The Creative Arts: Literature & Film:


An Allegory in 'To Live' (活着)

by Min You, Ph.D., Rsearcher

Minzu University of China, Beijing, China

and University College London, Institute of Education, London, UK



Analysis of the primary allegorical theme in the novel and movie adaptation of the Chinese work To Live (活着) by Yu Hua (余华).  While there are many differences between book and film, the message is the same.  Both express hope in the context of recent Chinese history.  Both present the narrative as Chinese versions of a Hans Christian Andersen story, but in reverse.  Although this recurring motif appears in the original and all translations, it is used differently and ends differently.  The greatest difference is the intra-language translation between the original story and film.  Even the Chinese to English translations from book to book and within the film from spoken dialogue to subtitles reveal significant alterations.  I examine the meaning of this text within its various contexts. 


Differences mostly relate to the media style.  


Key Words

Adaptation, allegory, animal transformation, Chinese movie, Hans Christian Andersen, film



The Chinese work To Live (活着) by Yu Hua (余华) was first published (in a print-run of under 10,000 copies) in November 1993 by Chang Jiang Literary Publishing House, Shanghai (Yu 1993/1998).  It also became a Chinese film (1994) [Lifetimes in some English translations], having English (and other language) subtitles for foreign release, and most recently an English translation of the original novel (Berry (trans), 2003).  The story-line focuses on an intimate domestic narrative of a wealthy land owner who become a country farmer in the novel and a water carrier in the film.  As with many other books written after China began its open-door policy with Western countries, this work exposes ideas that were forbidden to discuss in those earlier periods.


The novel had a normal book life, first published in serial format in a magazine called The Harvest (Shou Huo 收获).  In the novel's foreword, Yu Hua expresses a desire to present the reality of almost unbearable daily life, being born with nobility, like the song 'Old Black Joe' by Stephen Foster (1826-1864).  He also notes William Faulkner (1897-1962) as an inspiration, a point taken up by commentators on his literary style in describing the characters' inner thoughts through action (Zhao & Xian, 2007: 7).   His stated purpose is to 'transcend judgment between good and evil, and thus view the world as it is with sympathetic eyes (這裏所說的高尚不是那種單純的美好,而是對一切事物理解之後的超然,對善與惡一視同仁,用同情的目光看待世界)' (Yu, 1998: foreword).  This essay concentrates on a children's story of animal transformations that appears thrice in the book and twice in the movie as a metaphor of hope. It is derived from a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, expressing how good and bad fortune intermingle.


Although the book was never banned, the film by Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) is still banned in China, but pirated copies have been available there for many years.  Because of the film's popularity, the book has received more attention both in China and abroad through Michael Berry's English translation and nine other translations.  To Live presents a historical narrative spanning the late republican period through several decades of communist rule.  As such, it has been identified as a useful source for teaching twentieth-century Chinese history (Mungur, 2011). 


Some commentators have interpreted To Live as cyclical good-bad fortune, by reference to Chinese Confucian or Daoist ideas (Situ, nd).  Others have traced an apparent influence from Franz Kafka's (1883-1924) Country Doctor [Ein Landarzt] where a horse transforms throughout the narrative (Kafka, 1919: 8; Zhao & Xian, 2007: 8; Yamamura, 2007).  Still others have traced the apparent influence of Martin Heidegger's (1889-1976) existential ideas on the storyline and characterization (Mi, nd).  Perhaps also Yu Hua found inspiration from the personified Da-Sein (Existence), from Being and Time, first translated into Chinese in 1987 (Heidegger, 1927; Macquarrie & Robinson (trans), 1962; Stambaugh (trans), 1996; Chen & Wang (trans), 1987).   However, in this essay, I shall focus on an allegorical theme of animal transformation derived from Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).  While animal transformations are common in many cultures and animal-human transformations are frequently found in China, the particular sequence in this allegory reflects an Andersen story-line (Werness, 2006: 63, 73, 77, 82, 190; Sterckx, 1982).


Film Synopsis

The film's narrative spans nearly forty years.  According to a writer who worked on the film, Zhang Yimou said: '[the film] starts from luxurious (gambling), then slowly turned to a simple lifestyle, from romantic to realistic, fitting better to the philosophy' (Zhou, 2012).  Xu Fugui is an idle landlord.  As a compulsive gambler he loses his family's property to Long'er.  His long-suffering pregnant wife, Jiazhen (家珍), leaves with their daughter, Fengxia, and unborn son, Youqing.  Following life as a peddler, Fugui entertains troops during the Chinese Civil War with a shadow-puppet troupe accompanied by Chunsheng.  They survive the war and Fugui is reunited with his wife, but his daughter had become mute.  In contrast, Long'er–who had won Fugui's fortune and propriety–is executed for not donating to the new 'people's government'.  Then Fugui realises that his bad luck at gambling was really good fortune.


