To Live / 活着/ Huózhe (1994 Film) – Of Family, Survival, Mao Zedong’s Communism and China


*I shall not rate this film, because I am not worthy to. Watch it and save your soul!! Seriously, you have to watch this film.*

I discovered one thing today while attempting to learn Mandarin through films – NEVER EVER CHOOSE A SERIOUS POLITICAL FILM FOR LANGUAGE-LEARNING!

It never works. Instead of learning about the pronunciation, you got yourself a two hours political course on the subject of the film instead, and in this particular film I’m reviewing, the modern history of China.

linkI am now overwhelmed with the general feeling of over-exposure and complications (in a good way) upon watching To Live (活着), a 1994 film by Zhang Yimou, who ranks amongst China’s best directors. Zhang’s earlier works (pre-2000) are nothing short of amazing. Watch another of his film called Raise the Red Lantern (大红灯笼高高挂) and you’ll understand why. Unlike the more ‘cultural’ Raise the Red Lantern, which dealt with the issue of family, customs, wives and warlord-era China, To Live revolved around the life of a small family during China’s transition to Communism and the aftermath. 

Before watching the film, I have a general understanding about China’s history. Marred by many ups and downs, natural and political disasters, one cannot help but be awed by the massiveness of that society’s resilience. Mao Zedong, the famous and super-influential supreme leader of China from 1940 to 1970s, was a very important element in To Live. Though he was not portrayed as a character, the life of the main characters were mostly affected due to his policies (which some argued to have caused great GREAT difficulties and regressed China into the backward era). His pictures were everywhere, his ideas were imbued into so many books attached to the characters’ lives, called the Red Book, treasured by the young Red Guards who were literally obsessed with him.

Jiazhen, the wife and Fugui, the husband

Notwithstanding the politics, To Live or Huózhe really is a tale of a family’s survival through turbulent times. We have a father, Fugui, a mother, Jiazhen, a daughter, Fengxia and a son, Youqing. During 1940s, the family was of a relatively wealthy prospect and belonged to the landowners class until Fugui gambled all of what’s left to the point he became homeless. His wife, Jiazhen, had already left him with the children due to his gambling habits. We see the fall of Fugui, a spoilt man-child who had a massive awakening call upon being homeless – he started working to take care of his ailing mother. Knowing that he’s a changed man, Jiazhen returned to him with the kids and they became a family again. From then on, the family learned the hard way to survive the circumstances so severe I cried my balls out throughout the film – forced labour, war, death and more death, death of people, death of culture and death of happiness.

All from the perspective of Fugui, Jiazhen and their children.

Jiazhen and their children, Fengxia and Youqing
Jiazhen and their children, Fengxia and Youqing

Three major historical events that altered the family’s life (to the worse, I’d argue) were:

1 – The Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communists, led respectively by Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedong. FYI, it’s very important to know about the conflict here to understand Chinese history. Our male lead, Fugui, learned how to earn money by starting a shadow puppet troupe but was forcibly conscripted into the Kuomintang army, where millions died during the war. He surrendered  to the Communists, became a prisoner of war and was allowed to return home to his family a few years later. By now, his children had already grown up several years.

It’s interesting to note that Fugui, at first, did not give a damn about whose side he was own. All that he cared was earning money to take care of his family. He did not subscribe to any political ideologies – for both always caused death anyway, Kuomintang or Communist – and wanted only TO LIVE (thus the title of the film).

2 – When The Great Leap Forward (大跃进) happened from 1958 to 1961, Fugui’s family had already adapted themselves to the communist society. They wore simple peasant clothes, as the working class was deemed to be the main class of the society. They completely eradicated any proofs that they once belonged to the upper class and made sure that their loyalty to the communists ideology was visible by putting their ‘working class certificate’ on a frame. Yet, again, it was not because they totally believed in the political ideology – or maybe they did out of habit because they thought there’s no other way to live – but because they wanted to stay out of trouble and lived life peacefully.

