(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator is misdiagnosed with lung cancer, the same disease that killed his father. He is panicked, but a second set of X rays convinces his doctors that he is healthy and will live for many years. The narrator leaves Beijing to travel among ethnic minority peoples living along the Yangzi River. He begins in the west and moves eastward toward the East China Sea. Early in his wanderings, he hears of Soul Mountain (Ling shan). He is intrigued and tries to locate the place.

The narrator wanders through remote parts of southern Sichuan, through rugged Guizhou, and farther east to Hunan Province. Much of his time is spent in forests or natural reserves, where he talks with forest rangers, archeologists, and local residents, most of whom are members of ethnic minority groups. He delights in meeting and talking with elders in minority communities. The narrator records detailed explanations of the flora and fauna he encounters, as well as a series of strange and marvelous stories from the people he meets.

The narrator’s wanderings lead him to Jiangxi, his home province. The homecoming stirs up memories of his dead mother and grandmother. From Jiangxi, he proceeds eastward to Zhejiang Province, where he continues to visit remote wilderness areas. He stays away from cities, but on occasional visits he finds city people who are aware of his published writing and eager to meet him. For short periods, he enjoys their company.

Interspersed through the novel are chapters involving a woman identified as “she” who interacts with a person called “you.” “She” is frequently identified as a nurse and expresses great fears, despondency, and anger toward “you.” At times, “she” appears to be a composite of more than one woman.

The novel ends in the late 1980’s in Beijing, where various people seek out the narrator looking for assistance. The narrator remains an observer, however, and offers no help to his visitors. In a closing chapter, he realizes that he does not yet want to find Taoist enlightenment but rather wants to continue to live in the puzzling, confusing, and cruel human world. The novel closes with a short chapter expressing the narrator’s lack of understanding of the meaning of existence.

Soul Mountain Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Gao Xingjian began writing Soul Mountain, the introspective and experimental novel key to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, in Beijing in the summer of 1982. Suddenly confronted with death after being wrongly diagnosed with lung cancer and feeling almost resurrected when the correct results came in, Gao perceived of Soul Mountain as a quest to the sources of self in mainland China in the post-Mao Zedong era. When he ran afoul of party authorities over his provocative plays, Gao set out on a five-month journey in 1983 that would provide much of the geographical content of the novel. Gao finally finished the work in self-imposed exile in Paris in September, 1989. Soul Mountain was first published in Taiwan in 1990 and translated into English in 2000.

Soul Mountain opens at the beginning of the journey of the protagonist, who is identified only by the first person pronoun “I.” “I” soon finds himself encountering alternate versions of himself called “you” and “he,” as well as meeting a variety of realistically described Chinese people and some enigmatic women referred to only as “she.” The narrator, like the author in 1983, has left behind the literary world of Beijing and seeks contact with people living in the rugged Sichuan province. There he encounters a biologist trying to save the giant panda from extinction, as well as members of China’s minority tribes holding on to their indigenous...

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Soul Mountain Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Gao Xingjian. The Case for Literature. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. Contains several important essays, including Gao’s Nobel Prize lecture, plus “Literature and Metaphysics: About Soul Mountain” and “The Necessity of Loneliness.” Gao explains his purposes and techniques.

_______. “Living Without ’isms.’” Interview by Maya Jaggi. The Guardian, August 2, 2008. Gao advocates “cold literature” that is detached from politics and consumerism. He denounces both Marxism-Leninism as it was practiced in China and contemporary capitalism as it exists in China and elsewhere.

Lee, Mabel. “Gao Xingjian’s Fiction in the Context of Chinese Intellectual and Literary History.” Literature and Aesthetics: Journal of the Sydney Society of Literature and Aesthetics 16, no. 1 (2008): 7-20. Mabel Lee is the principal translator of Gao’s works into English. Here, she attempts to place his work in the context of Chinese literature.

Link, E. Perry. The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literature System. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. This definitive account of literary life in the People’s Republic of China does not mention Gao as an important writer, but it is useful for understanding the literary institutions that helped shape his work and his understanding of literature.

Pearce, Lynne. “Bakhtin and the Dialogic Principle.” In Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide, edited by Patricia Waugh. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A short introduction to Bakhtin’s literary ideas, which Gao appropriated in his own writing.

Silbergeld, Jerome. “Kung Hsien: A Professional Chinese Artist and His Patronage.” The Burlington Magazine 123 (July, 1981): 400-410. A brief survey of Gong Xian and his work.

Taylor, John. “Three Francophone Writers: Francois Cheng, Dai Suie, Gao Xingjian.” Michigan Quarterly Review 2 (September, 2008): 369-379. Reveals how Gao has been shaped by French literature and literary theory even though he writes in Chinese about China.