The storyline advances a decade to the Great Leap Forward, when local officials get everyone to donate scrap iron for the national drive to make weaponry to 'liberate' Taiwan.  As a peasant, Fugui carefully plays the role of town entertainer.  To show solidarity with Communistic ideals he carries his son to school to participate in iron smelting.  The boy dies when a car knocks down a wall.  Ironically, the driver was Chunsheng, with whom Fugui had survived the war.  He had become a regional leader.  Chunsheng visits the grave, tries to apologize, and compensate them, but is harshly rebuffed.


Another decade passes, bringing the Cultural Revolution.  As the village leaders are removed from office, Fugui is advised to burn his puppet props–deemed as counter-revolutionary.  His daughter, Fengxia, is grown and marries a local Red Guard leader, Wan Erxi (二喜).  The whole family has a joyful period, but when Fengxia is about to give birth, the problem of the Cultural Revolution's zealous removal of educated people from power becomes evident.  Fengxia dies from uncontrolled haemorrhaging after giving birth.  Incompetent Red Guard students were the only ones left in charge when all the doctors were sent away to do hard labour for 're-education (brain-washing)' 洗脑


Meanwhile, Chunsheng is also branded a reactionary and capitalist.  As a final apology before suicide he offers Fugui all his savings, but Jiazhen turns down his money warmly.  To encourage him to continue living she says, 'You still owe us a life, our son'.  The film ends six years later, as the family brings offerings of dumplings for Youqing and photos for Fengxia.  However, in spite of all of his personal hardships, Fengxia expresses optimism for his grandson Mantou's (馒头) future.  While the novel employs flashbacks, in the final discussion about the film script, Zhang decided to follow a chronological sequence (Zhou, 2012).  


Animal Transformation Theme Analysis

In each format (film, subtitles, and English book) this work presents the same general points concerning an era just before and during the Chinese cultural revolution.  I focus on the context of one theme in this story that resembles a nursery rhyme concerning one kind of animal becoming another kind and it becoming yet another.  It is a theme that has been widely commented upon concerning both the novel and the film, but often without the realisation of the true source.  One script writer noted that Zhang Yimou was particularly drawn to the novel's motif ('Our family was like a little chick, the chick becomes to goose, the goose becomes a sheep, the sheep becomes an ox') and made it his thematic script for the film for 'it motivates insignificant members of society to stay alive: the hope that life will get better and better' (Zhou, 2012).


Yu Hua introduces his novel, To Live (活着), with an observation that alludes to Andersen's influence:  'I used to wish to become a fairytale writer, or a philosopher.  If I became either of those, I believe I would suffer less pain, however at the same time my ability to reach the largest possible audience would be reduced' (Yu, 1993/1998).[1]


The fairytale style in this work is based on recurring motifs (‘Elements’, nd).  In To Live, it is a riddle-like story of one kind of animal transforming into another.  Although this recurring motif appears in the original and all translations, it is used differently and ends differently.  The greatest difference is the intra-language translation between the original story and film.  Even the Chinese to English translations from book to book and within the film from spoken dialogue to subtitles reveal significant alterations.  I examine the meaning of this text within its various contexts.  Only then is it possible to answer which version most successfully conveys the message, if there is one intended message.


Hans Christian Andersen has been well-known in China since his tales were first translated in 1909.  Andersen's complete works have been available in Chinese since 1918 (Chen & Chen (trans), 1918).  Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967) collaborated with his elder brother Zhou Shuren [Lu Xun] (1881-1936) for Yuwai xiaoshuoji (域外小说集) [Tales from Abroad] (Chan, 2004: 17, footnote 4).  Their purpose in translating opposed comforting Confucian familiarity offered by many late Qing Dynasty translators, conveying unsettling strangeness of modern Western ideas.  Lu Xun made his aim explicit: 'instead of translating to give people “pleasure,” … I often try to make them uncomfortable, or even exasperated, furious, and bitter' (Thornber, 2009, 137, footnote 38).  Zhou Zuoren notes similar aims to transform Chinese society through literature and art (Eber, 1977: 130).  Indeed, Lu Xun's literary goal was to “change people's temper[a]ment and reform society” in a era of great societal reforms (Ng, 1988: 35, footnote 14 – citing Lu Xun, 'Preface to Yuwai xiaoshuo ji', LXQJ, Vol. 10: 161).


