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“To Live” Directed by Zhang Yimou: Movie Analysis

Told through the lens of the protagonist and set in the era of the Chinese civil war, “To Live” tells a story of a Chinese family that has to survive the challenges of living amidst the Cultural revolution and the resulting Civil War in China. The movie opens with the narrative about Xu Fugui, who loses his fortune to gambling, and gradually introduces other members of the Fugui family. As Fugui strives to recover from his losses, he masters the art of the shadow theater and attempts at building his life. However, he is shortly recruited in the Kuomintang army (Yimou). Afterward, Fugui daughter, Fengxia, gives birth to a son, yet she soon dies as a result of the doctor’s error. The movie ends as the family is portrayed six years later, honoring the deaths of Fengxia and Youqing, Fugui’s son.

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Apart from the obvious theme of survival and resilience as the qualities that allow one to appreciate life even with its multiple challenges, the film features the themes of family values and the delicate charm of a simple life. Supported by the philosophy of Daoism, the notion of a life deprived of excessiveness remains the central concept of the movie and the critical philosophy that holds Fugui’s family together. The concept of family unity is emphasized throughout the movie: “Take the medicine to Granny” (Yimou). Therefore, the theme of family and its role in achieving happiness is demonstrated clearly, setting the tone and defining the emotional core of the film. In turn, the subthemes represent the philosophy of Daoism and the importance of family support.


The movie leaves rather mixed emotions even after the second watching. The intention of the director is quite clear, with the focus on the Fugui family being the means of conveying the challenges that citizens as individuals had to face in Communist China. However, the film does not seem to capture the full extent of loss and the impact that it leaves. The lack of emphasis on the emotional aspect of Fugui’s family struggle could be seen as the direct effect of the philosophy of Daoism being introduced into the film. However, for an average viewer, the specified choice makes it difficult to connect with the characters emotionally.


“To Live” has also served as an important cultural journey of discovery. Specifically, learning about the struggles that Chinese people experienced during the war, particularly, the existence of child labor, was a truly harrowing experience. Furthermore, “To Live” provides an honest opinion of average Chinese citizens on the idea of Communism. Specifically, while the movie seemingly confirms that Chinese citizens supported the Communist regime, the underlying irony of some of the lines delivered by the leading characters suggests the opposite.

For instance, the line “We’ve painted Chairman Mao’s portrait” sounds particularly forced given the devastating circumstances in which Fugui’s family found itself at the time (Yimou). Therefore, the movie represents a quiet rebellion against the suffocating reign of Mao. In fact, the very title is expected to refer to the struggle of surviving the war and the Communist regime that stifles any initiative in the lead characters.

Overall, the movie makes remarkably clever commentary about social issues observed in China at the time. For instance, the use of the shadow play, particularly, the puppets, serves as a shorthand for the lack of freedom in the actions of the protagonists living g in a totalitarian state. Managed as puppets, they cannot be in control of their lives: “Must not be politically backward” (Yimou). Thus, the inclusion of the shadow play elements makes the movie’s message especially clear.

Work Cited

Yimou, Zhang, director. To Live. The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1994.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, November 3). “To Live” Directed by Zhang Yimou: Movie Analysis.

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