Gao Xingjian Xingjian, Gao - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gao Xingjian 1940-

(Also transliterated as Xingjian Gao) Chinese-born French playwright, critic, novelist, translator, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Gao's career through 2001.

Playwright, critic, and novelist Gao was a prominent leader of the avant-garde movement in fiction and drama that emerged in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976. In 2000 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature from the Swedish Academy, the first time the prize had been awarded for a body of writing in the Chinese language. Gao, a self-exiled dissident writer, emigrated from China to France in 1987 in order to escape government persecution for his controversial plays, prose, and essays. His novel La Montagne de l'âme (1995; translated in Chinese as Lingshan, translated in English as Soul Mountain) is considered by many critics to be Gao's masterpiece, employing an experimental narrative voice to relate the story of a spiritual journey through remote China. His works typically address themes of the individual versus collective will and the search for self-identity. Despite his continual focus on topics and issues that are distinctive to Chinese culture, all of Gao's writings have been banned in China since 1989.

Biographical Information

Gao Xingjian (pronounced gow shing-jen) was born on January 4, 1940, in Ganzhou, China. During Gao's childhood, Ganzhou—also known as Republican China—was invaded by Japanese forces. In 1949, due to the revolution led by Mao Zedong, the nation became the People's Republic of China. Gao grew up in a liberal family environment—his father was a banker and his mother was an amateur actress—and he had access to a sizable family library of Chinese literature as well as many volumes on Western Literature and art. He attended university at Beijing Foreign Languages Institute from 1957 to 1962, where he studied French language and literature. After graduating, Gao began working as a translator and editor of the French edition of China Reconstructs, a monthly magazine produced in all the major languages of the world to tout the successes of socialist reconstruction in China. During this period, Gao began secretly writing plays, stories, and essays, which he had to hide from the authorities due to Mao Zedong's edict that all literature and arts should solely be used to serve the masses. Gao's wife eventually denounced him to government officials. As a result, he was sent to rural China for cultural “re-education,” where he worked for six years as a farm laborer and teacher. Although he continued to write during his “re-education,” Gao either burned or buried all of his writings, including unpublished novels, plays, and essays, for fear of being further labelled as a subversive. Gao returned to Beijing in 1975 and began working for the Chinese Writers Association. Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, Gao's writing began to appear regularly in Chinese publications and in 1981 he was assigned to work as a writer for the Beijing People's Art Theater. His first play, Juedui xinhao (Absolute Signal), was produced in 1982 and became a popular success. That same year, Gao was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but two weeks later learned that he had been misdiagnosed and did not have cancer. His next play, Chezhan (1983; Bus Stop), was declared subversive by the Chinese government, and Gao decided to leave Beijing in order to escape a possible prison sentence. He spent the next five months on a fifteen thousand kilometer trek through rural China, an experience which later became the basis for his novel Soul Mountain. When the political climate in China changed in 1984, Gao returned to Beijing. His next plays received negative reactions from the Chinese government, causing Gao to emigrate to France in 1987 during a trip to Germany on an artistic fellowship. After the massacre during the student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, Gao denounced the actions of the Chinese authorities to the media and applied for political asylum in France. In 1992 Gao wrote and produced a play—Taowang (1992; Fleeing)—about the Tiananmen Square massacre, resulting in the Chinese government banning all of Gao's works in China. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1998 and was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Letters from the French government in 1992.