Andersen continued to have a strong influence on the literary development of twentieth-century China.  Dubbed the 'Fairytale Poet', the cultural revolution's bard, Gu Cheng (顾城, 1956-1993), expressed a childlike delight in nature, regarding Andersen as his 'esteemed teacher' (Chang & Owne (eds), 2010): 649).  Perhaps the Chinese interest in Andersen also connects to China's long history of imagining transformations in the animal world as a source of literary allusion (Sterckx, 1982: 3-8, 165-7, 186-194).  One commentator noted human/animal transformations and allegories in two Chinese films directed by Jiang Wen (Silberberg, 2008: 108-121).  Yu Hua continued this tradition of Andersen's influence in Chinese literature in To Live.  The entire story appears as an expanded version of one of Anderson's stories, of 2 March 1861, 'What the old man does is always right (story 150)' (Andersen, 1861).  In Andersen's story-line, the wife is always happy, whatever the husband says or does even when he appears to lose more and more: trading a horse for a cow, the cow for a sheep, the sheep for a goose, the goose for a hen, a hen for a sack of rotten apples to feed some pigs.  At that point the husband encounters some Englishmen who tease him and wager gold that his wife will beat him when he gives her the bad news about his stupidity.  He accepts the bet, saying:


          'What! Give me what?' said the peasant. 'Why, she will kiss me, and say, 'what the           old man does is always right'.

'Let us lay a wager on it', said the Englishmen. 'We’ll wager you a ton of coined gold, a hundred pounds to the hundred-weight'.


As the husband predicts, the wife bears all sadness silently and kisses him.  Thus, the couple is awarded at the end of the story with gold, making all trials worthwhile.  Although in Yu Hua's cultural translation of Andersen there is no literal bag of gold, and the order of the animals is reversed, the influence is beyond question.  In the novel, the husband's father [Fugui's father] narrates the same sequence of animals in reverse, while scolding his son [Fugui] for loosing their wealth.


Our ancestors just raised a little chicken, and then that chicken grew up to become a goose, and then the goose grew up and became a sheep, and then the sheep grew up and became an ox. That is how the Xu's family made our fortune. In my hand the ox became a sheep, and the sheep became a goose.  Now in your hand, the goose became a hen, and now we don't even have a hen left (Yu: 1993/1998).


This clearly follows Andersen's story, identifying Fugui as the fool. Knowing the original story there is a foreshadowing that Fugui is really lucky.  Andersen's influence of this symbolic allegory is retained twice in the film adaptation, although it is there said by Fugui himself in two places.  Much of the deep understanding depends on what is known in translation theory as 'back-translation', in other words cultural context: 'texts are neither coherent nor incoherent by themselves … [coherence] depends on the ability of the reader to make sense of it by relating it to what s/he already knows or to a familiar world' (Baker, 1992: 221).  Thus, we can understand what Yu did with his novel as a back-translation of Andersen's story so it could be grasped fully by a Chinese audience, besides hinting at an answer to the question: Was Fugui really a looser?


The book presents a full-cycle expansion, starting in the opposite direction of gaining wealth, then picks up Andersen's original metaphor as blame, and the cause of loss of fortune until they had no hen.  One may ask, what has happened to Andersen's bag of the gold in Yu's novel?  The novel ends with Fugui along, except for an ox he rescued from slaughter.  Fugui treated the ox like a human, naming it after himself. Saving an animal's life is unusual in Chinese culture.  Animals are much lower than humans, being suitable only for food and work without feelings (Cao, 2007; Cao, 2011).  People from his village laughed at them, saying 'these two old critters are hard to kill (liang ge lao bu si de)'.  This conveys a message about how much he had changed through his life, becoming totally different from anyone else in his village. The beginning and final dialogues are with the ox as if it was human.


When the target audience shifts to film-viewers, the narrative must adjust in different ways because film allows only limited time for dialogue and even more limited text for sub-titles in translation: two lines under thirty words, appearing 5-7 seconds (‘Online’, nd).  Concerning this Andersen-based allegory, Director Zhang Yimou changed the text order to be completely opposite the original ending with hope of a good life, put it in a different character's voice (the son), set it in two different places, ending with different messages of hope coordinated to the time period expressed in the film to guide the audience.  This illustrates a creative artistic license adapting Yu Hua's work, following a format mostly akin to 'expressive translation' as Reiss defines, but with some 'operative' elements, somewhere between satire, poetry, and a play (Reiss, 1989: 105).  This allegory first appears in the middle of the film, after Fugui's son [Youqing] created an incident at a communal meal that made the family look like counter-revolutionaries.  Thus, Fugui is sensitive to force Youqing to work on another communal project at school even though he was sleeping.  As Fugui carries his son to school on his back, with a box of dumplings packed by his mother, he uses this allegory to indicate that things will go right if the family follows his leadership.  While the Chinese dialogue and English subtitles are slightly different and considerably truncated, I focus here on the English subtitles:


'Do you like dumplings?'  Son: 'Yes'.  FuGui: 'Do you like meat?'  Son: 'Yes'.

