Novels: Start Reading “To Live” 《活着》by Yu Hua

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.

In the Novels series, I get you started reading the first few paragraphs of classic Chinese fiction. If you like the beginning, you can buy the book and keep reading.

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 is 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.”
























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Show English translation »
Later, this old man sat down with me beneath the verdant trees, and on that sunlit afternoon, he told me of himself.

Forty-odd years ago, my father would often walk around out here, wearing a black silk robe, always with both hands behind his back, and whenever he went out he would say to my mother:

“I’m going to walk around my place.”

My father would walk on his estate, and when the tenant farmers saw him, they would hold their shovels still in between two hands and say respectfully:


Whenever my father walked into town, the townsfolk called him “Mister”. My father was a personage of some repute, but when he moved his bowels, he did it like a poor man. He didn’t like to relieve himself in the toilet by the bed, and preferred to shit in the wilds like a farm animal. Every evening, my father let out a belch, a sound like a croaking frog, and left the house, walking sluggishly towards the manure vat at the mouth of the village.

He’d arrive at the manure vat, and finding the filth around its edges distasteful, he’d go up on tiptoe and squat above it. My father was old, and his feces were as old as he was, they didn’t come out easily, and everyone in the house could hear him grunting.

For many years this is how my father moved his bowels, at 60 years old he could still squat over the manure pit for half the day, his two legs had the strength of a bird’s claws. My father like to watch the sky slowly fade to black, covering his fields. When my daughter Feng Xia was three or four, she would often run to the mouth of the village to watch grandpa poop, after all my father was getting on in years, and as he was squatting there his legs would tremble a bit, and Feng Xia would ask:

“Grandpa, why are you moving?”

And my dad would say: “It’s the wind.”

At that time our family’s situation hadn’t yet deteriorated, the Xu’s had 100-plus mu of land, from here all the way to that factory’s smokestack, all of it was our family’s. My dad and I, were famous near and far as the Rich Old Master and the Rich Young Master, when we walked on the road, the sound of our shoes was like the sound of copper cash striking. My wife Jia Zhen, was the daughter of a rice industry bigwig in town, she also came from a wealthy family. A wealthy woman marrying a wealthy man, money piled on money, swishing in a great stream, I haven’t heard that sound in 40 years.

I was the Xu family wastrel, or in my father’s words, I was his unfilial son.

I went to private school for a couple of years, and when the school master in his long silk gown called on me to read a passage aloud, that’s when I was happiest. I would stand up, holding a string-bound copy of Qianzi Wen, and say to him:

“Listen up, your elder is going to read you a passage.”

The schoolmaster, who was over sixty, would say to my father:

“Your family’s young master is going to be a loafer when he grows up.”

Ever since I was little, I’ve been incorrigable, that’s what my father said. The schoolmaster said I was “rotten wood that couldn’t be carved”. Now that I think on it they were both right, but at the time I didn’t think this was so, I thought I had money, I was the Xu family’s only son, if something happened to me, the family would be without heirs.

When I went to school I never walked, it was always our hired worker that carried me there on his back, and when I got off, he always respectfully crouched over there, and when I jumped on I patted his head and said:

“Run, Changgen!”

The worker Changgen would run, and I would bounce along, like a sparrow sitting on a tree branch. I’d say:


And Changgun would walk one step and jump one step, and make as if he was flying.

After I grew up I like to go into the city, and often wouldn’t come back for 10 days or half a month. I’d wear a white silk shirt, my hair sleek and shiny, standing in front of the mirror, I’d see the black oil in my hair, the picture of a wealthy man.

2 replies on “Novels: Start Reading “To Live” 《活着》by Yu Hua”

I absolutely love your content!! All the articles and texts you’ve published on this website are really well done. Nice and clear explanations, short but interesting story.
I would like to read more of those, do you have a website of your own where you put some more content?
Thank you so much for you articles, they allow me to practice my Chinese with ease!

Thanks! No, I don’t have another site but I’ve just started posting again pretty regularly, so check back every couple of days and I should have something new. If you’re an advanced reader, I usually have new stuff at that level once a week or so. Frankly, I prefer to post advanced stuff, but 80% of the users on this site are beginners, so I tend to focus there.

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