Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
On January 4, 1940, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Gao Xingjian (gow shihng-jyahn) was born in Ganzhou in China’s Jiangxi province. His father held a senior position with the Bank of China, and his mother was a former actress who volunteered in patriotic plays staged by the Young Men’s Christian...
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On January 4, 1940, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Gao Xingjian (gow shihng-jyahn) was born in Ganzhou in China’s Jiangxi province. His father held a senior position with the Bank of China, and his mother was a former actress who volunteered in patriotic plays staged by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). As the family retreated from advancing Japanese forces, survived the end of World War II and the subsequent civil war in China, which ended with a Communist victory on the mainland in late 1949, Gao’s mother installed in her son a lifelong love for reading, writing, and painting.
In 1957, Gao graduated from high school in Nanjing. Instead of studying painting, he enrolled in the department of French at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages. Upon his graduation in 1962, he was made a translator at the Foreign Languages Press, a position he held formally until 1980. In the early 1960’s, Gao lost his mother, who drowned when the Communists sent her to the countryside.
When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, Gao’s position linking him to the West became dangerous. He was sent to a cadre school for reeducation and from 1970 to 1975 labored in the countryside. There, he burned all his accumulated unpublished manuscripts. Allowed to return to Beijing in 1975, Gao resumed his job, writing, and painting. He traveled to France and Italy in 1979 as a delegation translator and published his novella, Hanye de xingchen (1980; stars on a cold night), and his first critical essay. In 1981, Gao published his influential book Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan (a preliminary exploration of the techniques of modern fiction), which established him as a proponent of Western-style modernism.
After his travels to France as translator for Chinese writers, Gao was transferred to the Beijing People’s Art Theater. His first play, Juedui xinhao (pr. 1982; Alarm Signal, 1996), was produced by Lin Zhaohua, one of China’s most renowned theater directors. His second play, Chezan (pr. 1983; The Bus Stop, 1996), ran afoul of the Chinese government’s “antispiritual pollution campaign” and was banned after its production in early 1983.
Wrongly diagnosed with lung cancer, which killed his father in 1981, and learning that the Communists wanted to send him to a reform camp, Gao left Beijing. He traveled to the source of the Yangze River in Sichuan province and back to its estuary near Shanghai from July to November, 1983. Part of his experience was included in his next play, Yeren (pr. 1985; Wild Man, 1990). In 1985, Gao again traveled to Europe, where there were solo exhibitions of his paintings in West Germany and Austria.
Gao’s play Bi’an (pr. 1986, pb. 1995; The Other Shore, 1999) was banned; all of his plays would become forbidden in the People’s Republic of China. He focused on painting and writing essays instead. In 1987, Gao was invited to West Germany, and Chinese authorities allowed him to go. In 1988, he settled in self-chosen exile in Paris, France.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing on June 4, 1989, Gao renounced his membership in the Chinese Communist Party, and the party expelled him two years later. His play Taowang (pr. 1989; Fugitives, 1993, also as Escape, 2007) dealt with the massacre. In 1990, his first novel, Ling shan (Soul Mountain, 2000), was published in Taiwan. Gao had begun writing it in 1982, brought his manuscript with him to Europe, and finished it in Paris in September, 1989.
In Paris, Gao supported himself by selling his paintings and continued to write. He published the play Shengsijie (pb. 1991, pr. 1993; Between Life and Death, 1999). In 1992, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la France, and he published another play, Diuhua yu fanjie (pb. 1992; Dialogue and Rebuttal, 1999). In the 1990’s, Gao wrote his next plays in French first, before translating them into Chinese. Quatre quatours pour un week-end (pb. 1993; Weekend Quartet, 1999) was followed by Le Somnambule (wr. 1993, pb. 1995; Nocturnal Wanderer, 1999), for which he was awarded the Prix Communauté Française de Belgique in 1994.
Critical acclamation for Soul Mountain gathered steam and the novel won for Gao the 1997 Prix du Nouvel An chinois. He became a French citizen in 1998. Gao’s next novel, Yige ren de shengjing (1999; One Man’s Bible, 2002), was followed by the play Bayue xue (pb. 2000, pr. 2002; Snow in August, 2003).
Gao won the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 12, 2000, and delivered his acceptance speech in Chinese on December 7, 2000. The Chinese University in Hong Kong awarded him an honorary doctorate in literature in 2001.
Since winning the Nobel Prize, he has increasingly focused on painting. Pour une autre esthâetique (2001; Return to Painting, 2002) featured Gao’s ink paintings from an exhibition of the same name in New York City in 2002. Gei wo laoye mai yugan (1999; Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather: Stories, 2004) contains short stories written by Gao between 1983 and 1991. “Escape” and “The Man Who Questions Death” (pb. 2007) featured two new English translations of his plays Taowang and Kouwen siwang (pr., pb. 2003), respectively. A solo exhibition of his paintings in Germany in 2007 was a huge success, perhaps solidifying Gao’s shift from literature to ink printing.