[PART 1 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 1 (italicized text, pp. 3-8): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

NARRATIVE PRESENT [ca. early 1990's ?] Unnamed Narrator, looking back on his encounter 10 years earlier with the remarkable old man Fugui.
[Note: the novel Huo zhe was first published in 1993, when author Yu Hua was c. 33 years old.]
SETTING [ca. early 1980's?] "When I was ten years younger than I am now, I had the carefree job of going into the countryside to collect popular folk songs.  That year, for the entire summer, I was like a sparrow soaring recklessly. . . . amid the village houses and the open country . . . " (3; emphasis added).  The unnamed narrator enjoys his summer sojourn among Chinese rural peasants, wandering from village to village, watching the girls, talking with the men (3), learning "all those dirty stories and sad songs from them" (4).  "That summer I almost fell in love. . . . [with] an enchanting young girl," sixteen or seventeen years old, who was embarrassed by the unnamed narrator's attentions (5).  One scorching hot and blissful afternoon, he "spoke endlessly and irresponsibly of my plans to take her away to see the world," never stopping "to think about tomorrow" (5).  But this romantic love idyll ends when he is approached by the maiden's three burley brothers: the unnamed narrator, who has no serious marriage intentions, is scared off (5). 

"It was just as summer arrived that I met an old man named Fugui" (6).  "This 'me' of ten years before lay down" to take a nap one hot afternoon (6).  Awakening from a dream two hours later, the unnamed narrator sees "an old man in one of the nearby fields patiently trying to coax an old ox into working" (6).  The old man Fugui brightly cajols his weary old ox into plowing the field, reciting proverbs, singing lines of verse, calling the old ox by many different names: Erxi, Youzing, Jiazhen, Fengxia, Kugen (6-7).  The unnamed narrator's curiosity is piqued and he engages the old man Fugui in conversation (7-8).  Cagey in responding to the young man's questions, the old man Fugui explains that the old ox's name is also Fugui, but calling the ox many names fools his old friend into thinking there are "other oxen around working the fields" so the ox will "work harder and won't feel so depressed" (8). 

[Commentary: Fugui, the weary old man, identifies with namesake Fugui, his old weary ox
The bright talk to stave off depression is probably as much for the old man as for his ox.]

The unnamed narrator describes, and is moved by, the old man Fugui (8). The two sit under a shade tree that bright afternoon, and Fugui begins telling his story (8).

PART 2 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 2 (italicized text, pp. 43-45): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

NARRATIVE PRESENT [ca. early 1980's]
"When Fugui's story got to this point," the Unnamed Narrator can't suppress a nervous, exhilarated giggle before this wrinkled, sweaty, mud-covered old "scoundrel of forty years ago" and his weary ox wallowing in the golden pond behind them (43).  The unnamed narrator explains his complex mindset at this moment in his life: "Never before had anyone so completely confided in me the way he did when he vividly recounted his history.  For as long as I was willing to listen, he was willing to talk" (43-44).  Of all the rural folk that the unnamed narrator would encounter during his sojourn in the countryside, ". . . I never again met anyone as unforgettable as Fugui.  Never did I meet anyone who was not only so clear about his life experiences, but also able to recount them so brilliantly.  He was the kind of person who could see his entire past.  He could see himself clearly walking as a young man, and he could even see himself growing old.  It's very rare to meet this kind of man in the country. Perhaps the difficulties and hardships of life destroy the others' memories.  They often face the past with a kind of numbness. . . .
   "But Fugui was completely different.  He liked thinking about the past.  He liked talking about his life.  It seemed that in this way he could relive his life again and again.  His story grabbed me in the same way the talons of an eagle clutch the branches of a tree" (44-45).

