What Zhang Yimou’s ‘To Live’ Teaches Us Even Today, Film Companion

Our family is like a little chicken.
When it grows up, it becomes a goose.
And it’ll turn into a sheep.
The sheep will turn into an ox.
And after the ox is Communism.
And there’ll be dumplings and meat every day.

In the early 1990s, Zhang Yimou, a fifth-generation Chinese filmmaker, intended to put one of Yu Hua’s works to film. Yu Hua is an acclaimed Chinese author. Zhang had initially chosen Mistake at River’s Edge, but something about To Live stuck with him through the process of studying Yu’s works. His choice to adapt To Live instead gave the world a contemporary masterpiece. I’m grateful for Zhang’s decision, and I like to think so is every individual who has watched the movie. To Live is a simple film, before anything. It may cascade through a few complicated decades in Chinese history, but it condenses them down to the story of a family. In keeping the film built around the family, Zhang still manages to illustrate the expanse of the revolution. That is some of the magic in it, perhaps.

To Live starts in the 1940s, with the protagonist Fugui (Ge You) losing everything to a compulsive gambling habit. It navigates the watcher through poverty and political volatility, as faced by Fugui and his wife, Jiazhen (Gong Li). I felt thoroughly moved watching Fugui and Jiazhen in the face of loss. However, the film profoundly dwells on hope, even in its most heart-wrenching moments. It closes in the early 1970s, post the end of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution[1].

The film has long been deemed a classic, yet it is an even more important a film today. China has an extensive history behind becoming the second-largest economy in the world. To Live is a fascinating work in showing the coming of that history, at least a part of it. This is why I feel that the film commands another watch from a different lens: the lens of the twenty-first century.

Also read: On Zhang Yimou’s Ying, at the 2018 Venice Film Festival

To Live is an emotional journey, and it ends on a gateway to change. It culminates just before the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, which are said to have built today’s China[2]. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms represent a change for me because they alleviated poverty in China. As per the World Bank, ninety percent of the Chinese people lived in extreme poverty in 1981, against less than two percent in 2013. In the realm of To Live, I believe that these reforms would have alleviated the poverty faced by Fugui and Jiazhen too. In Fugui’s wish for his grandson Mantou to ride planes and trains, perhaps hope would’ve come.

However, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, having built the China of today, also represent the change in censorship for me. To Live was critical of some campaigns of the Communist Party of China (CPC) between the 1940s and the 1970s. This can be observed when the family finds themselves in a hospital towards the end of the film. Upon the initial release of the film, it was banned for the negative depiction of a period in Chinese history. Zhang Yimou, and his former partner Gong Li, who played Jiazhen, were banned for two years from filmmaking.

Censorship in China is getting increasingly severe. The government now approves movies with the so-called “Dragon Seal” for domestic screening, under the Film Industry Promotion Law. The Chinese government, some experts say, censors to hide the violent and unpopular origins of the Communist Party of China. As one scholar calls it: “controlling China’s future, by shaping the consciousness of its past.” To Live depicts some crucial moments at the time of the origin of the CPC, which is why the censors flagged it. I only feel that it stayed true to what people went through in the decades between the 1940s and the 1970s.

This censorship is especially palpable today. China came under a lot of flak for allegedly mismanaging information in the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Projections for the infected in Wuhan also took heat when people surveyed crematoriums. All this censorship is hard to accurately gauge, quite unfortunately.

Finally, in the uncertain times and widespread anxiety of this pandemic, I sincerely feel that we mustn’t forget what To Live teaches us about hope. Hope comes easy on bright days, but it is most needed on darker ones, like right now. Fugui and Jiazhen will always bear the weight of their sorrows, but they encourage the watcher to keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. They leave us with, “… and life will get better and better.”



[1] Mao Zedong initiated the socio-economic campaign called the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) to convert China into a Communist society. The campaign failed and it caused the Great Chinese Famine between the years 1959 and 1961. Mao Zedong outright denied the damage that was caused by the Communist Party of China in 1962. Instead, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to purge the remaining capitalists. [2] The reforms of Deng Xiaoping encompassed “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It opened up the Chinese economy to foreign investment, de-collectivised agriculture and encouraged entrepreneurs to start businesses.



1. To Live [1994] – A Humanist Masterpiece.

2. The Astonishing Impact of China’s 1978 reforms, In Charts.

3. History is the Chinese Communist Party’s Worst Enemy.

4. China’s Odious Manipulation of History is Infecting the West.

What Zhang Yimou’s ‘To Live’ Teaches Us Even Today, Film Companion

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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