Gao Xingjian

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Xiaomei Chen (essay date fall 1992)

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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 theater—by such people as “the formidable French dramatist, God-madman, Antonin Artaud,” and “a host of writers and theorists of the Theater of the Absurd.”3 The Western critics were unanimous in reviewing The Bus Stop as “the first play to introduce elements of the Theater of the Absurd to a Chinese audience.”4 Their Chinese counterparts, likewise, expressed a similar view. One of the striking features of The Bus Stop, as Wang Xining argued in a review in China Daily, is that it successfully “dissected modern Chinese urban society in a manner reminiscent of Beckett's Waiting for Godot.5

However, Wildman, the third of Gao Xingjian's plays to be performed, elicited a quite different critical response. On the one hand, some Chinese and Western critics were still enthusiastic about its Western style and technique. Others, however, pointed to a new turn in Gao's interest, one which drew on the rich resources of Chinese theatrical traditions. Those who celebrated the return of Chinese tradition in Gao's latest play insisted that it owed its success mainly to its endeavor to enrich “the range of expression open to artists in all performing arts in China.”6 What is perhaps most interesting in this critical disagreement is the way that it heightens our awareness of the complexity of cultural relations which underlie the play, and leads to what has already become a central question about it—is the play primarily founded on a Chinese or Western model? This disagreement about Wildman has been further complicated by Gao's own declaration of intention which stresses his allegiance to the classical Chinese traditions in theater. In the “Postscript” to the published form of the play, Gao explains that Wildman is an attempt to realize his ideal of establishing a “modern theater” by drawing on traditional Chinese operas characterized by its artistic techniques of chang (singing), nian (speech), zuo (acting), and da (acrobatics).7 Interestingly enough, in characterizing this native Chinese tradition Gao uses the term “Total Theater”—a term which cannot fail to suggest to the Western consciousness the work of Antonin Artaud, and indeed the whole Gesamtkunstwerk tradition since Wagner—to designate his “ideal” theater in which artists would easily “recover many Chinese artistic techniques already lost in the last century.”8

Gao explicitly claims in his “Postscript” that this play does not attempt to win over its audience by the art of dialogue, a feature which he associates with the Western drama; instead, he claims, Wildman seeks a full employment of the traditional Chinese operatic, and above all, non-verbal techniques of dance, music, images, costumes, and make-up to compose a “dramatic symphony” which consists of several different themes, themes which overlap harmonies and disharmonies in order to fashion a “polyphony.” In Wildman, therefore, both language and music are used in such a way that they create a kind of “multi-voicedness.” Just as a symphony seeks to create “a total musical image,” Gao asserts, Wildman “tends to realize a total effect of action through multi-voicedness, counterpoints, contrasts and repetitions.”9

(This entire section contains 8379 words.)

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9 For the visual aspect of the play, Gao symphonizes a “multi-layer-visual-image” through the use of dance, flash-back scenes, shadows, and movements. Each actor in Wildman, therefore, must possess the “skills required by the traditional Chinese theater”: he must perform at once as a dancer, a singer, an acrobat as well as a speaking character. Costuming, our playwright demands, should not only be strikingly bright in color, as is required by the traditional theater to enhance the visual and physical effect on the senses of the audience, but it should also “truthfully reflect the local color of the mountain area along the Yellow River” which provides the play with its geographical background. A faithful portrayal of the primitive and natural lifestyle of the mountain folks, Gao Xingjian insists, is crucial for a successful production of the play. Fortunately, Lin Zhaohua, the Beijing director of Wildman, fundamentally preserved the “Chineseness” that Gao Xingjian so painstakingly spelled out. Wildman was for the most part performed in local dialect of the Sichuan Province, with episodic scenes which remind one of the traditional “opera-drama sketches,” mixed up with local folk songs, national minority dances, and Han epic singing.

In addition to the traditional Chinese theatrical conventions consciously explored both by the playwright and the director, Wildman's dramatic structure and theme are also indigenously Chinese. Unlike Western drama, which usually has an Aristotelian plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end, Wildman carries no obvious storyline. Instead, the play consists of a series of diverse episodes peopled by nameless characters who move in a more or less definite and identifiable place. The play is set in contemporary China in the rapidly-vanishing virgin forest of Sichuan province where some scientists and local people believe in the existence of wildmen, a sort of man-like monkey which is believed to offer the much sought “missing link” of traditional evolutionary theory. A nameless scientist, designated in the script only by the character name “ecologist,” goes into the forest to undertake research on wildmen, hoping to learn not only something about these strange “living fossils,” but also about the preservation of a living and natural environment which he believes is ultimately linked to the continuation of the human species.

