Novel To Live
In his novel To Live, Yu Hua presented a broad picture of the life of a peasant family in China during the stormy events that took place during the 1940s-80s. This is not only the story of one man and his family but a truthful representation of major events of the twentieth century, that is, coming to power of the Communist Party, the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, China's Civil War, and the Great Leap Forward. There are two main lines in the novel: the family life and the historic events. Through the fate of one man the fate of a whole nation in difficult times for the country is shown. The protagonist Fugui tells how the millstones of Chinese history, that is, participation in the Civil War between the Communists and the Kuomintang, the Cultural Revolution, the workdays, communes, confiscation, denunciations, and hunger, has almost milled his life. Step by step, the readers capture the essence and content of the ordinary Chinese people's lives. The world fame came to Yu Hua only after the release of film adaptation of his book, initiated by the eminent film director Zhang Yimou. The movie, as well as the novel, criticized the political order in the country of real socialism, though in a more careful way due to the censorship. This essay aims at analyzing the book by Yu Hua To Live and the film by Zhang Yimou as two different attempts to evaluate and come to terms with the Mao Years. History can have different interpretations, and Mao Years are remembered and judged differently in the People's Republic of China.
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The Cultural Revolution was one of the most terrible tragedies in the history of the last century. It was held by Mao Zedong to maintain his despotic power over the Chinese people. Mao pursued the aim to eliminate from the governing bodies the parties of all those who disagreed with his policies of communism. In order to deal with his potential opponents, he used politically immature youth and formed the troops of Red Guards. Chinese peasants were subjected to the unprecedented experiments of initiation to new and unknown to them forms of existence. Mao decided to try out the idea of the Great Leap Forward and the people's communes. The goal, pursued by Mao Zedong, was the transition to communism as soon as possible; total nationalization of the property was the most characteristic feature of this campaign. Another feature of the communes was the militarization of labor, the establishment of industrial armies, and the abandonment of the socialist principle of distribution according to work. Peasant men and women were obliged to undergo military training; very often, they were united in companies and battalions. Morality of people was changed: speculation and the black market, peasants' riots, and escape from the communes were common at that times.
Yu Hua's book is characterized by an abundance of emotional and shocking scenes of violence against people during the period of prosperity of communism. The Chinese oppression and twists of fate over four decades are central here. The novel has a confessional character; the author makes his principal character Fugui plunge into the debris of his memory and extract out the details of his life and the course of history. Fugui is the third generation of the wealthy Xu family, who once had luxurious home, employees, and farmland at its disposal. But as it usually happens, two generations save money, and the third one waste it. As depicted in the novel, now Fugui is seventy, and the death of all his family is behind; he is completely alone.
However, in comparison with the novel, the film's ending is more happy and optimistic. Zhang Yimous film interpretation does not portray Fugui alone; his wife, son-in-law, and grandson are alive in the movie. It would seem that it is just another interpretation of the director, but he transformed the story with a particular purpose, according to the censorship, because such an altered story ending leaves the viewers the impression of an optimistic future in community. No matter what was in the past, but it is hoped that people will live a happy and prosperous life in future, which is quite ridiculous in comparison with a dominant dark atmosphere of the film. This hint indicates that the overall quality of life will improve because of the social and technological progress towards industrialization and modernization.
The behavior of young Fugui is very symbolic. Just as Fugui thought that the family wealth would be endless, the same way the CCP felt that farmers could withstand excessive grain-taxation being the labor force, which provided sufficient means of subsistence for the rest of the powerful Chinese population. When immoral behavior of Fugui in the novel shows parallels with the abuses of citizens by the CCP, the propaganda and happy ending of the film, by contrast, is associated more with the official image of the CCP. The film was specially edited in order to make it politically correct and acceptable reflection of past tragic events.
As it can be seen from the experience of Fugui, during the Mao era, Chinese peasants were deprived of a normal quality of life. The massive physical destruction of Chinese peasants by artificial famine was a deliberate terrorist attack of political system against innocent people and especially against the peasants as a class. Even the meager rations of citizens was an unattainable dream for the prisoners of people's communes. In order to prevent the theft of public stocks, people were deprived of the opportunity to cook outside communal kitchens. The peasants' property was confiscated and all the kitchen utensils were destroyed. People, suspected of concealing grain, were severely beaten, buried in the ground, tortured with hot irons. Exhausted people tried to find additional sources of food everywhere. In the novel, Yu Hua openly describes the whole extent of the famine: peasants ate bark of trees, plants, grass, or anything what is impossible to consider edible. The novel shows how Youqing drinks water from a pond just to have something in his stomach, and how people cannot eat rice for months. Fugui said that "hunger can drive people to do all kinds of wicked and immoral things", and it was the reality during the Great Famine.
Unlike the book, the film does not depict people's starving conditions during the Great Famine, as Fugui and his family have more urban style of life. It means that the CCP's initially convinced that the grain shortage was an ideological issue, raised and supported by peasants. Chinese government concluded that peasants pretended to be hungry to sabotage state grain policies. They stated that the Great Famine was nothing more than a lie, made up by covetous, selfish, and anti-socialist peasants. The lack of such important informatin in film means inacurate representation of people's life during the CCP's rule.
I would evaluate Mao Years as one of the most hard and tragic pages in the history of China. There were heavy consequences of the Great Leap Forward; perhaps the most frightening was the agricultural production collapse. I completely agree with Yu Hua's interpretation of Mao Years, especially the Great Famine, as it is close to the real historical events. The peasants were fed once a day in the starving provinces. Chinese villages were undergoing massive assaults; the soldiers attacked farmhouses in search of caches with food. People, suspected of hiding grain, were severely beaten. Many peasants died, unable to bear those tortures. 1959-1961 years in China
is the period in history, which is not discussed in details, but remains one of the most violent experiments of the Communist Party against the peasantry. That is why, I disagree with this aspect of Zhang Yimous version of history, as the director, being controlled by the censorship, ignores harsh but realistic representation of the Great Famine as well as the consequences of the Cultural Revolution. The destruction of traditional Chinese culture began with the advent of communism to China, and culminated in the decade of the Cultural Revolution.
To sum up, both the novel and the film To Live are terrific; however, the book is more open and true with regard to what was happening in China during Mao Years. The war, peasant reform, the Great Leap Forward, famine, and the Cultural Revolution are represented in the novel in more harsh details. Yu Hua puts a greater emphasis on the fragility of life in the time of Mao Zedong. Zhang's deep understanding of the government censorship caused the changes in the interprettion of the communist realities in China. Zhang had to change some striking historical details to make his film more related to the official representation of the actions of the Communist Party; otherwise, the movie would not be released in China.
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