Fugui's Story 2 (plain text, pp. 45-85) - narrated by Fugui

NARRATIVE PAST [ca. late 1945 or early 1946 ?]
After Jiazhen is taken away by her father, Fugui's mother often cries and reassures her son that Jiazhen can never belong to anyone else but her husband (45).  During the many sleepless nights and aching days that follow, Fugui is consumed with self-hatred, finding solace only in his beloved daughter Fengxia (45-46). To survive, they sell off everything of value left, and Fugui anguishes over the sight of his gray-haired mother, walking on her "twisted little feet," learning to do "hard physical labor for the first time in her life" (46).  Fugui hatches a plan to start a little shop in town and seeks financial help from his new landlord Long'er (46-47).  Instead of lending Fugui money for a shop in town, Long'er agrees to rent Fugui "five mu of good land" on his former estate (48). Unused to farm work, Fugui is slow and quickly exhausted working his rented land, but learns from the other farmers, and, despite his protests, is aided by his loving mother (48-49).

[PART 3 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 3 (italicized text, pp. 85-87): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"Fugui's narration stopped here," with the hot mid-day sun turning toward afternoon (85).  Fugui makes a ribald joke, which causes the young unnamed narrator to laugh (86).  Fugui calls his old ox, Fugui, saying "Jiazhen and the rest of them have already started working.  You've rested enough" (86). Fugui observes to the unnamed narrator, "When oxen get old, they're just like old men" (86). Noticing more physical resemblances between Fugui, the old man, and Fugui, the old ox, the unnamed narrator settles back against a shade tree until dusk falls.  "I didn't leave because Fugui's story wasn't finished" (87).

Fugui's Story 3 (plain text, pp. 87-161) - narrated by Fugui

Later, Fugui resumes his story: "Those years after I returned home were difficult, but I guess you could say they went smoothly. Fengxia and Youqing got bigger by the day, and me, I got older and older" (87).
Fengxia turns seventeen years old, coming into her womanhood, and Youqing is twelve years old (87).

Fugui then goes back in time - "Some years earlier" - when Fengxia is twelve or thirteen (88; twelve according to a later passage on p. 88), and thus Youqing would be seven or eight years old and approaching school ageFugui and Jiazhen are faced with a difficult decision: should they go on as they are with their poverty and hard life certain to ruin both their children's lives?  Or should they give Fengxia away to a good family that can afford to give her a better life, and thereby be able to save the money needed to send Youqing to school? (88).  Though smart, Fengxia is deaf and mute and the only family that will take her is only concerned about how hard she will work (88, 89).  Everyone is devastated when Fengxia is given away, particularly Youqing (90-93).  
Two months later
when it is time for Youqing to start school, he refuses to go until Fugui beats him (93-94). When things start off badly for Youqing at school, Fugui beats him some more (94-95). 
"A few months after Fengxia is taken away, she came running back . . . in the middle of the night" (95). Youqing is overjoyed to have his sister back home, but the next evening after dinner, Fugui takes Fengxia back to town, but finally cannot bring himself to leave his daughter once again with that family, and carries her all the way back home (95-97). 
Two years later: Youqing is ten years old and has been in school for two years, and things are going a bit better for the Xu family (98).  Youqing's responsibility is getting up early before school and returning during mid-day break, to cut grass and feed their two lambs - which always threatened to make him late for classes and required that he always run back and forth between home and school (98-99). To ease the hardship on his worn out mother always making him new shoes to replace the ones he wore out running, Youqing would run barefoot (99-100). 

1958 [Mao Zedung's "Great Leap Forward"]: Xu's five mu of land go to the newly established people's communes (100). This new movement toward communism means the village head is now called the "team leader," all families work the collective fields, even cooking pots must be turned over to "smelt iron," everyone is to be fed in the "communal dining hall," and all private stores of food and livestock turned over to the commune--including Youqing's lambs (100-102).  At first everyone is happy and people enjoy meat in their meals, but the Xu family narrowly misses having their house taken when the "fengshui expert" scouts out the the most fortuitous location for the village commune's iron smelting cauldron (103-106; on Fengshui, see note p. 105). Fugui and Jianzen decide it is "fate" (108).  No one knows how to smelt iron: It is young Youqing's bright, but bad, idea that water should be added to the smelting pot (109-110). 