In his travels the ecologist encounters lumber men, wood-cutters, and local “cadres”—bureaucrats who make their fame and living by destroying the forests. By virtue of their occupations, all of these people threaten the living environment of wildmen and thus come into conflict with the ecologist. In the course of the play he also sets himself in opposition to other city-dwellers who, like him, have ventured into the forests for the sake of tracing the whereabouts of the wildmen, though motivated by purposes quite different from his own. A newspaper man—again the character has no name and is designated only by his profession—for instance, is merely interested in hunting for “hot” or “exotic” news to please his readers in the city. Similarly, scientists representing opposing sides in a scholarly debate are at work collecting data only to prove or disprove the existence of the wildmen. Unlike the ecologist, they have no interest in investigating living creatures and their environmental conditions in order to protect them. They bribe innocent local people, especially children who cannot even understand the issues at stake, in order to prove the existence or non-existence of wildmen, thus bringing about quarrels, disputes, and disharmony in the mountain village in which peace, unity, and harmony once prevailed.

Another episodic strain of the play concerns a school teacher who devotes all his time and energy attempting to rescue an epic of the Han nationality—the only one of its kind—by writing down the performance of an old and dying epic rhapsodist. This epic, The Song of Darkness, recounts the history and development of the Han nationality from the time of its childhood—when it first began to separate itself from the wildman—up to the present time. Because of its nature and scope, the ecologist and teacher believe that the epic should be regarded as a “national treasure” which is “as precious as panda and wildman” for the Chinese nation. Integrated into this episode are other overlapping themes and “subplots” which deal with problematic and still unanswered questions in contemporary China about love, marriage, ethics, custom, tradition, corruption, and even ideological issues left unresolved from the Cultural Revolution.

Wildman is infinitely more complex than what I have just indicated here, but enough has been said, I think, to indicate the ways in which the play offers a view of an exceedingly problematic world that is full of contradictions and disharmonies. Yet unexpectedly at the end of the play we are offered an episode which is connected with many of the play's diverse concerns. Here a wildman appears to a little boy in a dream. The wildman imitates the boy's language and gesture, dancing with him happily, running with him into the depth of the forest. While these actions are taking place, the audience becomes increasingly aware of the epic singing and folk music which grows louder and more prominent in order to furnish an accompaniment to the scene. Central to this moment in the play's economy is a silent but nonetheless real “dialogue” between this child of modern man and his predecessor, between “mankind and Nature.”10 The image created by this last scene, one so strongly suggestive of harmony and cosmic totality, is clearly related to the spectacular ending of the traditional Chinese theater that overwhelms its audience with a Gesamtkunstwerk-like effect of singing, dancing and acting. Such an ending thematically embraces the Taoist vision of a harmony between nature and culture. It provides its audience with a catharsis that supposedly enabled them to come to grips with the cosmic and mythological forces in the universe. As the director of the play, Lin Zhaohua, points out: ultimately Wildman is about harmony, “a harmony between people and their nation, a harmony among people themselves. It urges the audience to think about its relationship to nature and to culture, especially ancient culture.”11 It seems clear, then, that both in form and content Wildman can be viewed as a contemporary restoration of the theatrical, cultural, and philosophical traditions of China.

Yet, it would be a serious mistake to see in Gao Xingjian's play only a recuperation of indigenous Chinese traditions. As the terminology in which Gao describes his play suggests, anyone at all acquainted with the modern Western theater will not fail to be immediately impressed by the way it seems to exploit conceptions of the theater strikingly similar to those advocated by Antonin Artaud's notion of “the total theater” and Brecht's theory of “epic theater.” Artaud, of course, spent much of his life longing for a theater of “a pure action,” a theater of a latent force beyond rational speech or language, beyond “a written text” and “a literary tradition.” He therefore sought to create a theater wholly unlike the Western theater of his time, one which would present an “archetypal and dangerous reality, a reality of which the Principles … hurry to dive back into the obscurity of the deep.”12 Artaud believed that fixed text, language, reason, order, even civilization itself with its attendant traditions, were barriers to the human spirit. He therefore called for a theater of physicality that was to create “a metaphysics of speech, gesture, and expression” which would be capable of throwing its spectators back to real life, not by imitation or illusion, but by a mystical, ritual, primitive, or archetypal spectacle of signs and gestures which spoke for the anti-rational element in human experience. Artaud therefore proposed to resort to mass spectacle, providing his audience with a “pure experience” which would create a sensation of totality, awakening in them an intuitive force which was expressed in a theater of the body. If language is used at all, Artaud observed, it must be a language beyond words and senses capable of evoking that which cannot be spoken. He therefore called his ideal theater “a sacred theater” because it was to have “the solemnity of a sacred rite.”13 Thus the Artaudian theater aims at a more universal, primordial force deeper than any psychological or social reality, a force that touches on “an idea of Chaos, an idea of the Marvelous, an idea of Equilibrium.”14

