When I joke about being a ‘fatalist’, my American friends of Chinese descent often remark, ‘That is very Chinese.’ When I pause to think about what they meant by that, Yu Hua’s masterpiece To Live always comes to mind.
I originally read the novel in Chinese, for a college class in Shanghai: ‘Introduction to World Literature’. The professor chose ten literary works from different languages for us to read and discuss. I remember falling in love with Rynosuke Akutagawa’s short story collection, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. When it came to the final book, my professor handed out To Live with a broad smile, and suggested that Yu may be China’s greatest contemporary novelist. I share that view.
Yu’s protagonist Fugui is born the son of a landlord, and grows up before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He spends his youth in debauchery. One day he squanders the entire family fortune in a gambling den, and then decides to become an honest and caring farmer. But the ongoing political storms in China keep throwing obstacles in his way. He is forced to fight for the Nationalist Army during the Chinese Civil War. When he returns home years later, his mother has passed away and his daughter Fengxia is left deaf and mute after a high fever. He experiences more suffering as the decades follow, witnessing his loved ones die miserably, one after another. Toward the end, all alone, Fugui buys an old ox to keep him company, and names it after himself.
Han Songluo, a Chinese writer and friend of mine, once said that the most important skill writers need is to ‘recount the world in simple words but without simplification’. Yu is no doubt a master of this. In less than 250 pages, he creates a vivid picture of half-a-century’s worth of complex Chinese history. And thanks to his economy of language, he is able to foreground the philosophical question inherent in the novel, about the purpose of suffering, and the meaning of life.
Yu credits his inspiration for the book to the American folk song ‘Old Black Joe’, which depicts an elderly African-American slave’s unfailing hope in the face of unimaginable suffering. In a 2003 interview with Helen Finken for Education about Asia, Yu talks about ‘the power to live’. ‘To endure the responsibilities life has thrust upon us,’ he says, ‘to endure the happiness and sufferings, the boring and banal, that reality has given us.’
The image of Fugui and an old ox – his namesake – living together, waiting for death, never fails to shake me no matter how many times I reread the novel. Fugui finally externalizes life by internalizing suffering. The ox embodies his owner’s fate, and instead of holding life in his hands, the farmer Fugui understands fate as a capricious force. The only attitude he can adopt is to accept whatever is offered, perhaps even with a smile.
Much as I respect Yu’s depiction of human resilience in the face of hardship, I am bothered by the way he confuses man-made disasters and natural disasters. Some of the deaths in the novel are not the result of fate. During the great famine caused by the state’s economic policy, Fugui manages to find his grandson Kugen some of the only food available: beans. The starving Kugen devours them, and dies choking. To me, this is not a matter of fate, a fate Fugui should tearfully endure. It’s a tragedy – a crime someone should be held accountable for, a crime that should not be mourned, but raged against. This confusion is not Yu’s alone. For years, the Chinese government has labeled the great famine as ‘Three Years of Natural Disaster’. That political manipulation seeps into the narrative. And yet the Chinese public’s readiness to accept this explanation leads me to wonder whether fatalism is a fundamentally Chinese outlook – and whether it makes us more tolerant of the injustice and tyranny we face.
I don’t have a good answer. That is why I keep revisiting To Live, as well as the existentialist novels of Europe: Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Franz Kafka’s The Trial. I hope to respect humanity’s capacity to endure hardship, without letting it become a weakness unjust systems can take advantage of. I hope to admire the African-American slave’s optimism and kindness, but still condemn the evil of slavery, and to argue that they shouldn’t have had to suffer so much.
Image © Joseph Wu