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.

Reflecting on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

One thing I admire about J.K Rowling’s writing style is that it’s clear and concise. I had no problem remembering the plot from the previous books because she did a good job at refreshing readers’ memories by taking the time to explain important events. But the greatest magic she did to me has opened my eyes to a new way of seeing the world. As I mentioned before in one of my previous posts, I was never really a fan of sports, but I could appreciate it now when the author used Quidditch to illustrate teamwork and good sportsmanship to support and fight for the right cause. Also, I learned what bravery looks like and why it’s the greatest trait above all else. It takes a lot of courage to conquer death. In fact, the entire story of Harry Potter is like the Christian Gospel for the Wizarding World. It’s meant to soothe and cradle the anxious soul who are fearful of death or have lost a loved one.

Since the beginning of the first book, particularly Book 6, I have always seen Dumbledore as the embodiment of good and wisdom (p.360). To me, he is like God, all-knowing and omniscient and Harry Potter had to have faith in Dumbledore’s instruction even though like Christ he was on a mission to be slaughtered like a pig (p.687). How is this not a parable of the Christian faith? The entire series is bombarded with Christian tropes such as the trinity (Hermione, Harry Potter, and Ron are metaphors for mind, body, and soul); the serpent as being the lesser being; the number 7 as a holy number; finally love, love conquers all. If you are familiar with the Christian faith then you know what I am talking about.

The scale of the story followed the same structure. God sent his beloved son to die for our sins. In other words, a hero sacrifices his life for the greater good. Harry Potter was born to destroy evil and that’s why he is the Chosen One who comes from the House of Gryffindor, which is the greatest House out of all the Four Houses. Why is that? Wit, ambition, and hard work are all great traits but bravery tops it all because they don’t fear death. The Four Houses are just metaphors for the virtuous traits that benefit and develop a stable society. I agree with the author. Great leaders don’t just lead by example but are selfless. Harry Potter puts himself in danger many times for others even for Draco, his enemy! That’s why the author made her point about bravery as the biggest virtue on several occasions by using Ron, the insecure character to show readers that anyone can be great and that there’s bravery in everyone. An example is a part where Ron saved Harry from drowning in Forest’s frozen pool in Chapter 19:

‘You’ve sort of made up for tonight,’ said Harry. ‘Getting the sword. Finishing off the Horcrux. Saving my life.’

That makes me sound cooler than I was,’ Ron mumbled.

‘Stuff like that always sound cooler than it really was,’ said Harry. ‘I’ve been trying to tell you for years.’

Book 7, p. 379

As I was reading, I kept wondering what’s the significance of the Chosen One in relation to the story other than fighting evil. That plot in itself is too generic. Then I realized Harry Potter is the symbol of youth and bravery on the verge of corruption in a society. When I saw it in that light, I became more appreciative of the story as something more than just a children’s book. You see, if Dumbledore is the embodiment of goodness and wisdom, then Harry Potter is the embodiment of hope and change. Wouldn’t all parents want to see their children become better than them in some form? Parents would only hurt their children’s future if they make their children serve them by abiding by old outdated traditions. The western concept of rearing children is far different from Asian cultures (particularly Eastern and Southeastern Asians) and that came as a shock to me. We are taught to respect and serve our elders–not challenge them as we see in the Order of the Phoenix. Harry Potter’s behavior was appalling to me in Book 5 when he was upset that Dumbledore left him in the dark, but sometimes it’s necessary to continuously challenge an established society for the sake of the “greater good” which will benefit all. After all, it takes a brave person to stand up and make changes to a decaying society even at the expense of one’s own life.

So, has my opinion of Dumbledore changed after learning that he’s not a family man and that it was out of selfish ambition that he wished to make peace with the Muggles so that both worlds can live in harmony? Not quite. Like Harry Potter, I felt a little betrayed, but the author did a great job at explaining his actions and redeeming him. Like Voldemort, Dumbledore operated in secrecy, pulling strings to see his plans come through. He wasn’t all that different from Voldemort who was lusting after power and domination. But there is a huge difference between the two. If you can recall the statement in the Sorcerer’s Stone: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure (p. 297), Dumbledore accepted his immortality whereas Voldemort didn’t. That’s why Voldemort will always fall short. It’s kind of like how Satan will always be less than God or why the number 6 is less than 7. So yes, I still like Dumbledore for many reasons and believe that his traits reflect Christian virtues. One of them is the fact he is modestly humble. He is talented and gifted but chose to be a headmaster of a school rather than be the head of the Wizarding ministry. The logic is that if you want to make a huge impact in the world, you start off in the classrooms. Training and disciplining young wizards and witches have a huge impact on the future of society. That’s where changes really happen. It always starts small, especially if you want to make the world a better place, but of course, great ideas don’t always follow through as we see with Tom Riddle, who turned out to be the evilest wizard. But it’s better to try than not try at all.

Another interesting point made by the author was the concept of respect for all life. Dobby, a slave elf who falls at the bottom of the wizarding community food chain is as grand as Dumbledore. However, when he died, all he got was a small burial and not an elaborate ceremony. It made me think about how society tends to place importance on social structure. Someone from the bottom of the food chain is just as impactful as someone on top. It was a nice touch to say that no matter how small someone’s place is in society, they can make a huge impact!

I could go on and dive deeper into the world of Harry Potter because I enjoyed every single moment of it and learned how to see new perspectives such as the concept of gold and treasure from the point of view of the goblins, but I decided to conclude my thoughts for now. Everything in this book makes sense. There’s the notion of empathy, forgiveness, and acceptance just like the Christian faith. Perhaps, it’s the statement that Harry Potter and Voldemort are one of the same kinds but at the same time different than confused religious people. Still, when it comes to great literacy work, nothing should be taken literally. It’s the lessons that are important.

Now I just need to watch the first two Fantastic Beast films before I can see the third one in the theater to get caught up with Harry Potter. While I was reading Harry Potter, each time I finished a book, I watched the film, comparing and contrasting them. Of course, the books are way better, but the films are cool too. This whole experience took me about 4 months but I am glad to say I have now graduated from Hogwarts and know what bravery looks like. Snape is the bravest and is my favorite character. Maybe if I feel like it, I might write an essay about why I think so, but I will just leave it for now. That was a lot to take in, I am sure.