All of these Artaudian elements of the theater can easily be identified in Wildman. By means of non-verbal elements, Wildman provides for its audiences the kind of total and physical experience that Artaud so painstakingly emphasized. The time span of 8,000 years in Wildman's action and its invocation to Pan Gu, the Chinese God of creation in the primordial times, suggest to its spectators a cosmic view of the universe. The sharp contrast between the non-verbal, primitive wildman and the verbal but confused, problematic modern man shocks the spectators and thus attempts to throw them into a mystical and ritual experience which is “deeper than any psychological or social realities.” The world of Wildman extends far beyond the boundaries of anything uniquely Chinese and modern; indeed, the play seems finally concerned with issues that belong to a world much larger than that which is codified in the details of its dialogue, language, and setting. Much of the effect of the play is achieved by its spectacular physicality which seeks to create the sensation that Artaud said would simultaneously “touch on Creation, Becoming, and Chaos.”15

To a large extent, then, Wildman participates in the traditions of the Artaudian theater with its “passionate equation between Man, Society, Nature and Objects.”16 All of these concerns are crystallized in the last scene where, as we have already seen, amidst a mixture of pantomime, mimicry, and musical harmonies and rhythms, a wildman, the image of the primitive and the natural, dances with a little boy, a symbol of the childhood of civilization. At the end of the play, we are provided with the following stage directions:

They [the wild man and Xi Mao, the little boy] run onto an elevation at the back of the stage. XI MAO does a forward roll. He turns expectantly to the WILD MAN, who clumsily does the same. XI MAO runs, calling to the WILD MAN, who runs after him. They play hide and seek. XI MAO looks out from behind a stone. The WILD MAN sees him and runs toward him. XI MAO runs toward the elevation, and the WILD MAN follows. Gently, music starts and their movements slow down until they look as though they are in a slow-motion film. Then they perform a dance. XI MAO is nimble, the WILD MAN clumsy. When XI MAO and the WILD MAN play together, the WILD MAN tends to copy XI MAO's movements, even when in slow motion. The WILD MAN should always have his back to the audience. XI MAO draws back into an area of light at the rear of the stage, in front of a backdrop depicting the forest. All performers enter wearing makes, each mask expressing a different shade of emotion. The “happier” masks should be in the center of the stage. All move slowly toward the WILD MAN, to the rhythm of the LUMBERJACKS' dance and the melody from the song of the TEAM OF SISTERS. The sad cries of the OLD SINGER are heard, gradually fading out. XI MAO is seen and faintly heard saying, “xia, xia, a shame, xia, xia, xia. xia. A shame, a … shame.” Curtain.17

All these and other theatrical conventions seek to put the audience into a state prior to language and therefore help them to break away from the intellectual subjugation of the language, thus conveying to them a sense of “a new and a deeper intellectuality which hides itself beneath the gestures and signs, raised to the dignity of particular exorcisms.”18 With this world of “the Absolutes” and “the invisible” cosmic forces, Wildman also meets the demands of the Artaudian theater for a “a religious ritual,” and therefore moves towards what Leonard Pronko has characterized as “that meeting point where human and nonhuman, meaning and chaos, finite and infinite, come together.”19

Yet, as soon as we have identified the similarities between Wildman and its Western counterparts, we are also tempted to “decenter” this claim by arguing for the opposite “truth.” Artaud emphasizes the dynamics of action and the higher forces of violent physical images that “crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator.” He even went so far as to exclude from the theatre any “copy of life,” or any concern with aspect of social and psychological realities.20 Within his limited concern of trying to restore theater to its original direction, to “reinstate it in its religious and metaphysical aspect,” Artaud makes explicit that his theater must “break with actuality,” and that its object must not be to “resolve social or psychological conflicts” or “to serve as battlefield for moral passions.” The function of theater, he insists, is to express objectively certain secret truths that “have been buried under forms in their encounters with Becoming.”21 For him, language, tradition, and the theatrical masterpieces of the past are responsible for the decline of the Western theater. If a contemporary public does not understand Oedipus Rex, he argues, it is the fault of this ancient Greek play, not of the public, since the latter has learned too well that the theater frequently deals with the themes of incest, morality, falsehood, and illusion. A concentration on social realities and their attendant problems is regarded in the Artaudian model as being outside of the legitimate concern or the proper domain of theater.