During this period, Jiazhen gets sick; after two months of unsuccessfully trying to smelt iron, it is Fugui's turn to watch the smelting fire and add water: that night Fugui falls asleep and doesn't add water, and Youqing's lambs are slaughtered (111-116). The next day, seriously concerned about his ailing wife, Fugui takes Jiazhen into town to a doctor, who diagnoses her with an incurable "soft bone disease" [rickets: see note, p. 117).  When they return to the village, Fugui discovers his "mistake" of not adding water to the cauldron, has finally enabled the iron to be smelted so that Taiwan can be bombed(118); but Youqing is weeping inconsolably about the slaughter of his lambs (119).  Food runs out, and villagers are told they must now buy pots and do their own cooking; fortunately the harvest is due in a month (120).  The new system of work points (120-121) devastates Jiazhen, who cannot do her share of the work, which falls to her strong daughter Fengxia (122).

[We've nearly caught up to the time period when this installment of Fugui's story began on p. 87]:

Youqing is now twelve years old, and wants to quit school to help his family at home (122-123). Trying to be kind, Fugui goes to town to sell firewood in order to buy his son some candy, but then becomes furious when he sees that Youqing is not studying in school, hits his son, makes a scene before the school, and causes his son "lose face" (123-125).  For over a month after that incident, Youqing snubs his father (125-126).  Contrite, Fugui makes peace by buying his son another lamb, and Youqing goes back to running back and forth between town school and feeding the lamb twice a day (126-127). 
Youqing is in fourth grade when a town-wide athletic meet is held (128).  To Fugui's surprise, Youqing beats everyone in the footrace, is genuinely bright-faced and happy, and his gym teacher rewards him with candy (129-130). THe gym teacher visits the Xu's at home and praises Youqing lavishly, but Fugui dampens his son's joy by reminded him that excellence in running is hardly why Youqing is being sent to school (130-131).
That same year, before the rice can ripen, it rains hard for a month; then a heat wave rots all the rice and the harvest is ruined (131-132).  Two months of near starvation means Youqing's lamb must be sold (132-133).  Youqing is more adult and resigned this time, and Fugui assures him that it is lambs', animals' "fate" (134).  In town, Fugui gets much less for the lamb than he had hoped - only forty jin of rice, which lasts less than three months (134-137).  Everyone is starving and an incident when a villager tries to claim a rare sweet potato that Fengxia has dug up erupts in a violent fight between Fugui and Xang Si (138-141).  Things are so bad that frail Jiazhen makes a painful pilgrimage into town to beg food from her father and returns home with a small bag of precious rice (142-143).  But the smell of cooking rice draws many hungry villagers, which the Team Leader finally drives off, but for a price (144-145).  This desperate situation continues until the next rice harvest, which once again supplies everyone with some grain (146).
Jiazhen becomes bedridden, spends her time unraveling all her own clothes to make new ones for her children (147).  Jiazhen begins discussing her funeral wishes with Fugui, and asks him to find Fengxia a husband (148).

"That year Youqing was in the fifth grade.  There is a common saying that 'Calamities never come singly.' . . . How could I have known that just as Jiazhen was starting to feel better, something would happen to Youqing?" (149).
The principal of Youqing's school, wife of the county magistrate, loses a lot of blood giving birth in the city hospital, so teachers at Youqing's school called on all the fifth graders to donate blood, and Youqing is first in line to give blood (149). Youqing is the first of the students to have the right blood type, but "the people in the hospital wouldn't stop taking Youqing's blood--they just kept extracting more and more" until they extracted "almost every drop of blood in my son's body" (150-151).  A school child arrives in the country to find Fugui and take him into town to the hospital, and when he arrives, Youqing is dead (151-153).  Weeping in disbelief, Fugui grows murderous, and finally confronts County Magistrate Liu - who turns out to be his old war comrade, Chungsheng (155).  Surprised, his anger quelled, Fugui and Chungsheng catch up on old times, but then Fugui's sorrow and despair returns (156).  He carries his dead son home and buries him (156-158), but keeps the news from Jiazhen and Fengxia for several days, spending his nights in devastated vigil beside Youqing's grave (159-160).  Without being told, Jiazhen knows that her son is dead and Fugui carries her to visit her son's grave, a scene of excruciating sorrow and beauty (160-161).