Major Works

Gao's first play, Absolute Signal, follows an attempted train robbery that is thwarted when one of the villains decides not to go through with the crime. The play uses a variety of flashbacks and different perspectives to create an unique narrative voice. In Bus Stop, the thoughts and behaviors of seven characters—representing a cross-section of Chinese society—are rendered as they wait and watch buses pass without stopping. Western critics found the play reminiscent of the Theater of the Absurd movement and drew comparisons to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Chinese authorities, however, condemned the play, interpreting it as an analogy for ineffective communist government. Yeren (1985; Wildman) concerns an ecologist and a newspaper reporter who travel into the wilderness of modern China in search of a mythical “wildman,” who is said to be part human, part monkey. The play, defying conventional dramatic techniques, unfolds through a series of episodic scenes, interspersing traditional Chinese song, dance, and music with dialogue between the unnamed characters. In Bi'an (1986; The Other Shore)—the title refers to a term for Buddhist enlightenment—three characters, designated as The Crowd, Man, and Woman, engage in a symbolic struggle over the conflict between the individual and collective will. The Other Shore was the last play that Gao wrote in China before emigrating to France in 1987. His plays written in France include Fleeing, Dialogue-interloquer (1992; Dialogue and Rebuttal), Le Somnambule (1994; Nocturnal Wanderer), and Zhoumo sichongzou (1995; Weekend Quartet). Fleeing, set during the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, takes place in an abandoned warehouse where two men and a young woman have taken refuge from the military tanks sent in to stop the demonstration. Dialogue and Rebuttal follows two strangers who have spent the night together, examining their inability to communicate and their individual relationships with language. Nocturnal Wanderer is a dream play where a character named Sleepwalker battles to escape his nightmare. The structure of Weekend Quartet is based on the composition of a musical quartet and examines the relationships between four different characters. Gao has also received considerable critical attention for his two novels, Soul Mountain and Le Livre d'un homme seul (2000; One Man's Bible). Soul Mountain—a Buddhist term for heaven—is based on Gao's experience of being misdiagnosed with terminal cancer and his fifteen thousand kilometer, five-month long journey to the eastern coast of China. The novel employs an experimental narrative style, which includes alternating narrative points of view, as well as a bifurcation of the main character into both male and female parts. Soul Mountain is divided into eighty-one short, episodic chapters, with each chapter alternating between first- and second-person narration. The plot follows an individual's search for meaning by way of a spiritual journey. Through his/her encounters with the people and cultures of remote China, the main character explores the tensions between individual and collective identity. One Man's Bible is a historical novel, set during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As in Soul Mountain, the narrative voice includes second- and third-person narration, but One Man's Bible purposely excludes the first-person “I” in order to symbolize the suppression of individual identity by Chinese government forces.

Critical Reception

There has been a direct correlation between the critical reception of Gao's writing in China and the political climate of the country. While his plays Absolute Signal and Wildman have been considered relatively politically innocuous, Bus Stop and The Other Shore have been denounced by Chinese authorities as subversive. Outside of China, Gao's plays received positive critical recognition in a number of countries during the 1980s and 1990s through theatrical productions and translated publications, although few English translations of his works existed. However, after winning the Nobel Prize in 2000, Gao gained international prominence and many of his works have become available in English. Gao's plays have been praised for their experimental theatrical techniques, episodic structures, and their focus on the recurring theme of individual versus collective identity. Critics have noted the clear influence of such Western playwrights as Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht on Gao's dramatic works. Several reviewers have complimented Gao's mixture of modern Western and traditional Chinese literary and cultural influences. Critical discussion of Soul Mountain has focused primarily on Gao's narrative voice and structure. While many critics have found Gao's inventive storytelling techniques to be the novel's most remarkable feature, others have found the novel to be overly self-indulgent and alienating to the reader. Commentators have lauded the spiritual elements of Soul Mountain, with Fatima Wu observing that, “Above all, the book records one lonely individual's quest for his soul.” Some reviewers, however, have questioned Gao's representations of women in his drama and fiction. Sylvia Li-chun Lin has commented that, “feminists might find his treatment of women in Soul Mountain bordering on male chauvinism.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stars on a Cold Night (novella) 1980

A Preliminary Exploration into the Techniques of Modern Fiction (criticism) 1981

*Juedui xinhao [Absolute Signal] (play) 1982

Chezhan [Bus Stop] (play) 1983

Yeren [Wildman] (play) 1985

Bi'an [The Other Shore] (play) 1986

Sheng si jie [Between Life and Death (play) 1991

Dialogue-interloquer [translated in Chinese as Duihua yu fanjie; translated in English as Dialogue and Rebuttal] (play) 1992

Taowang [Fleeing] (play) 1992

Shanhaijing zhuan [The Story of the Classic of Seas and Mountains] (play) 1993

Le Somnambule [translated in Chinese as Ye you shen; translated in English as Nocturnal Wanderer] (play) 1994

La Montagne de l'âme [translated in Chinese as Lingshan; translated in English as Soul Mountain] (novel) 1995

Zhoumo sichongzou [Weekend Quartet] (play) 1995

Au plus près du reel: Dialogues sure l'écriture, 1994-1997 (criticism) 1997

§The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian (plays) 1999

Le Livre d'un homme seul [translated in Chinese as Yige ren de Shengjing; translated in English as One Man's Bible] (novel) 2000

*This play has also been translated and produced under the title Alarm Signal.