In recognizing this claim of Artaud's “total theater,” we are immediately brought face-to-face with the way that Wildman rejects some of Artaud's demands. There can be no denying that Wildman is firmly foregrounded in the contemporary Chinese society; its concerns, as we have noted earlier, are occasional in the best sense of that term. Though its episodic structure forecloses the possibility of its offering a “solution” at the end of the play, Wildman nonetheless raises in a striking and even direct way unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions about love, marriage, tradition, bureaucracy, science, morality, and even the current national preoccupation with ecology and environmental protection. It is true that Wildman can be categorized as a traditional dance and music drama, and that in this sense it seems to meet Artaud's demand for a form of theater that is closely related to ritual and religious ceremony. But it is also true that its basic thematic matter is concerned with a conflict between nature and culture that is specific to a moment in late twentieth-century Chinese history. In fact, precisely because these thematic concerns are historically so far removed from the primitive and the ritual experience in which they are theatrically mediated to us, the play is able to go beyond Artaud by combining that sense of primitive “magic culture,” which Artaud's theater seeks, with much that is not Artaudian—an entirely modern world with its own social and psychological dimensions.

The same dichotomy between that which belongs to the “total theater” and that which does not becomes apparent when we attempt to locate the kinds of theatrical gestures and movements which Wildman employs. From one perspective the play's actions seem to look back to that moment when religious ceremony emerged from its purely ritualistic origins and was transformed into the beginnings of what we know as theater.22 On the other hand, the play's action definitely goes beyond the first beginnings of the theater. It includes elements which we associate with a “mature” theater, with its combination of the verbal with the non-verbal, the actual with the imaginative, the social with the psychological, and above all, the sensational with the individual. Wildman is at once descriptive and narrative, spectacular and physical. The opposing claims for the traditional and the modern, the intellectual and the physical—seen by Artaud as irreconcilable or as hurled against each other—are here coupled together. It is perhaps in this sense that Wildman realizes the ideal of a theater of “totality” which goes well beyond Artaud's demands and in which the basic disparity between self and others, subject and object, reason and sensations, language and signs are finally engulfed and united.

But Artaud is not the only Western theoretician of the drama whose work is relevant to Wildman. Gao Xingjian observes in his “Postscript” that Wildman's emphasis on the mise en scène and spectacle does not aim at creating verisimilitude. It is intended, on the contrary, for reminding “its audience that it is acting,” not real life. Gao therefore expressly requires that masks be used in the production of Wildman in order to emphasize the dichotomies, contradictions or multi-voicedness within the characters. At the outset of the play, the actor who plays the part of the ecologist steps out of his character and exhorts his audience to enjoy the play fully without worrying about the whereabouts of the actors, who may sometimes appear sitting in the audience. There need not be, he implies, any barriers between the world of the audience and the world of the play. In the middle of the play, for instance, the ecologist takes off his mask more than once in order to assume his identity as an actor. In this guise he recites poems and provides background information. Earlier, at the outset of the play, he even “narrates” what would normally be regarded as stage directions and theatrical comments. In this way, the actor openly disowns his character. He calls attention to his many different roles—the ecologist, the actor who plays the ecologist, and a stage director. He is, he reminds us, at different times all of these figures, and yet he is “really” none of them. Such a discourse seems intended to prevent us from establishing an emotional identification with the ecologist or any other character. All of these devices are suggestive of the Brechtian theater, of course. In his article “The Wildman and I,” Gao Xingjian openly admits such a Brechtian influence, especially as concerns the now classic theory of the “alienation effect.”23 For him, Brechtian distancing devices help break down the conventional notion of the theater as representation of real life.24

