Yu Hua (余华) is for sure my favorite author of Chinese modern lit. He writes the lives of ordinary village people, and like pretty much all great Chinese village-based fiction from the 20th century, the stories are full of vulgar realism, as you will soon see. But Yu Hua’s work is also tinged with bittersweetness, and for anyone with an HSK 5-6 vocabulary, his novels are surprisingly approachable.
I’m posting an excerpt from the first chapter of Yu Hua’s novel To Live 《活着》, which is one of his most well-known works, and a classic of modern literature. Normally I’d like to start at the beginning, but the first few paragraphs of Chapter One are told from the viewpoint of a narrator who comes to a small village to collect folksongs and stories from the locals. In a field there he meets an old man – the protagonist of the novel – who recounts his life for remainder of the book, and we don’t really hear from the narrator again in any meaningful way. So, I’ll skip the narrator’s intro, and I’ll be starting from where the old man begins to tell his tale.
Some language stuff
This novel begins while feudalism was breathing its last gasp in China, before the country sank into decades of war and upheaval, so some of the words use are things that no longer exist, like 佃户 diàn hù, which is a tenant farmer on a lord’s land, and 私塾 sī shú, a classical style private school where one master would be paid to instruct usually a small group of students.
A couple of the sentences are also a little rough:
“好好听着，爹给你念一段。”: The protagonist says this to his schoolmaster. On the surface, it looks like it means “Listen well, your father is going to read aloud.” But 爹 in this case doesn’t really mean “father”, it’s being used as an insult. A child is saying it to an elder gentleman, which is extremely disrespectful, so you could better translate this as something like, “Listen up, your better is going to read to you.” The point is that the protagonist is being a sassy little jerk.
朽木不可雕也: This is an old-school idiom, it comes from the Analects of Confucius. Literally, it means “you can’t carve rotten wood”. Practically, it means that some people are just hopeless and can’t be taught anything, and is an excellent burn for any occasion.
我是徐家仅有的一根香火: Again, double-meaning here. Literally: “I was the Xu family’s only stick of incense.” Actual meaning: “I was the Xu family’s only son.”