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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2012

The two outstanding literary characteristics of Gao Xingjian’s masterful novels Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible are autobiographical elements and formal experimentation. At one level, the narrative of Soul Mountain is driven by Gao’s personal impressions gathered during his own travels to the remote southwestern parts of China’s Sichuan province...

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The two outstanding literary characteristics of Gao Xingjian’s masterful novels Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible are autobiographical elements and formal experimentation. At one level, the narrative of Soul Mountain is driven by Gao’s personal impressions gathered during his own travels to the remote southwestern parts of China’s Sichuan province and his subsequent journey along the Yangze River to its estuary into the East China Sea in 1983. Similarly, One Man’s Bible tells of both the horrors and the tribulations witnessed and endured by Gao during the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing from 1966 to 1976, and the upheavals and ironies of the subsequent post-Mao era witnessed by the author.

What further distinguishes both novels is Gao’s forceful use of stylistic experimentation and literary innovation. Most strikingly, Gao splits the persona of his protagonists into different entities by means of experimentation with personal pronouns. In Soul Mountain, the narrator’s “I” is juxtaposed with a second character addressed only as “you,” who acts as if he were a different person, even though “you” is another part of the narrator’s self. Midway into the novel, to create another level of self-alienation leading to self-awareness, “you” is left behind to become “he,” described as a shadow of the narrator’s “I.” The women of the novel are identified only as “she.” In One Man’s Bible, when the narrator describes his past in Mao’s vicious China, the third person “he” is used to relate that experience; to render his present visit to China, the narrator uses “you” to refer to himself. Gao’s goal is to offer as many perspectives on one’s self as possible by using these different pronouns.

Reflecting Gao’s rich work as a playwright, even in his novels dialogue is of key importance, and descriptions of his characters are of secondary importance. One can see the work of Gao the dramatist active in his novels and short stories.

Appreciative of French modernism, existentialism, and the notion of the absurd that Gao encountered in mid-twentieth century French novels and plays he read and translated into Chinese, Gao’s novels echo their literary themes and techniques. Both Soul Mountain and One Man’s Bible eschew conventional, linear narratives, a unifying plot, and sharply drawn characters involved in a plot leading to a clear climax. They replace these conventions with stream-of-consciousness narration, meandering thoughts, a pastiche of elements of folktales, and journalistic interludes describing, for example, indigenous rituals, and end more in a vision than in a classic resolution of plot conflicts.

In addition to these Western influences, Gao includes elements drawn from Chinese history, philosophy, and religion. Critics have remarked on the Zen Buddhist-like qualities expressed in his novels, short stories, and plays. At the end of Soul Mountain, God may appear in the guise of a frog, and One Man’s Bible finishes on a note of ambiguity.

Gao’s many globally performed plays roughly fall into two categories. His early plays, written in China from 1982 until 1986, sought to adapt modern Western theatrical experimentation as a means of enlivening Chinese drama. His first play, Alarm Signal, ends with the unemployed protagonist choosing law over crime by helping to prevent a train robbery. The Bus Stop was banned in 1983 for its critical depiction of people waiting for a bus that never stops. Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), at the end of The Bus Stop some characters do indeed leave the stage, more active than their counterparts in Beckett’s play.

The second set of Gao’s plays, collected in The Other Shore (1999), increasingly adds traditional Chinese theatrical, philosophical, religious, and historical elements. With the exception of The Other Shore itself, Gao’s last play written in China and banned from production in 1986, these later plays were written in France after 1987. What unifies them is the playwright’s attempt to move beyond messages that can be impressed by language. Instead, Gao employs Zen concepts, such as gong-an storytelling moving through questions and answers, or hundun, the idea of depicting the self in chaos. In these plays, truth is grasped at by means of intuition rather than by reasoning. Snow in August is Gao’s most openly Buddhist play, featuring the life of Huineng, the Zen monk who founded the Sudden Enlightenment School in the late seventh century b.c.e.

Gao’s short stories collected in Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather reveal a steady shift from realism to surrealism. Early stories like “Yuan’ensi” (“The Temple”), celebrating the joy of newlyweds, or “Gongyuanli” (“In the Park”), which reads more like a play, or “Choujin” (“Cramp”), telling of the protagonist’s nearly fatal idea of impressing a woman by swimming far into the ocean, are followed by the absurd title piece. The last story, “Shunjian” (“In an Instant”), may remind a reader of the surrealist work of Chinese writer Can Xue or the Magical Realism of Gabriel Gárcia Márquez.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Gao emphasized that he writes neither for the proletarian masses or for a commercial audience. His novels, plays, and short stories seek to comment on the human condition and are created for an audience appreciating a unique artistic answer to the question of what constitutes the modern self.