FuGui: 'That's good.  If Youqing does as daddy says our lives will get better and better.  Our family is like a little chicken. When it grows up it becomes a goose.  And that'll turn into a sheep.  The sheep will turn into an ox'.  

Son: 'And after the ox?'   Father: 'After the ox is communism.  And there'll be dumplings and meat every day' (Transcribed from: To Live, at 1 hour 10 min, 40 seconds, (accessed 07.11.2012)).


The dumplings symbolise prosperity and feasting and are the shape of traditional gold (yuanbao 元宝), directly making reference to Andersen's original (‘Savory’, 2004).  This film also expresses the son as a loving father with his own son, by leading up to this statement with instruction to heat the dumplings with water before eating them. However, its plot has the son die in an accident right after this false prophecy of hope.  This is a main reason why the film was forbidden by Chinese censors until now.


As already noted, in the film this allegory appears a second time at the end.  Unlike the novel, Zhang let Jia Zhen, Erxi, and FuGui's grandson Mantou (in the novel called Bitterroot) to live with Fu Gui.  In the film, they watch Mantou play with chicks, 'and again, chick..., goose..., sheep..., ox....  The film ends as a normal tender scene of daily life' (Zhou, 2012).  Mantou asks his grandfather where they should put the chicks, FuGui pulls out his empty puppet-box and according to English subtitles says:


FuGui: 'How about in here?  This box is bigger, isn't it? They'll have more room to run around.  Then they'll eat more.  And soon they'll grow up'.

ManTou: 'When will they grow up?'

FuGui: 'Very soon'.                     

ManTou: 'And then?'

FuGui: 'And then (pauses and turns to wife then back to ManTou) the chickens will turn into geese … and the geese will turn into sheep … and the sheep will turn into oxen'.

ManTou: And after the oxen?'

FuGui: After oxen ... (pauses and turns to wife) 

Jiazhen: 'After oxen, Little Bun will grow up'.

ManTou: 'I want to ride on an ox's back!!'

Jiazhen: 'You will ride on an ox's back'.

FuGui: 'Little Bun will not ride on an ox … he'll ride trains and planes and life will get better and better'.  (End of Movie)

(Transcribed from: To Live, at 2 hours 7 min, 1 minute, (accessed 07.11.2012)).


The eating theme refers back to the earlier yuanbao dumpling reference. Both hopeful allegory endings, communism and train-plane, are only in the film.  Communism represented the great leap forward and cultural revolution, whereas the train and aeroplane present a vision of China beginning its open-door policy with the West, market economics, and plan of four modernizations. 


To Live uses an illogical juxtaposition between text and story-line to force the viewer to question this recent past.  Such themes of self-criticism were explored by China's 'fifth generation' film directors.  These films were 'innovative, introspective and retrospective, often digging deep into the Chinese culture and human nature' (‘Fifth’, 2002).   It was an obvious interest for early graduates of the Beijing Film Academy, reopened at the end of the Cultural Revolution following a period of severe censorship. Other examples include Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, and Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite.


The Fifth generation film directors [generally] prefer to show meaning [through action] not dialogue, [but Zhang chose differently], if something needs to be said, say it.  Avoid talking rhetorical nonsense.  Therefore, the film To Live is full of folk dialogue that everybody can understand (Zhou, 2012).


However, there are several cultural factors that are not directly translated for an English audience not educated in Chinese culture, so this internal paradox makes the characters seem naive and foolish.  On that level, the film's English subtitles are incomplete in their ability to convey the same meaning as what a Chinese audience gets.  Fugui's family try so hard to make themselves blend into communism.  He tries to please the county leaders by waking up his son to send him to school, but the son gets run over by this leader, ironically Fugui's old friend so there was no reason to please him at all. The message questions Andersen's original allegory, “What the old man does is always right,” a subliminal way of asking viewers to question what we are told is true.  It ties in with several negative messages about Communist policies in the film that caused the director to be forbidden working for two years (Ebert, 1994).


While there are many differences between book and film, the message is the same.  In an interview Yu Hua himself said that the film and the book are the same (Finken, nd).  Both express hope in the context of recent Chinese history.  Both present the narrative as Chinese versions of Andersen's story, but in reverse.  Differences relate to the media style.   A book more easily allows re-reading and pondering, and deeper levels of meaning.  Although there is no literal bag of gold at the end of To Live, there is respect for life, and hope. 



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[1]     前言: '我曾经希望自己成为一位童话作家,要不就是一位实实在在作品的拥有者,如果我能够成为这两者中的任何一个,我想我内心的痛苦将会轻微得多,可是与此同时我的力量也会削弱很多.