The family's original upper-class way of dressing prior to the war
The family’s original upper-class way of dressing prior to the war
The family, adapted to the working class lifestyle
The family, adapted to the working class lifestyle

The Great Leap Forward was basically a radical social and economic policy started by Mao Zedong aimed to transform Chinese economy from agragrian to a communist economy through rapid economic expansion. During these times, Fugui’s family had to donate all iron they had to the government – supposedly to make weapons to ‘liberate’ Taiwan, which was the Kuomintang’s control.

I find it disturbing how people use words like ‘liberate’ or ‘free’ but the act doesn’t really portray such a thing. Like how China wants to ‘liberate’ Taiwan – and I’m sure when you ask a Taiwanese, they don’t really want to be ‘liberated’? At least not by China. The same thing when USA tried to ‘liberate’ or ‘bring democracy’ to Afghanistan and Iraq and we all know  how that ended. Thanks so much, superpowers who really had nothing important to do than assert their imperialist tendencies.

A propaganda poster. Always rampant in certain societies with certain ideologies
A propaganda poster. Always rampant in certain societies with certain ideologies

All the kids in school had to devote themselves to hard labour by melting the irons at school. Fugui and Jiazhen’s little son, Youqing was an active mischievous boy who was loved by his parents. Seeing him sleeping after three days of hard work, Jiazhen tried to persuade Fugui into letting Youqing sleep a little more. However, Fugui insisted on waking him up as to maintain the family’s ‘image’ as a good Communist family.

A picture I found online. The industrialization of China’s economy

Youqing died in an accident later after reaching school as a wall fell on him whilst he was taking a nap. Just a few hours before, his mother affectionately packed him lunch full of dumplings and his father carried him so lovingly to school, telling him if he wants to have a good life, he must work hard and care for his mother and sister.

The family bravely overcame the loss and sadness over losing their only son. Maybe because they did not have the luxury to keep mourning. They needed to move on in order to live.

Note that the Great Leap Forward caused the Great Chinese Famine, which had been said to cause death to over 76 million people. Yup, you read me right – 76 million. That is like… three times the Malaysian population.

3 – The Cultural Revolution (文化大革命) occurred 1966 to 1976 and most consider it a failure nowadays as Mao Zedong’s way to return to power after being pushed aside due to the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward. I have to say Mao Zedong was really smart, though. He had all these massive ideas in his head and turned them into a massive movement which influenced a massive amount of people who were massively obsessed with him. It’s massive in every sense of the massive word.

Propaganda poster during the Cultural Revolution. Mao was portrayed as the father figure, the leader.

The Cultural Revolution aimed to eradicate the Chinese people who Mao accused of being ‘capitalist’. One cannot talk about the Cultural Revolution without mentioning the Red Guards, a group of youths who responded to Mao’s appeal to somehow ‘save’ the country from capitalism. In reality, the Cultural Revolution was deemed a failure – indeed, it was Mao’s strategy to retain power until he died. Millions of people died (again) and violence were rampant. Anybody who were against communism were arrested and cultural and religious places were ransacked.

The film did not really display the great damage of the Revolution. However, it hinted the way their lives were being affected by it. Fugui, who was an experienced puppeteer, was forced to burn his puppets as they were deemed counter-revolutionary to Mao’s ideas – because supposedly, they represented kings, princes, nobility, all things luxurious and bad for communism.  Fugui did not fight back and let his daughter burnt it and I cannot help but the scene symbolizes how culture, art and heritage are often sacrificed in the name of a ‘greater good’ or a ‘greater idealism’. When, really, the main purpose of destroying cultural arts is to assert dominance and control over the people.

Reminds me of the states in Malaysia (especially Kelantan) and how they ban certain cultural arts that were deemed ‘bad’ in the name of religion. The cultures have existed for hundreds of years. Islam came to Kelantan around the same time. They co-existed harmoniously alongside each other since forever. Now, they’re banning it? Why? How does the arts affect one’s faith? Islamization? Arabization? To be a better Islamic state? But then why now? Why did not the religious clerics made a noise hundreds of years ago? Are we implying that, God forbid, the clerics during the 1400s and 1500s were more broad-minded than the current ones?


