To Live poster
Image from Wikimedia Commons

In 1993, the then-little known writer Yu Hua (余华) released a novel that the Chinese government originally banned for its exposure of the Communist government’s failures. The following year, Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), who debuted in 1988, directed the film production of To Live. Similar to the novel, the government also banned the film adaptation.

The title stems from the tenacity of the main character, Xu Fugui (徐福贵), and his wife Jiazhen (家珍) through the Chinese Civil War, the Communist Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution – from the 1940s to the 1970s, three pivotal decades of Chinese history. In spite of hardship and tragedy, they determine to live.

At the start of the film, Fugui, Jiazhen, and their daughter Fengxia (凤霞) live in wealth thanks to the fortunes of Fugui’s family. However, circumstances quickly turn against them when Fugui, blind to the needs of his family, gambles away all that he has. This error sets the course for the rest of the story, as poverty forces him and his family, which then includes a son named Youqing (有庆), to adapt to a whole new mode of life.

Great life upheavals are hard enough on their own. Add to that the monumental shifts occurring in China’s social structure through the struggles of the Chinese Civil War, and To Live makes for a tumultuous film wherein trial follows trial and the family fights for breaths of fresh air. Misfortune builds their characters and strengthens their family. Times of happiness pass, and they celebrate in those moments, knowing how fleeting they can be.

To Live clip
A still from the film

To Live tells about a China that is redefining itself. From the collection of scrap metal during the Great Leap Forward to the burning of traditional Chinese shadow puppets and growing prominence of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, viewers see the impact of the Communist regime in the daily lives of Fugui and the village.

Changes roar around Fugui; he is part of these changes, he joins these changes, but it is the story of his family, not these changes, that takes center stage. The Chinese revolutions of the mid-1900s serve as a background to Fugui’s own development from selfish gambler to compassionate husband and father. The changes of the nation frame the changes in his life.

In an interview with Education About Asia, Yu Hua called “to live” an emotionally-charged phrase, full of power from not noise or violence, but endurance. He says that To Live narrates “the friendship between a person and his fate.” [1]

“To Live talks about how humans endure abysmal suffering, like a Chinese saying: To hang by a thread. You let a strand of hair withstand 30,000 jin and not break. It talks about the capacity and multitude of tears, talks about the absence of desperation, talks about people living because they must. They live to live and for nothing else.” -Yu Hua

Fugui, Jiazhen, Fengxia, and Erxi (Fengxia’s husband) — The sign behind them say “The working classes leads everything”

If you’d like to watch To Live, I provided links to two versions below.

[1] Interview with Yu Hua