„To live“ by Yu Hua may seem very Chinese on the surface, but on a deeper level one can detect basic universal traits of the human nature along the way. That is what I love about this book.
“To live” tells the story of Xu Fugui, son of a well-to-do Chinese landowner. Fugui goes thru the stages of his life first totally self-centered, only caring about his own interests, hurting everyone around him and just not caring. In the end he has learnt his lesson, and is satisfied leading the quiet life of a simple peasant.
As a young man, Fugui goes to town; womanizing, gambling, drinking and smoking opium. He marries a patient, kind-hearted woman and has two children. However, his family doesn’t mean anything to him as he travels his journey thru life.
Along the way Fugui loses his family property, works as a farm hand and a soldier. Thanks to the land reform after the revolution of 1949 Fugui gets some land and his family life goes smoothly for a few years. Then his village is made into a commune with all the advantages and disadvantages of such a social structure, corruption being a major disadvantage.
One after the other his family members die. Fugui is old and alone. He buys an old ox to save it from being butchered. “Oxen have feelings just like people do”, says Fuguo and the ox becomes his “family member” as they arrive in his home together.
“To live” is not only the life story of a single person. It also tells the story of a nation going thru huge social changes.
Reading this book, I often thought of what I learnt about myths and legends during my studies of social anthropology. They tell about human beings experimenting with different ways of structuring social life, trying to find out what works and what not. That’s what “To live” is actually about.
The story is told in a most humorous and entertaining way. At the same time it gives a lot of food for serious thought. The language is fluent and colorful. It is easy to imagine the scenes, feel the flow of emotions. This is a deeply humanist book.