[PART 4 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 4 (italicized text, pp. 162-163): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"I spent the afternoon with the old man" (162). Even after the two Fuguis go back to plowing the fields, the narrator says, ". . . I didn't think of leaving.  I was like a sentinel watching over them from under the tree" (162).  The narrator listens to the voices of the farmers working the fields, and Fugui approaches them to share the "four rules" of life (162-163).  "Later he sat back down with me in the shade, and I asked him to continue his story.  He looked at me with a thankful expression, as if I was doing him some kind of favor.  He felt a deep happiness because someone had expressed interest in his life experience" (163).

Fugui's Story 4 (plain text, pp. 163-212 ) - narrated by Fugui

After Youqing's untimely death, Jiazhen also seems to be dying and broken-hearted Fugui begins preparing for her funeral, determined to buy her a coffin and bury beside her son (163-165).  Only Fengxia does not give up hope, and after twenty days in bed, Jiazhen is found sitting up in bed, asking for porridge, and begins a surprising recovery (166-168).  Then Fugui falls ill, overnight seems to have grown old, his hair gone gray (168).  A month after Youqing's death, Chungsheng arrives (see his background as "Liberation Liu" 169), but an outraged Jiazhen blames him for her son's death, throws Chungsheng out, and refuses to accept his money (169-170).  Fugui observes, "It would be years before I saw Chungsheng again . . . [not] until the Cultural Revolution" (170).

[1966:] "When the Cultural Revolution hit, the whole town turned upside down" (170). Violence erupts in town, and country folk stay away.  "Chairman Mao's supreme directives were always issued in the middle of the night" (171).
Jiazhen and Fugui worry about Fengxia and are determined to find her a husband (171). They watch painfully to see Fengxia mesmerized by another young woman's wedding, then Fugui is outraged when their daughter is ridiculed (174).  The Team Leader is asked to help find Fugui a husband, and he does (174-175):  Wan Erxi, a rich town porter with a "crooked head" (175). Dressed well and bearing expensive gifts, Wan Erxi visits the Wu family and meets Fengxia, but the outcomes does not seem promising (176-178).  But to Fugui's surprise, Wan Erxi returns, bringing men and materials to repair the Xu family's poor home, and more expensive gifts of meat and spirits to regale the Xu family with a fine meal, a fine cotton print for Fengxia, and the giggling young couple get along very well (178-182).  The date is set and Wan Erxi promises to make the wedding a fine event to compensate for Fengxia's hard life (183).  And indeed the wedding is one of the most sumptuous that the village has ever experienced (183-185).  Fengxia is tearful when Wan Erxi takes her away to live in town, and after she has gone, Fugui and Jiazhen feel a new emptiness (185-186).
Instead of the customary month later, Fengxia and Wan Erxi come home to visit within ten days (187).  After that, Fugui, too, says "to hell with the old custom and started going into town just about every other day" to visit his daughter and new son-in-law, urged on by Jiazhen (188).  Hardworking and intelligent, Fengxia is truly appreciated by her new town neighbors, and Fugui is delighted "to see how much Wan Erxi loved her" (190).  When Fugui returned home from these frequent visits, Jiazhen, too weak to accompany her husband into town, made Fugui retell all in great joyous detail (190-191).