But just as our observation of the Artaudian elements in Wildman led us also to see the presence of the opposite, so here too the Brechtian nature of the drama is undercut in our very act of recognizing its presence. Brecht's “alienation effect” aims basically and fundamentally at keeping the spectators from being emotionally involved so that they can intellectually contemplate the possible meanings of the play. In the “Postscript” to Wildman, however, Gao Xingjian paradoxically specifies that the director should create in the play a kind of “cordial atmosphere” in which the actors directly communicate with the audience (a Brechtian technique as well as one that recalls the works of Thornton Wilder) so that the audience can feel free and happy to participate in the total experience of the theater, as if they were enjoying an entertainment during a festival (a notion which is decidedly un-Brechtian). The production, our playwright specifies, should also leave enough time between each act so that the audience is able to think intellectually, reflect, and ponder over what they have just experienced. Wildman, therefore, offers its audiences a multiple, polyvalent, and even contradictory experience in which the body and mind, the primitive and the contemporary, the universal and the local, the sensational and the intellectual, the subjective and the objective, the illusionary and the actual are all joyfully united and combined. It is at once Brechtian and anti-Brechtian, Artaudian and anti-Artaudian. It is at once both and yet neither.

Gao Xingjian's Wildman, therefore, presents to us a strange and yet stimulating dramatic phenomenon which raises in a radical way a number of theoretical issues that are not restricted to “the dramatic” in the narrower sense of that term, but which reach into the theory of literature in general, and, as the rest of this study will suggest, into the theory and practice of Comparative Literature in particular. Gao's play raises questions of the first order about the “canonical” practice of “influence studies,” and it is to this concern, both relevant for the comparative study of dramatic texts and non-dramatic texts, to which I shall now turn.

Ulrich Weisstein has said: “the notion of influence must be regarded as virtually the key concept in Comparative Literature studies, since it posits the presence of two distinct and therefore comparable entities: the work from which the influence proceeds and that [to] which it is directed.”25 That is to say, cross-cultural literary studies, as a comparative discipline, have depended largely on the “key notion of influence studies” which are characterized as one-to-one relationships between “emitter” and “receiver” texts. At first sight, the general concerns of this essay—the relationship between one national theater and that of the other—seem to be the proper subject for these kinds of “influence studies.”26 On further consideration, however, these concerns can be seen to raise, perhaps in a radical way, theoretical questions on the validity and legitimacy of such traditionally conceived “influence studies.” It will be the burden of the rest of this essay to set the discussion on Wildman, and the Western dramatic theories on which it seems to draw, within a broader context of some critical theories of canon formation in the West and the East alike.27

As our discussion of Wildman has already suggested, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible, to determine which cultural tradition evoked in Wildman is the “emitter” and which is the “receiver.” Did the Chinese traditional theater influence the West by means of Brecht's theories, which, as Brecht himself admitted, were derived in some sense from Chinese sources? In that case, Chinese theories of drama made a detour through Western cultural traditions only to come back to China to exert an influence on the modern Chinese theater. Or did Artaud and Brecht influence Gao Xingjian, who, in turn, found in the West that which had been lost in the contemporary Chinese theater? Or is it, more simply, the case that Gao reached back into his own national traditions to create his play?28 To raise these questions is to see that it is impossible simply to posit the “presence of two distinct and therefore comparable entities.”

The question of whether Wildman is indigenously “Chinese” or characteristically “Western” can here be seen as deeply puzzling. Wildman appears to be both, and yet, it can never be “proven” to be one or the other. As we have seen earlier, Wildman has been received as the most “Chinese” play Gao has ever written, and this very “Chineseness” in the play has even been declared as part of his own attempt to rescue modern Chinese theater from being too much influenced by its Western counterparts. However, as soon as we have discovered everything that can be identified as “Chinese,” these characteristics can immediately be “decentered” in order to prove just the opposite claim. We might, then, be tempted to say that the play is the product of Western influence. But clearly the matter can not be solved so facilely. Furthermore, talking about the play's “Westerness” invites yet another confusion: one perceives at the same moment the Artaudian as well as the anti-Artaudian elements, the Brechtian as well as the anti-Brechtian characteristics. It seems pertinent, therefore, to first of all attempt to “decide,” if ever possible, the nature of “Chineseness” and of “Westerness” in the context of our discussion before one can even begin to discuss, and therefore to challenge, the concept of the relationship between an “emitter” and a “receiver” in the traditional mode of “influence studies.”

But our difficulties are not due solely to the complications and contradictions embedded in the term “Western dramatic tradition.” The words “Chineseness” and “the Chinese theater” have a similar long and seemingly “confusing” history, and this history is further complicated, in the West at least, by generations of Western critical acts of “misreading” and “misunderstanding.”29 As Leonard C. Pronko has rightly pointed out in his Theater East and West, the traditional Chinese theater “has had a history of singular mis-comprehension and mis-interpretation in the West.”30 When one considers the sheer difficulty of communicating across cultural boundaries, it is easy to agree with Pronko's claim. But Pronko's implied evaluation of misunderstanding and misreading, common as they are, constitutes at best only a partially valid view of these activities. Pronko assumes that “mis-comprehension” and “mis-interpretation” are undesirable activities, and that it is the task of cross-cultural studies to remove them. But as a good deal of recent literary theory has insisted, “misreading” and “misunderstanding” are not wholly negative actions. On the contrary, for critics like T. S. Eliot and Harold Bloom, these once-thought “negative” activities are the means by which literary history is made and—I would add—cross-cultural influence takes place.