†This play has also been translated and produced under the title Bus Station.

‡This play has also been translated and produced under the titles Absconding, Escape, Exile, and The Fugitives.

§This collection includes The Other Shore, Between Life and Death, Dialogue and Rebuttal, Nocturnal Wanderer, and Weekend Quartet.

Xiaomei Chen (essay date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chen, Xiaomei. “A Wildman Between Two Cultures: Some Paradigmatic Remarks on ‘Influence Studies.1’” Comparative Literature Studies 29, no. 4 (fall 1992): 397-416.

[In the following essay, Chen discusses Wildman in terms of both Western and Chinese cultural influences.]

In May 1985, when Gao Xingjian premiered his third play, Wildman, in Beijing, China, its critical reception was quite different from his first two plays, The Alarm Signal staged in 1982 and The Bus Stop in 1983.2 Both of his earlier plays have been immediately recognized as being strongly “influenced” by the Western modern...

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Harry H. Kuoshu (essay date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kuoshu, Harry H. “Will Godot Come by Bus or through a Trace? Discussion of a Chinese Absurdist Play.” Modern Drama 41, no. 3 (fall 1998): 461-73.

[In the following essay, Kuoshu compares Bus Stop to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and explores the motif of waiting in both plays in terms of their different cultural contexts.]

The Bus-Stop, written by Gao Xingjian and performed by The People's Art Theater of Beijing, is a Chinese lyrical comedy that emerged with a group of experimental plays in Beijing in the early 1980s.1 The play creates a bizarre situation of waiting, and its resemblance to Samuel Beckett's Waiting...

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Olivier Burckhardt (essay date April 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burckhardt, Olivier. “The Voice of One in the Wilderness.” Quadrant 44, no. 4 (April 2000): 54-7.

[In the following essay, Burckhardt discusses Gao's plays in terms of the theme of self-exploration and the search for individual identity.]

Occasionally there is an individual who has the courage not to represent, or identify with, any group whatsoever. Gao Xingjian has been described as the leading dramatist of avant-garde Chinese theatre; an author who has forged new paths in Chinese prose writing; and a painter of international repute. Although such descriptions aim to portray his activities in complimentary terms, they fail to grasp the individual. The...

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Olivier Burckhardt (review date September 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burckhardt, Olivier. “Journey without End.” Quadrant 44, no. 9 (September 2000): 84-5.

[In the following review, Burckhardt examines Gao's experimental use of narrative voice in Soul Mountain.]

Lingshan (soul-mountain) is a quasi-mythological place “where wonderful things can be seen, where suffering and pain can be forgotten, and where one can find freedom.” There are many Lingshans in China but “soul-mountain” is also a Buddhist name for heaven.

Begun in 1982 when Gao returned to Beijing after a fifteen-thousand-kilometre journey through central and eastern China over a period of five months, Soul Mountain was finished in...

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Howard Goldblatt (review date autumn 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldblatt, Howard. Review of The Other Shore, by Gao Xingjian. World Literature Today 74, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 801-02.

[In the following review of The Other Shore, a collection of Gao's plays in English translation, Goldblatt praises the introduction and the translation of the works by Gilbert Fong.]

Gao Xingjian is, as the editor/translator of The Other Shore states in his introduction, a major figure in world drama, and the most innovative, if not the most famous, playwright China has produced in this century (one recalls Cao Yu). Yet he is not well represented in the West, if one excludes the acclaim he has garnered in France, his...

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Beverly Beyette and Reed Johnson (essay date 13 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Beyette, Beverly, and Reed Johnson. “Author's Seminal Work Not Yet on U.S. Shelves.” Los Angeles Times (13 October 2000): A17.

[In the following essay, Beyette and Johnson discuss the significance of Gao being awarded the Nobel Prize to the international recognition of Chinese literature.]

No one was more thrilled on hearing that Gao Xingjian had won the Nobel Prize in literature than Dr. Mabel Lee, the Australian academic who translated his seminal novel, Soul Mountain, into English. “He is an artist, a very elegant writer,” she says.

Lee, who recently retired as a professor of Chinese literature and history at the University...