"Meanwhile, the Cultural Revolution was raging more and more intensely in town" (192).  Big character posters, or da zi bao, blanket the walls, violent fights and frequent beatings make Fugui's visits to town increasingly dangerous, and he avoids crowded areas (192).  The village commune's Team Leader is afraid to go into town, and one day a group of Red Guards come to get him (193).  The Red Guard leader, a cocky young woman of scarcely seventeen years old (193),  interrogates the villagers and denouces the team leader as a "capitalist roader" (194). Despite village testimonies that he never bullied or oppressed them, the team leader is taken screaming away into town (195).  Three days later, the badly beaten team leader comes limping back into the village (196).  One day Fugui goes into town to visit Fengxia and is shocked to see Chungsheng, who lived in town, had also been denounced as a capitalist roader, being dragged through the streets and severely beaten (197).  Fugui tries to intervene, but to no avail.  Jiazhen is contrite when she hears (198).
A month later, Chungsheng pays Fugui and Jiazhen a secret visit in the middle of the night. Unwilling to come into their home, Chungsheng confesses to Fugui that he doesn't want to live anymore, that he is tied up and beaten every day (199).  Fugui tries to persuade Chungsheng that he must live (200).  Overhearing this sad discussion, Jiazhen calls out to Chungsheng:  "You've got to keep on living," she says; "You still owe us a life . . . Hold on to your life to repay us" (200).  Fugui forces Chungsheng to promise to keep on living, "But in the end Chungsheng didn't keep his promise.  Just over one month later I head the news that Magistrate Liu had hung himself" (200-201).  Jiazhen regrets blaming Chungsheng for her son Youqing's death (201).

Afterwards, Fugui cannot go into town very often to visit Fengxia, working himself into exhaustion in the village communal fields (201-202).  One day, Fengxia and Wan Erxi arrive to announce that Fengxia is pregnant, and the family celebrates as well as weeps over lost Youqing (202-204).
In a winter snowstorm, Fengxia gives birth, but the delivery is a hard one and at one point the doctor comes out and asks whether they want him to save Fengxia or the child (204-205). Wan Erxi asks them to save Fengxia, but a baby boy is born, the doctor announces that Fengxia is okay, Erxi and Fugui relax and Fugui goes out to get some sleep (206-207).  "But who could have guessed that the moment I left, something would happen to Fengxia?" (207).  Fengxia begins hemorrhaging and dies before dusk: "My two children both died during childbirth--Youqing during someone else's delivery, Fengxia during her own" (207), both in the same hospital.  Erxi is inconsolable.  Fugui is traumatized by these losses that have both occurred in the same hospital (207).  Snow falls heavily, as Erxi lifts Fengxia on his back and they head home (207).  In Erxi's home, Fugui holds vigil until dawn: "I wanted to cry, but there were no tears left" (208).  Knowing that Jiazhen had almost died when she lost Youqing, Fugui feels sure his wife will not survive the loss of Fengxia (209).  The next day they carry Fengxia and the newborn baby home to the village and Jiazhen, and Fengxia is buried next to Youqing (209-210).  Fugui is terrified by the look on Jiazhen's face.  Erxi asks Fugui to bury him next to Fengxia and to name the new baby boy (210).  It is Jiazhen who names the boy "Kugen, 'Bitter Root'" (211).
"Less that three months after Fengxia died, Jiazhen also passed away" (211).  Jiazhen is at ease during her last days, loving to talk, and promisng to spend her next life together again with Xu Fugui, who has proved to be a good husband (211).  Jiazhen dies at peace (212).

[PART 5 Novel Notes]

Narrative Frame 5 (italicized text, pp. 213-214): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"It was really nice the way Jiazhen died . . . . When she died it was all so simple, so peaceful," Fugui observes (213). Hearing Fugui speak this way of his wife Jiazhen "who had passed away over ten years ago," gives the unnamed narrator "an almost indescribable feeling of warmth deep inside . . ." (213).

Realizing that Fugui still hadn't finished his story, the unnamed narrator tries to encourage Fugui to continue by asking how old his grandson Kugen is now (213).  "A strange look appeared in Fugui's eyes," both sad and joyful (213). Finally Fugui responds, "If you're going according to years, he should be seventeen" (214).

