“To Live,” by Yu Hua. Review


9/10. Highly recommend. Could not stop crying whilst reading it on the plane. One of those nice stories that get you through the pure power of the lived experiences that it records. Added advantage of being fairly short (~2 hours), and potentially helpful for understanding the Chinese people in our dogged insistence on being alive—so dogged that we don’t need any justification for life but life itself.


It’s often said that the antidote to suffering is hope. Dumas certainly believes this: “all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope.'” Yu Hua wants to say something else. In the preface of To Live, he writes: “One lives for the sake of life itself.” (人是为活着本身而活着的, translated by me.)

Indeed, Fugui (the protagonist) has no hope. He’d lost everything (friends, family, estate, youth) except for a cow that he named after him. Fugui simply hangs about. He farms enough to eat and saves enough for others to bury him after he’s dead. Even this desire to be buried does not constitute hope. Fugui’s convinced that he would be buried not for his faith in human nature, but by the simple observation that he’d be really freaking stinky if people don’t shove some dirt on him.

The only thing Fugui has left is life itself. What this is, is not only the plain fact of living, but how life, in its existence, coheres individual moments into something that, even if not whole, is not so isolated. This is why Fugui is pleased to tell his story. The very fact that he can remember his life, even if it points to no higher purpose but the quotidian chaining of his subjective experiences, for Fugui, suffices. This is why Fugui does not indict anyone or anything, nor affirms or denies life in his tale. Unlike Job, which To Live has been compared to, Fugui simply experiences things and tells them. And the fact that he existed and passed, even if it does not justify life, is ample reason to live on, live on, if not for anything, for the sake of life itself.

(Thanks to Sascha who inspired me to read the story by comparing my family to Fugui’s when I told him that my great-grandpa gambled all our wealth away.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s