discuss to live

Questions for group discussion

  1. The fable of Sai Wong Shi Ma; Taoist naturalism or mysticism
  2. Fugui as a foolish old man;
  3. Long’er as a foolish old man; in Buddhism, human beings suffer because of their cravings, which are ultimately responsible for what happens to many characters. Long’er’s desire for Fugui’s house, Chunsheng’s desire for driving automobiles, town-chief Niu’s desire for communism, and Fugui’s desire to be politically correct by following Mao, all have disastrous and terrible consequences. Zhang Yimou does not hold any one responsible for the sufferings, other than these cravings, analogous to Mao’s revolutionary zeal and excesses.
  4. The fable “The Sage King” in Zhuangzi: “The ruler of the South Sea was called Light; the ruler of the North Sea, Darkness; the ruler of the Middle Kingdom, Primal Chaos. From time to time, Light and Darkness met one another in the Kingdom of Chaos who made them welcome. Light and Darkness wanted to repay his kindness and said, “All men have seven openings with which to see, hear, eat and breathe, but Primal Chaos has none. Let us try to give him some. So, every day they bore one hole, and on the seventh day, Primal Chao died.”
  5. The puppet show within the film within society within history;
  6. Life understood in terms of meaningful coincidences and serendipity;
  7. Remark by Andrew Plaks (Chinese Narratives): “The ubiquitous potential presence of a balanced, totalized, dimension of meaning may partially explain why a fully realized sense of the tragic does not materialize in Chinese narrative. …. But in each case the implicit understanding of the logical interrelation between these fictional characters’ particular situation and the overall structure of existential intelligibility serves to blunt the pity and fear the reader experiences as he witnesses their individual destinies. In other words, Chinese narrative is replete with individuals in tragic situations, but the secure inviolability of the underlying affirmation of existence in its totality precludes the possibility of the individual’s tragic fate taking on the proportions of a cosmic tragedy. Instead, the bitterness of the particular case of mortality ultimately settles back into ceaseless alternation of patterns of joy and sorrow, exhilaration and despair, which go to make up an essentially affirmative view of the universe of experience.
  8. (Spanish) American thinker George Santayana (1863-1952) points out in his Egoism in German Philosophy that “Both Christianity and Romanticism accustomed people to disregard the intrinsic value of things. Things ought to be useful for salvation, or symbols of other great but unknown things; it was not to be expected that they should be simply good in themselves. This life was to be justified, if justified at all, only as servile work or tedious business is justified, not as health and artistic expressions justify themselves.
  9. In this fictional story (more in the novel than the film), people die left and right as they do in real life. What, if anything, dignifies human existence as far as the director is concerned? Who or what confers value to the life of Fugui who lives to see all of his family and anything that means something to him taken away? What or who can justify the deaths during the nationalist/communist led Land Reform (2 million), the Civil War (8 million), the Great Leap Forward (30 million) and the Cultural Revolution (2 million)?
  10. How to understand the ending;
  11. During the land reform in which Long’er is executed as a “landlord” and “counter-revolutionary”, Fugui is happy with his new identity as the “urban poor” (城市贫民). How do you classify your-self: a man, a lady, ADHD, Chinese, African-American, white European, Protestant, Catholic, Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, Christian, atheist, transvestite, Jewish, Muslim, or Arab? Is such self-identity any more meaningful than “urban poor” is to Fugui or the “concubine Yu Ji” to Cheng Dieyi?
  12. Critic Edward Said views the study of history as a way in which people get to address the problems and issues of the present: “Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps. This problem animates all sorts of discussions—about influence, about blame and judgment, about present actualities and future priorities.” What or which present day (1993) issues or problems are being addressed in the way Zhang Yimou reconstructs such past events as (a) the Land Reform, (b) the Civil War, (c) the Great Leap Forward, and (d) the Cultural Revolution?
  13. Why do people need religion (myth and belief) to feel good about their life? Do we need a story To Live? Can man live without symbols and still feel as fulfilled as the chief whom Carl Jung met in South America? “There for the first time I had the good fortune to talk with a non-European, that is, to a non-white. He was the chief of the Taos pueblos, an intelligent man between the age of 40 and 50. His name was Ochwiay Biano (Mountain Lake). … I felt that we were approaching extremely delicate ground here, verging on the mysteries of the tribe. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘we are a people who live on the roof of the world; we are the sons of Father Sun; and with our religion we daily help our father to go across the sky. We do this not only for ourselves, but for the whole world. If we were to cease practicing our religion, in ten years the sun would no longer rise. Then it would be night forever.’ I then realized on what the dignity, the tranquil composure of the individual Indian was founded: it springs from his being a son of the sun; his life is cosmologically meaningful, for he helps the father and preserver of all life in his daily rise and descent. If we set against this our own self-justifications, the meaning of our own lives as it is formulated by our reason, we cannot help but see our poverty. Out of sheer envy we are obliged to smile at the Indians’ naivete and to plume ourselves on our cleverness; for otherwise we would discover how impoverished and down at the heels we are. Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.