Gao Xingjian was born in 1940 in the province of Jiangxi, where he spent his childhood. In 1962, he graduated as a French language specialist from the Beijing Foreign Language Institute. He joined the Foreign Languages Press, where he worked as a translator of French until he was swept up in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During these years, Gao was initially a member of the pro-Maoist Red Guards, but he later was sent to the countryside to be “reeducated” through hard labor. Following Deng Xiaoping’s reemergence in politics as China’s most powerful leader, many formerly banished intellectuals, including Gao, were rehabilitated around 1980. Gao began to write about French contemporary literary theory and to produce plays in the style of the Theater of the Absurd associated with Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and Eugène Ionesco (1909-1994). Gao’s best-known play is Chezhan (pr. 1983; The Bus Stop, 1996), in which a group of people wait for a bus that never comes. It is derivative of Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954).
Soul Mountain is an ambitious and original work influenced by the Soviet Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). The form of the novel echoes Bakhtin’s concept of the self emerging out of a dialogue with others. The narrator is an autobiographical figure, and the novel shows him interacting with other people and discourses in ways that shape his own self and writing. Most chapters contain two or more stories that have been relayed to the narrator by the people he has met on his travels. This interweaving of disparate narratives enacts Bakhtin’s theory of the novel as a dialogic text.
The most difficult aspect of Soul Mountain is Gao’s use of the pronouns “I,” “You,” “She,” and later “He” to carry all the action. The narrator reveals in chapter 42 that “She” is a fantasy invoked by the character “I.” Further, “You” is revealed to be an aspect of “I.”
Gao’s characters represent his own interpretation of Bakhtin’s theories. Bakhtin is a puzzling figure himself whose ideas challenged Marxist materialism but nonetheless became widely influential among neo-Marxists in Europe after his death. Bakhtin lived in obscurity most of his life, and few of his works survive in complete form. He argued that the self is realized only in relationship to others, and Gao borrows Bakhtin’s conception of the self as being composed of “I,” “I in relation to others,” and “others in relation to me” to portray the autobiographical narrator of Soul Mountain. Gao must have been aware of Bakhtin’s growing reputation in French intellectual life, but Soul Mountain does not reflect a deep study of Bakhtin’s ideas, which became influential in European and American literary theory during the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Seen in the context of Chinese literary ideas, Gao’s concern with the self is a major departure from China’s mainstream socialist realism, in which the narrative centers on individuals whose life purpose is to advance socialism in China. Fulfillment of ideological goals is everything in socialist realism, but Gao rejects collectivist ideology and politics to emphasize the experiences and fantasies of a particular individual.
Gao was an avant-garde figure, but his absurdist plays and his pamphlet Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqian chutan (1981; discussion of the techniques of modern fiction) played only a...
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