Reading Chinese novels: To Live《活着》

1

“The little chickens will grow to be ducks, the ducks will become geese, and the geese will become oxen, and tomorrow will be better”. That’s a central passage from the famous novel and movie《活着》or To Live by the Chinese author Yu Hua. Is it any good as a Chinese learning resource? How difficult is the text and who should read it?

Difficulty

Unlike most Chinese literary products “To Live” is an amazingly readable novel. I’d estimate it requires HSK 4 or 5 level to be read and HSK 6 to be enjoyed. This is just an indication. As it has more to do with your overall Chinese reading experience than any particular HSK level. For one thing, you’ll still find plenty of words “outside of HSK”. If you’re like me not reading Chinese novels on a daily basis, it’s main difficulty most likely is its length (The English version counts roughly 250 pages). Here’s a text sample that should give a taste of the text’s difficulty:

 到那时我还没怎么把家珍的病放在心上,我心想家珍自从嫁给我以后,就没过上好日子,现在年纪大了,也该让她歇一歇了。谁知过了一个来月,家珍的病一下子重了,那晚上我们一家守着那汽油桶煮钢铁,家珍病倒了,我才吓一跳,才想到要送家珍去城里医院看看。

To Live, Chapter 6

The complete Chinese text can be found here. I printed it for some good old offline reading:

Why read it?

You can’t understand present-day China without looking into China’s history. That includes recent history. Even when most Chinese people I’ve met are eager to move away from the Mao years (1949-1976), they are still relevant. The author Yu Hua manages to give an honest account of how poor village people – that’s most people – have experienced the turmoils during the first decades of the PRC (almost without ever mentioning the people responsible).

Yu Hua grew up in a small village in Shandong province. What makes his writing stand out is that it’s very close to how the village people described by him actually speak and think. This not only makes the novel very authentic but also more accessible for Chinese learners. An anonymous reader sums it all up:

“To Live” is an amazing novel, which takes you through the 20th century history of China while being at the same time amazingly written. This is one of the greatest novels I have read in a long time. The story of a family through three generations, with one character at its center, his highs and lows, and Chinese politics. This is a tour de force. The writing is vivid, concise, yet so beautiful and moving. If you can’t read it in Chinese, read it in English, it has been translated many times, and I guarantee you will remember this story for many years to come. And for those with an interest in China, this is a must.

Source: Reader on Amazon

Story

To Live tells the story of Fugui, the son of a rich land owner. The young Fugui enjoys two things more than everything else: the first is gambling, the second whoring. Before long he manages to lose his father’s entire estate. He has no other choice left than make a living as a poor farmer and is forced to fight in the Chinese Civil War. The rest of the story tells how Fugui, his wife and two children survive Mao’s new China and its mass movements. The loss of his family estate proves lifesaving, but his troubles are far from over.

New words

Here’s some interesting words I came across:

  • 孽子 – unfilial son; unworthy descendant
  • 败家子 – wastrel
  • 二流子 – loafer; idler; bum
  • 光耀祖宗 – to honor forefathers
  • 鬼混 – lead an aimless or irregular existence; fool around
  • 闹腾 – to amuse oneself
  • 嫖 – to visit prostitutes; go whoring; frequent brothels
  • 胡闹 – run wild; make trouble
  • 牲畜 – livestock; domestic animals
  • 庄稼 – crops
  • 左思右想 – to think over from different angles
  • 骰子 – dice
  • 赊账 – system of buying or selling on credit; have outstanding bills
  • 踏实 – steady and sure; dependable; free from anxiety; having peace of mind

Conclusion

To Live has a lot to offer: a good story, Chinese history and culture. What makes it interesting as a learning resource is its availability as film (Zhang Yimou, 1994) and audiobook, both great works of art in their own right. You can pick one of these formats or even combine them. Don’t read it if you’re not interested in the Mao era or don’t want to read about extreme poverty and the hardships of rural life. This story should be told to the world though.

Thanks for dropping by on Kaohongshu. If you have any thoughts or comments for me, feel to write them down below.

PS. If you want to know about the rise of communism in China, CCP power politics, Mao’s cult of personality and the like, you can check these lectures:

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The Sixty Year Dream: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
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Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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