Soul Mountain

First published: Ling shan, 1990 (English translation, 2000)

Type of work: Novel

On a journey that is as much spiritual quest as physical endeavor, the protagonist travels to southwest China and then to the Yangze River estuary near Shanghai.

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 customs and traditions.

The narrator also enters a love affair with a rebellious woman, whom he ultimately causes to leave him as he eschews the responsibilities of a lasting relationship. At the same time, though, he admits to needing human company. A solitary existence, like that lived by Buddhist monks he encounters, is not for him as he strives for human interaction after all.

In addition to the narrator’s philosophical musings, often rendered by the modernist literary devices of stream-of-consciousness internal monologue and fragmentary thoughts, Soul Mountain contains brilliantly rendered descriptions of the people and natural sights “I” encounters along his ten-thousand-mile journey. As he travels along China’s mighty Yangze River, ancient folk customs are juxtaposed with the negative effects resulting from industrialization and degradation of the environment. He also reflects on fate, the work of Chinese literary men of past ages, and these writers’ relationship to their own society.

In the end, the protagonist achieves a revelation of some kind. He is convinced that God, a mysterious presence, is speaking to him through a tiny green frog in winter’s snow. Just as humans cannot hope to understand God, so “I” fails to understand whatever message the frog may be relating. “I” is content to have revealed that he really knows almost nothing about the nature of humanity and its role in the larger universe.

The Nobel Prize committee praised Soul Mountain for its humanistic vision, its formal experimentation, and its universal poetic qualities. The novel has been seen as an original exploration of humanity’s ongoing quest to find meaning in a modern world pressured by the lingering forces of totalitarianism and threatened by environmental destruction.

One Man’s Bible

First published: Yige ren de shengjing, 1999 (English translation, 2002)

Type of work: Novel

Visiting Hong Kong with a German-Jewish lover, the narrator remembers his sufferings during the Cultural Revolution and ponders the meaning of human existence in the contemporary world.

In One Man’s Bible, Gao Xingjian juxtaposes two time periods. In the recent past, there are the memories of the unnamed protagonist during mainland China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. In the present, the narrator experiences a love affair with Margarethe, a German-Jewish woman with whom he visits Hong Kong in 1996 to stage one of his experimental plays.

Drawing on the author’s personal experiences, One Man’s Bible also showcases Gao’s formal literary experiments in the vein of modernism. Most strikingly, whenever the protagonist remembers his past, he uses the third person singular, “he,” to refer to himself. Relating his present experiences, he switches to “you” when talking about himself. This literary technique is intended to indicate the fragmentary nature of the modern human self.

As the protagonist and Margarethe indulge in their love affair, his memories bubble to the surface in a string of fragmentary episodes highlighting the tremendous amount of suffering as Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing unleashed the Cultural Revolution on their Communist subjects from 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976. One Man’s Bible reveals a nightmare world where children spied on and denounced their parents, playmates, and teachers. Then neighbor was forced to speak against neighbor; physical harm, banishment, or death lurked around every corner.

At the same time he is relating past events, the narrator also engages in philosophical interludes about the nature of storytelling, philosophy, memory, and human consciousness. Through his protagonist, Gao attempts to arrive at a modern view of human existence, haunted by the experience of totalitarian regimes. In the present, the narrator is worried about the dangers of interpersonal relationships that are always fraught with the danger of personal hurt and disappointment. The narrator’s sexual liaisons remain unsatisfactory, yet he cannot give up his longing to find a soul mate.

Gao’s rendition of the horrible effects of the Cultural Revolution paint a stark picture of the persistence of fear augmented by daily betrayals and denunciations. To protect himself, the narrator joins the system, only to realize that exile and social disassociation remain his only means of survival. The passages dealing with the past are on par with other superb accounts of this time, such as Jung Chan’s Wild Swans (1992).

In the novel’s present, the narrator seeks to chart the course of his future from a hotel room in Hong Kong in 1996, one year before the city is handed over to the People’s Republic of China. At times using the technique of metafiction and directly addressing the reader about his endeavor to tell his story, the narrator is torn by his lust for life, including sexuality, and his great world-weariness.

One Man’s Bible ends inconclusively with the narrator remembering an afternoon sitting in a restaurant in the French city of Peripignan. As various pieces of classical music are played by a live band nearby, he reflects on his past life and his decision to continue to write, and to seek love, despite his previous disappointments. Totalitarian China tried to break his soul, but language and literature have set him free.

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Xingjian, Gao