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John-Thor Dahlburg (essay date 13 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dahlburg, John-Thor. “Chinese Exile Gao Xingjian of France Gets Nobel Literature Prize.” Los Angeles Times (13 October 2000): A17.

[In the following essay, Dahlburg provides an overview of Gao's literary career in terms of his controversial reception by the Chinese government.]

After nearly a century of existence, the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded Thursday for the first time to a writer in the world's most-used language, dissident Chinese exile Gao Xingjian, whose works are banned in his native land.

Now a citizen of France, Gao's life and work mirror the tumult of modern China, while blending Chinese themes with narrative forms...

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Anthony Kuhn (essay date 16 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kuhn, Anthony. “To Many in China, Author's Nobel Is No Prize.” Los Angeles Times (16 October 2000): E1, E4.

[In the following essay, Kuhn explores the response of Chinese government officials, writers, and literary scholars to Gao's winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature.]

For the many Chinese who have long hoped that the Nobel Prize in literature would be awarded to a Chinese cultural luminary, thereby bringing recognition to their country's rich literary traditions, last week's winner came as a rude shock.

What they got, with the selection of experimental playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian, was a writer whose works few Chinese know;...

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Julia Lovell (essay date 20 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lovell, Julia. “Nobel Prize for Literature 2000.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5090 (20 October 2000): 15.

[In the following essay, Lovell evaluates the significance of Gao's winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature to his status as a self-exiled dissident Chinese writer and to Western conceptions of Chinese literature.]

“The Nobel Literature Prize has been used for ulterior political motives, and is not worth commenting on.” (Chinese Foreign Ministry, October 13, 2000). The awarding, last week, of the Nobel prize for Literature to Gao Xingjian was instantly politicized, partly thanks to Beijing's hardliners, who responded to the announcement by...

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Carol J. Williams (essay date 1 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Carol J. “Dubious Maneuvers Soil Nobel.” Los Angeles Times (1 November 2000): A1, A6.

[In the following essay, Williams contends that the Swedish Academy's Nobel Prize committee has a conflict of interest that puts into question the validity of Gao's winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature.]

Somewhere between shameless promoter of personal interests and champion of a once little-known literary talent from China stands an unapologetic Goran Malmquist, a member of the Swedish Academy whose behavior in this year's Nobel literature prize selection has besmirched the world of letters' sanctum sanctorum.

A retired Stockholm University...

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Jennifer K. Ruark (essay date 8 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ruark, Jennifer K. “Hot Type.” Chronicle of Higher Education 47, no. 15 (8 December 2000): A18.

[In the following essay, Ruark assesses the publishing history of Gao's works in English translation.]


American readers looking for books by Gao Xingjian, this year's Nobel laureate in literature, may have wondered if they were banned in the United States as well as in China. Until this week, only one volume of his works was available: a collection of plays titled The Other Shore.

The Swedish Academy singled out Mr. Gao's novel Soul Mountain for praise when it announced the prize in October, but...

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Jonathan Levi (review date 17 December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Internal Exile.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 December 2000): 2.

[In the following review, Levi examines the experimental narrative voice in Soul Mountain.]

In its occasionally quixotic battle for universalism, the Swedish Academy often awards the Nobel Prize for literature to a writer whose name is greeted with surprise and ignorance by the world press. (One doesn't have to search too far back in the annals to unearth Vicente Aleixandre in 1977, or Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who shared the prize in 1974, about whom ignorance is still almost complete.)

This year's winner, Chinese expatriate Gao Xingjian, is...

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Sylvia Li-Chun Lin (essay date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lin, Sylvia Li-Chun. “Between the Individual and the Collective: Gao Xingjian's Fiction.” World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 12-18.

[In the following essay, Lin offers an overview of Gao's works to Western readers unfamiliar with his oeuvre, focusing on the theme of individual versus collective rights and responsibilities in Gao's plays and fiction.]

When the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced on 12 October 2000, many people in the United States and in the People's Republic of China were wondering just who Gao Xingjian was. It was not a totally invalid question for American observers, since he was virtually unknown here...

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Yan Haiping (essay date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Haiping, Yan. “Theatrical Impulse and Posthumanism: Gao Xingjiang's ‘Another Kind of Dream.’” World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 20-9.

[In the following essay, Haiping discusses the theme of posthumanism and the individual in Gao's dramatic works.]

