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To Live -a novel by Yu Hua, translated by Michael Berry

A guide to CWU's 2019 Big Read

Discussion questions from the National Endowment for the Arts

  1. Fugui’s story begins with devastating consequences caused by his cruel and selfish behavior. As his life unfolds and his humanity reemerges, what did he learn to value in life? Do you think he ever forgave himself for his actions?
  2. There are two narratives in To Live: Fugui’s story and the story of the man who meets Fugui while traveling through the countryside collecting folk songs. How do these two points of view affect your reading experience?
  3. Is Fugui a good father? A good husband? A good citizen? A good community member? What does it mean to be good in these roles during difficult times?
  4. Were you surprised by the actions and reactions of Fugui’s family throughout the story – his wife, Jiazhen; his daughter, Fengxia; and his son, Youqing?
  5. Did you know much about Chinese history and culture before reading To Live? If not, what did you learn? If you knew some or much of it, was your understanding of it challenged or expanded by Fugui’s story? What conclusions might you draw about the author’s view of China’s history?
  6. Throughout Chinese history, there has been a strong patriarchal tradition. After 1949, Mao Zedong enacted policies that were meant to create more equity between the sexes. Did you see these changes reflected in the novel? How did you react to the novel’s portrayal of gender roles?
  7. In what ways does the story resonate with traditional Buddhist philosophy?
  8. The novel moves through four decades of modern Chinese history marked by war, famine, political turmoil, and natural disasters. How does the author manage this pacing and still include details of everyday life? What is the effect of a story that covers so much? What are some of the details that surprised you?
  9. To Live was originally published in serial form in a literary journal. How would your reading experience have been different if you encountered it this way?
  10. What is significant about the ox that Fugui is left with to plow his fields? What other animals are symbolic of the Xu family and its history and how so? Can you find other examples of symbolism in the novel?
  11. To Live is a book in translation (from Chinese into English). What might you imagine are the difficulties in bringing a story from one language into another?
  12. In 1994, Zhang Yimou directed a major motion picture adaptation of To Live. While some elements were faithful to the book, many details were altered. What elements of the story are different in the film? How do these changes affect the overall tone and themes of the story?
  13. The song collector tells us that Fugui enjoyed thinking about his past, reliving his life “again and again” (p. 45). Why do you think this might be when his life was filled with so much sadness and hardship? If you were Fugui, would you be telling these stories?
  14. What does it mean to Fugui and his family to live? What does it mean to you?