Education About Asia: Online Archives

To Live: A Novel

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ISBN: 1-4000-31869

Yu Hua is one of the leaders of the post-Mao generation of writers struggling to find a voice for their experiences in a literary world whose perspectives had been warped by the constraints of socialist realism and which could voice criticism only in a veiled historicism that located exemplary mistakes in the experiences of figures associated with dynasties well removed from the present. The results of that search led young authors to experiment with a variety of genres—science fiction, surrealism, “misty” poetry, avant garde use of language, and the “scar literature” that provided intensely personal memoirs of the abuses of the Cultural Revolution years. As a fledgling writer and an apparently voracious reader of international literature, Yu Hua explored many of these literary devices. His short story, “The Past and the Punishments,” is an almost Kafkaesque attempt to explore the problem of historical memory in China in the aftermath of the Maoist excesses. Other short stories are remarkable for their striking and graphic depictions of violence.

When Yu Hua turns to the novel, however, there is a notable change in his writing style. The language is spare but the storytelling becomes at once gentler, more first person, and more revealing even though violence and tragedy are never far from the surface. Stories of life in China are told through families and across generations . . . across decades of history and across the political movements of the twentieth century. Yu Hua’s novels of life in rural China echo the familial sagas of Faulkner or Steinbeck in the American context. Yu Hua himself has indicated that the inspiration for To Live came from the American folk song entitled “Old Black Joe” about an elderly slave “who experienced a life’s worth of hardships, including the passing of his entire family—yet he still looked upon the world with eyes of kindness, offering not the slightest complaint.”(note 1) The life of a black slave in antebellum America and the life of a rural peasant in twentieth century China are worlds apart, yet there is a common theme of suffering and quiet nobility in struggling simply to survive and in discovering the small joys of shared life in the midst of recurring pains.


1. Yu Hua, “Author’s Postscript,” To Live,  249.