I finished it, I am sad I don’t have anything else to read. Well, I do have things to read but none speak to me like this book:

It’s better to live an ordinary life. If you go on striving for this and that, you’ll end up paying with your life (p.231).”


Do you like the quote? There you go, my secret to eternal youth apart from eating fruits and drinking a lot of water for supple skin! I’m partially kidding. Of course, I bet you are here because you want to know my thoughts on the book and not listen to me rave on about my vanity. Well then, I am happy you are here! I will tell you why I love this book.

This book is poetic without convoluting the story. It’s about living and escaping death on many occasions. The story follows a man by the name of Fugui who comes from a rich family. Due to his negligence, he causes his family to fall from fortune into poverty because of his gambling addiction. But is it a fortune in disguise? This book is a page-turner. I was so engrossed in the lives of the characters that I took a moment to pause from reading whenever something bad happen to the characters. Fugui narrates his life in a way he does not turn it into an epic tale or dramatize it by asking for sympathy from his audience. There is no real-life hard lesson in this book. Instead, it paints a picture of people who have lived and endured severe hardships like that of an ox.

Another thing I enjoyed about the book is that the author doesn’t bluntly criticize a political system. However, in the Translator’s Afterword, the translator mentions Yu Hua’s reality of communism is more brutal in the book than in the film version (p.243). I agree. In the book, the National Army and Liberation Army appear the same when we compare them to the common, ordinary folks. For instance, there is a part when the Nationalist troop conscripts Fugui at gunpoint, which causes him to separate from his family for a few years until the Liberation Army sets him free. Initially, I thought the author is in favor of the Liberation Army until I learn about its political agenda. When Fugui and his family successfully smelt the iron just in time for National Day, I was just as shocked as Fugui to learn that the smelted iron is used to make bombs:

We’ll be able to make three bombs out of this iron, and all of them are going to be dropped on Taiwan…We’ll drop one on Chiang Kai-shek’s bed, one on his kitchen table, and one on his goat shed (p.118-9)!”

-The village’s Team Leader

As you can see, the seriousness of the plot is balanced well with humor. For one, Fugui and his family think they have failed when the fire burns through the cauldron only because they didn’t know what and why they need to smelt the iron in the first place. They just follow whoever is in charge. It made me wonder what difference does it make if the orders are coming from the Nationalist or the Liberation leader? Both political parties don’t have the common people’s best interests; people at the bottom are put to work like animals until there’s no more life in them. If humans drag their feet from time to time, it only makes sense that animals would do the same. A good leader empathizes with his followers and knows when to let them rest and when to make them work (p. 234), and I could not agree more with the author’s point of view.

Throughout the book, there was not one dull moment. Everything was intense. I felt all sorts of emotions. I caught myself with teary eyes, and at times, laughing from shock. What I saw was a grim picture of how everyone was caught up in a political mess. In the end, I finished the book feeling grateful that I am still alive. As my father said, I’m lucky that I wasn’t born in the middle of a war. The world can be a dark place, but there’s still warmth in it if you look hard enough. At least that’s what I take from this book.

Note: I tried not to go into detail about certain events in the story to support my arguments. I had to stop myself from attempting to write a full-blown essay. I hope I give enough information about the book to pique your interest. It’s my love for great books that prompted me to write this review.