Fugui's Story 5 (plain text, pp. 214-234) - narrated by Fugui

"After Jiazhen died, all I had was Erxi and Kugen" (214).

Erxi and Kugen live in town, and Fugui goes into town to see them whenever he has time (217).

Kugen is four years old (218) when Erxi dies, crushed between two slabs of cement (218-220).  Fugui brings his grandson Kugen home to live with him in the country (220-222). The second night, Fugui must try to make Kugen understand what death is and that his father Erxi is never going to come for him again (222-223). 

Six months later, "the village fixed the output quotas for each family" (224), and aging Fugui, beginning "to fall apart," can hardly keep up (224).  By this time, Kugen is five years old, and a "good little helper" to his grandfather Fugui, who has a little sickle made for Kugen  (224-225).  Kugen eagerly watches their chickens grow, and accompanies Fugui into town to sell the chickens' eggs, waiting for the time when they will have enough money to buy an ox (226-227). 

Kugen is seven years old (227): Rain is forecast, which would ruin Fugui's cotton crop, so they rush out to harvest, but Kugen complains of dizziness (227-228). Fugui realizes his grandson Kugen, now burning up with fever, is really sick; picks fresh beans to make Kugen a special meal, then leaves him to eat it and returns to harvesting his cotton crop (228-229).  Returning at dusk, Fugui finds Kugen's little twisted body and raises an alarm in the village (227-228).  Kugen is pronounced dead (228).

"Kugen had choked to death on the beans," because his "muddle-headed" grandfather had given his beloved grandson, who "hardly ever had the chance to eat beans,"  "too many beans at once, . . . . In the end it was my own clumsiness and stupidity," old Fugui declares, "that killed Kugen" (230).

"From then on I had to get by alone," and Fugui did not expect to live much longer - but he does live on (230-231).  "It seems this life of mine will be over soon.  It's been an ordinary life" (231).  But Fugui, the survivor who has outlived so many others, including Long Er and Chungsheng who "each had their day in the sun, but in the end . . . lost their lives," concludes that "It's better to live an ordinary life" (231). 

Two years after Kugen's death, Fugui, still alive with perhaps a few more years left, decides to buy an ox with his savings and heads for the town of "Xinfeng, where there's a big animal market" (231-232). At a nearby village, Fugui happens upon an old ox, tears streaming from the ox's eyes because he knows he's  about to be butchered; Fugui is moved by the old ox's plight, tries to move on, but finally must come back to buy and save the old ox from slaughter (232-233).  The "smart" old ox, realizing Fugui has saved him, immediately stops crying, stands up, nuzzles Fugui with affection, and readily follows his new master home (233).  Fugui observes, "Oxen have feelings just like people do" (233).  Everyone agrees that Fugui is a fool to waste his money on this old ox, who probably has less than three years of life left in him (233-234), but old Fugui and his old ox have already outlived such predictions.  "Once the ox was home he became a member of my family, so I thought it only right that I give him a name" and decides to name the ox "Fugui": "He really does resemble me" (234).  "Fugui is a good ox"; the old man knows that when he is tired, so much be his ox and gives him a rest; and "When my energy returns, then it's time for him to get back to work" as well (234).

[PART 6 Novel Notes - Conclusion]

Narrative Frame 6 (italicized text, pp. 234-235): narrated by Unnamed Narrator

"As he finished, the old man stood up, patted the dust off his bottom and called out to the old ox beside the pond. . . . The two Fuguis swayed slightly as they walked off," the old man telling his old  ox how much Youqing, Erxi, Jiazhen, Fengxia, and even little Kugen had planted that day (234-235). Listening to the old man's fading song in the dusk, the unnamed narrator observes "the death of sunset" and the village fields fall into silence.  "Just as a mother beckons her children, so the earth beckoned the coming of night" (235).