Chinese drama since the late 1970s, like other forms of art and literature of the era, began as an emotionally charged negation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and developed as a multi-dimensional reflection on the turbulent history of contemporary China, fueled by the rapidly unfolding and violently changing forces of what has been called “modernization.”1 Many emerging...

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Fatima Wu (review date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wu, Fatima. Review of Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 101.

[In the following review, Wu explores Gao's narrative voice and the theme of the collective search for the meaning of life in Soul Mountain.]

Gao Xingjian was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1982. Faced with imminent death, he began to gorge himself with sumptuous food and to immerse himself in reading in an old graveyard in a Beijing suburb. However, a second examination revoked the first diagnosis, and Gao was then returned to the human world. It was at this time that he left the city of Beijing to begin his 15,000-kilometer journey from central...

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Gao Xingjian, Mabel Lee, and Susan Salter Reynolds (interview date 27 February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Xingjian, Gao, Mabel Lee, and Susan Salter Reynolds. “The World According to Gao.” Los Angeles Times (27 February 2001): E1, E4.

[In the following interview, Gao and Lee, the English-language translator of Soul Mountain, discusses the theme of love and male-female relationships in Gao's body of work.]

There ought to be a Nobel Prize for readers. Consider the terrible isolation of the reader, for example, turning the pages of Gao Xingjian's Nobel Prize-winning novel, Soul Mountain, a beautiful, confusing, thought-demanding book full of questions and no answers. Whom can you talk to about the self and the soul and the constrictions of culture?...

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David Mehegan (essay date 7 March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mehegan, David. “The Man Who Can't Be ‘We.’” Boston Globe (7 March 2001): A17.

[In the following essay, Mehegan asserts that Gao acts as a spokesperson for individual freedoms through his works of drama and fiction.]

Standing alone at the podium, a slender Chinese man in a black suit spoke softly. All around and high above, the concave amphitheater at Harvard University was packed to overflowing with people, primarily Chinese, of all ages, hanging on his measured words. An interpreter stood at a microphone nearby.

The room was hot and airless, but Gao Xingjian, the 2000 Nobel laureate for literature, was a kind of cool island. His...

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W. J. F. Jenner (review date 9 March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jenner, W. J. F. “Heading for the Hills.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5110 (9 March 2001): 22.

[In the following review, Jenner argues that Soul Mountain is a book about a male mid-life crisis and criticizes the English translation of the novel, noting the “clumsiness of expression in virtually every paragraph.”]

So you are climbing this mountain—which mountain?—almost any mountain in central or southwest China—searching for you don't quite know what. Or perhaps you are wandering around the streets of country towns, drawn by the ambiance folklorique. Sometimes you are catching up on a spot of archaeology and ruminating on...

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Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas (review date summer 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey. Review of Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 2 (summer 2001): 161.

[In the following review, Twitchell-Waas asserts that the primary achievement of Soul Mountain is Gao's experimental use of narrative voice throughout the novel.]

Although last year Gao Xingjian became China's first Nobel laureate (much to the annoyance of Beijing), until very recently little of this remarkable dramatist and fiction writer's work has appeared in English. The first of Gao's two big novels, Soul Mountain is an autobiographical, highly episodic epic that follows the protagonist's wanderings throughout...

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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date summer 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian. Virginia Quarterly Review 77, no. 3 (summer 2001): 98.

[In the following review, the critic contends that Gao's narrative structure in Soul Mountain requires patience on the part of the reader and that the novel may not hold the attention of readers looking for a conventional storyline.]

Soul Mountain, the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in literature, requires its readers to have patience. Patience, for example, to believe that the short, episodic chapters are leading toward a cohesive whole. Patience, to wait for a narrator split into four personal pronouns—I, you, he, and she—to deliver a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Eder, Richard. “A Dreamlike Chinese Journey Haunted by Past and Present.” New York Times (18 December 2000): E1.

Eder evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Soul Mountain.

Goldblatt, Howard, editor. Worlds Apart: Recent Chinese Writing and Its Audience. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1990.

Goldblatt presents a collection of essays on a variety of contemporary Chinese writers, including Gao.

Pan, Philip P. “Nobel of Little Note.” Washington Post (14 October 2000): C3.

Pan discusses the response of the Chinese government to Gao's winning of the Nobel...

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