The novel opens with a nameless first-person narrator telling the reader of his old job that consisted of traveling and collecting folksongs and old stories. The villagers were generally happy to see him and were completely willing to relay stories of their past days. Although he enjoyed their stories, the narrator had yet to find a person who could completely recreate his past. However, after he met an old farmer named Fugui who was busy plowing his fields and kindly coaxing his old ox to work, his desire was satiated.
In his younger days, like his father before him, Fugui had been the epitome of the prodigal son. Spending his days whoring and gambling, Fugui wasted huge amounts of money. However, it seems that he enjoyed himself, doing such things as riding a fat prostitute piggyback and ordering her to take him around town. His father was of course upset, but having been of a similar bent himself during his younger days, he did not protest too much. In the eyes of Jiazhen, his lovely, but pregnant, wife, his mother, and his little girl, Fengxia he could do no wrong. However, when a professional gambler named Long Er made the scene, things truly began to go bad. Fugui had at first been able to pay his debts on the spot, but eventually he had to put everything on credit that eventually resulted in him losing the family’s ancestral land to Long Er.
The loss of the family’s ancestral land was too much for Fugui’s father to handle, so he passed away in despair. After Long Er moved into the family home, Fugui moved his family into a ramshackle shack and is forced to rent some land from Long Er. Even though he lost them everything, Fugui’s family, now with a son, Youqing, loved him. However, after his mother becomes ill, Fugui goes to town to fetch a doctor, but while he is there, he is forcefully conscripted into the Nationalist Army and is forced to march north to fight the Communists. However, the Communists surround his company, along with many others, and hundreds of soldiers are killed each day. Yet Fugui never fights a Communist. Instead he is too busy fighting his fellow Nationalists for rice and flatbread. Eventually The Communists are victorious and Fugui is allowed to return home. His family is glad to receive him, but he soon learns that his mother has died and Fengxia has gone deaf and mute because of a high fever. Forlorn because he knows if he had been such a Prodigal Son his family would have had money for medicine and doctors, Fugui is shocked when the Communists march into town and execute Long Er as an evil rich landowner. Fugui’s life was saved because he had wasted the family’s fortune. However, with People’s Communes, The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and many other more personal crises over the horizon, maybe it would have been better for Fugui to die as a rich landowner instead of a poor peasant. The last statement might be true for some, but not Fugui. This is where the magic of Yu Hua’s novel truly shines. Fuqui’s determination “to live” is astounding. It might not be a great life, but he is alive and is determined to make the most of it.
Sad and humorous, Yu Hua’s first novel stands as both a testament to life and as an outline that shows how millions suffered from 1945-76. While not pointing blame at anything particular, Yu Hua’s novel is definitely a critical piece of literature. To Live depicts the lives of poor peasants whose only desire was to survive, however, in a world in which the old, a geomancer, and the new, a sixteen-year-old female member of the Red Guard, could destroy their lives, even this simple but vital desire was put in danger. The novel is quite gripping and should be read by those interested in modern Chinese history or just fine literature in general.