"When I write there is a constant voice in my ears. Sometimes I hear laughter, sometimes I hear sobs, sometimes I hear sighs, sometimes I hear myself." — Yu Hua in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture
Although it was initially banned in China, the internationally award-winning epic novel To Live, which was first published in 1992, is now considered to be one of the country's most influential books, with millions of copies in print. Called a "Chinese Book of Job" by the author Wang Ping, it tells the poignant story of a man's transformation from a mean, selfish wastrel to a devoted husband and father trying desperately to keep his family alive during the worst famine in Chinese history and a time of dramatic political and social change. Spanning four decades of modern Chinese history and written in stripped-down prose with a sensitivity to the dialogue and details of everyday life, the novel is tragic and filled with pain, but it is also a tale of endurance, humility, beauty, love, and ultimate redemption.
Fugui is the brash son of a wealthy land-owning family who, at the beginning of the novel, is unfaithful and cruel to his wife, Jiazhen. When he gambles away his family's entire fortune, dragging his mother, father, pregnant wife, and young daughter into poverty, he sets into motion a lifetime of suffering that will soon illuminate for him the error of his ways. He is forced into the Nationalist army, whisked away to fight with no opportunity to tell his family where he has gone. Much later, he returns home to find that his mother has died, and that his beloved and spirited daughter, Fengxia, has been stricken with a fever rendering her deaf and unable to speak. Now a poor peasant farmer, Fugui struggles to understand his sensitive son, Youqing, and as time passes and the family endures more and more hardships, Fugui comes to be filled with gratitude and respect for his stoic wife. Yet, as Fugui's capacity for love and his understanding of others grow, calamities continue to strike.
Fugui's story is told in his own voice to a traveling folk song collector, whom he meets later in life while working with his ox in the fields. In a postscript to the book, Yu says that he was inspired to write To Live after hearing "Old Black Joe," an American folk song about a slave who lives a harsh life but still views the world kindly. Old Black Joe and Fugui could not be more different given their cultural experiences, he explains, but they are both human. This is what makes literature magical, he says, adding that he learned about himself from reading novels by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and National Hawthorne.
Despite its epic breadth and the harrowing tragedies at its core, To Live is fast-paced, laced with Yu's signature humor and frankness. Prior to being published in book form, To Live was serially published in the Shanghai literary journal Harvest, which is where the famed Chinese film director Zhang Yimou first came across it. After staying up all night to read it, Zhang resolved to make To Live into a film, which premiered in 1994 to international acclaim, winning the Grand Jury prize and the Best Actor award at that year's Cannes Film Festival. The book was also adapted into a television miniseries entitled Fugui in 2005, and brought to the stage in a production by influential Chinese avant-garde theater director Meng Jinghui in 2012. "The theme which is central in much of my writing is ... Chinese people can overcome any difficulty presented to them," Yu told Modern Chinese Literature and Culture. "The Chinese character remains strong."
The book's translator, Michael Berry, was 22 and a senior at Rutgers University when he sent a fax to Yu Hua requesting permission to translate To Live into English. To this day he feels a great sense of gratitude to Yu for entrusting his masterpiece to a young aspiring literary translator.