Back to the Cultural Revolution, the family managed to find a good husband for their daughter, Fengxia. Since Fengxia was a deaf and mute, they had to be careful in choosing a husband and preferred him to also have a form of handicap. Most probably to ensure that Fengxia was not placed on a lower level than her husband. The husband, Erxi, was a polite factory worker who also headed the Red Guards in his workplace. Even though he was a cripple and could only walk properly on one foot, he was a highly political youth.

Erxi, like the rest of the Red Guards, were OBSESSED with Mao Zedong. They put his posters everywhere, distributed his Little Red Books. During their first day, Erxi helped his girlfriend’s family fixed the roof of the house and they made a big painting of Mao Zedong together on the wall. It is supposed to be a super romantic sweet scene, which it was, really……. with Mao Zedong’s smiling portrait at the background.

The date between Fengxia and Erxi. Aren't they sweet? Yes? No?
The date between Fengxia and Erxi. Aren’t they sweet? Yes? No? Chairman Mao definitely thought so. Can’t you see him smiling there?

Another hmm….

Note that personality cult (worship of a figure) is also practiced in North Korea, an extreme communist country as well. I think this strategy helps a lot in controlling a country. If people worship someone, they won’t speak up against him. No rebellion and they won’t ‘waste’ their time thinking. Place your trust in your leader! Hmmm?

The Red Guards demonstrating in Tiananmen Square during the Revolution
The Red Guards demonstrating in Tiananmen Square during the Revolution

Erxi and Fengxia were wedded happily – again with Mao’s picture on the background. The most disturbing scene for me was when the chief led the wedding guests to sing a wedding song to the couple – a happy song with VERY COMMUNIST lyrics:

Nothing compares to the Party’s benevolence,

Chairman Mao is dearer than Father and Mother,

There’s nothing as good as socialism,

No ocean as deep as class feeling,

Maoist Thought is revolution’s treasure trove,

Whoever opposes it, we take as our enemy,

Now can somebody tell me why the hell would someone sing this song in a wedding? A WEDDING?

But then, it was a different time.

Fengxia had a short time of full happiness with her husband. She got pregnant and died after childbirth – the moment of her death was another heartbreaking scene to Fugui and Jiazhen. I was shocked and scared for them – please don’t take their remaining child away! They lost their son, now their daughter was dying, too. The circumstances of Fengxia’s death was also tragic – she bled after giving birth. And during the Cultural Revolution, doctors were sent to hard labour as they were deemed ‘too educatd’ – thus inclined to capitalism. The hospitals were run by inexperienced nurses/students.

Therefore, it can be said that the couple lost their children due to the policies introduced by Mao. It was not direct, but it was related in every way. Their son, Youqing died after melting irons during the Great Leap Forward, Fengxia bled to death and there were no doctors to save her due to the Cultural Revolution.


To Live is essentially a film of human spirits. The strength and perseverance of Fugui and Jiazhen. They did not give up and surrender to hardship and grief. They fell and rose back up again for their family. Even though their lives were often intertwined with sorrow and tragedies, they lived. Their lives were far away from happiness and satisfaction but they lived.

The couple at the twilight zone of their lifetime, with their grandson.... Exhausted, tired.
The couple at the twilight zone of their lifetime, with their grandson…. Exhausted, tired.

The film, for me, symbolizes the hardships and struggles of people living during that time and that era. All the oppression and suffering they had to endure. But China survived. The society survives. Do we really have to wonder why China is such a huge economic superpower now? Do we really have to wonder why people in China are so diligent, so hardworking, so selfless? Take a glimpse into their history and you’ll know why.

And there goes my two hour political course on the subject. Thank you, Director Zhang Yimou. Now my head feels super heavy.