The novel To Live was written in 1960 by author Yu Hua.This story follows the Xu family through four generations and the many struggles they faced during the Chinese revolution, the Great Leap, the Cultural revolution, and much more. The novel made tremendous news and became widely known as one of China’s greatest literary works. With the help of Yu Hua, director Zhang Yimou transformed the novel into a film and closely followed the original plot depicted in the novel. Through analyzing both the novel and film, its apparent that the director aimed to stay true to the story line, but there are a few key scenes and emotions and themes that were left out or added to the film that were different than the novel.
Yu Hua beings the novel with commentary from an unknown source. The unknown character, presumably a traveller, meets an old Fugui and provokes a conversation in which Fugui goes into great detail about his life. He seems to be quite content sharing his life story with this stranger and the novel slowly transitions from the stranger’s point to view to Fugui’s. The novel does a stellar job at illustrating humanity as well as the trials the Xu family faces. An example of this can be seen during the conversation Fugui has with his wife about sending Youqing, their son to school. Fugui explained to the traveller, “Some years earlier, Jiazhen and I had hesitated about whether or not we should send Youqing to school—we simply did not have the money. At the time, Fengxia was only twelve or thirteen, an although she could help Jiazhen and me with some work in the field and around the house, she was still dependent on us. Jiazhen and I discussed whether we should just give her to someone else and be one with it” (Hua 88). Through examples like this, the novel goes into great detail to describe the hardships that this specific family endured during the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution in China which can be assumed for many other families during that time as well. in that sense, the novel portrayed more of a personal and dark representation of what it was like being a poor family in the rural countryside. The lives of the average person in China wasn’t all that Mao promised, and the book really illustrates that without outright faulting the government. The book implies that the government is at fault but does not ever mention those specific events while the film on the other hand places great importance on the events that occurred throughout the decades.
Another difference between the novel and the film was that the film did not seem to keep the same emotional intensity as the novel did. In the novel, we closely follow Fugui and are inside his head experiencing the traumatic deaths and trails he faced throughout the years. The audience becomes attached to Fugui and in the end, Fuigui ends up old and alone yet still tirelessly working.
This lack of emotional intensity can be greatly blamed on the change of setting. The novel took place in a rural country town in Southern China while the film changed the setting to a small city town in Northern China. Though this may seem like an insignificant disparity, the setting had a major effect on the plot. In the novel, the setting sets up the majority of the story. Long Er, the man who took over the Xu family’s estate, refuses to lend Fugui money but instead gives him five mu of land (Yu Hua). In the film, Long Er also refuses to loan Fugui money but instead gives Fugui a puppeteer set. By changing this detail, the novel lost the vital struggling factor that the family endured because they were a poor rural family. They eliminated the many scenes of Fufui struggling to tend the fields and starving when the crops didn’t produce enough to feed his family. Instead, the film seemed to focus on the historical events simultaneously occurring and pulled on the pathos strings of the audience in a different way by showing them what was happening to all of the country rather than just Fugui’s experiences.
As a result of the setting change, Fugui’s life and his experiences are slightly different. This change can be identified as an attempt to shed more light on the life of the laborers and their experiences with the Chinese Communist Party. In the film the revolutionaries takes pots, pans, and anything metal in order to melt it down to produce bullets for the revolution. The film shows a great sense of national pride throughout the people, teamwork, a vast amount of propaganda posters displayed, and a general fear of being thought of as a counterrevolutionary. Yu Hua on the other hand chose to really illustrate the difficult times that this specific family withstood and created more of a grim and harsh light while the film chose to exclude some of those details and instead sheds light on the some of the shortcomings of the Chinese Communist Party during that time. This can be seen when Fugui quickly frames the certificate he earned after serving in the Liberation Army. He wants it to be known to all that he is in support of the party, and consequently he is careful of what he says and how he appears to others.
For the most part, the film stayed true to the film. Compared to the novel there was less character attachment, a major setting change, and a stronger presence of highlighting the Chinese Communist Party. The film seems more optimistic and ultimately excluded the harsh truth that Fugui outlived all his relatives and his only companion left was his ox. The film was less about Fugui, and more about the bigger picture—the Chinese Rule over the four decades. Both methods are effective for different reasons which is why the novel and film remain vital resources to better understanding Chinese history.
Hua, Yu, and Michael Berry. To Live. Anchor Books, 2003.
Yimou, Zhang, director. To Live. May 1994.