For Eliot, Bloom, and a number of other theorists, Western literary production is motivated by an intense quest for the novel, or the apparently new. “Strong” writers and critics seek ways of escaping—or apparently escaping—the “father” tradition in which they have been formed, and the process of “misunderstanding” and “misreading” provided a convenient means for their accomplishing this goal. In an attempt to say what apparently had not been said before, some Western writers turned, and continue to turn, to the novelty of exotic literature. But the exotic literature was not studied or appropriated for its own sake. Rather it was appropriated and reworked for the apparent strangeness which it offered to audiences. Yet paradoxically, the otherness could not be allowed to remain as otherness, for in order for Western audiences to appropriate it in some way, the strange had to be made familiar; the exotic had to be domesticated, even if in the process it ceased to be exotic. To take a specific example, eighteenth-century European writers, motivated by an “anxiety of influence,” turned to classical Chinese drama as a source of novelty. Yet in order to make these strange texts comprehensible, they “misread” them by making them conform to traditions of Western drama. Let us first of all consider briefly the process by which this paradoxical transformation took place.

Fan Xiheng, in his essay “From The Orphan of Chao to Orphelin de la Chine,” describes for us a brief history of the transformation of a Chinese drama from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) into Western dramatic repertory. This Yuan drama, known as The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Chao (Zhaoshi gu'er dabaochou), is attributed to Ji Junxiang and was first performed in China around the thirteenth century. The same play was later re-written by another anonymous author under the title of The Story of the Orphan of Chao (Zhaoshi gu'er ji). According to Fan Xiheng, Ji Junxiang's Yuan drama was first translated into French in the 1730s, which brought about other translations into English, German, Italian, and Russian.31 This Chinese Yuan play has thus over the centuries inspired several generations of Western dramatists such as the Englishman William Hatchett, who adopted Ji's Chinese story into his The Chinese Orphan, and the Italian playwright Pietro Metastasio, who wrote his own version of Eroe Cinese, to name only a few. A better-known case, of course, is Voltaire's Orphelin de la Chine, which was so successful in its Paris premier that it was immediately translated into Italian and English. Yet, this process of transformation was by no means a one-way street. Not only did the original Chinese text inspire Western readers, but Chinese readers, upon reading their Western peers' re-creation of the Chinese text, did not hesitate to translate these Western texts back into Chinese language again. During the Second World War, for instance, a Chinese writer by the name of Zhang Ruogu translated Voltaire's French play, which was originally based on Ji's Chinese orphan story, into an abridged prose version “in order to raise the morale of the Chinese people in their struggle against Japanese invaders.”32

Among several Western transformations mentioned above, one of the earliest “creative misreadings” was William Hatchett's well-known adaptation of the Chinese Yuan drama, published in England in 1741. He attracted his audience and gained a certain amount of notoriety for himself by his “new” work with a borrowed “exotic” story and a foreign “parentage.” Having to cope with the burden of his own Western tradition in order to find for himself a place in his own cultural tradition, Hatchett “creatively” distorted the Chinese Yuan play and actually presented it as “an English neo-classic play, observing the unity of time,” though in fact his Chinese “father” story takes place over some twenty-five years.33 It is clear that the so-called “Chinese influence” at this early stage of cultural exchange amounts to nothing more than an expression of the European taste for the exotic, the different, the dissimilar which must be garbed in Western clothing to make it attractive. The image of the “Chinese theater” that Hatchett's work suggests is only a Westerner's own arbitrary interpretation—or, better, “misinterpretation” and “misunderstanding”—of it. It is a product of a Western search for things “anew”—foreign manners, interesting events, plots or characters of curiosity. Yet in Hatchett's play these elements end up pathetically conforming to the older taste and tradition for which they were intended as an antidote, in this case, the neo-classical theater.

But this account is not complete in itself. It does not represent a naive moment in Chinese-Western cultural relationships. Attempts like Hatchett's to offer to the West such distorted and “creative” introductions of the Chinese theater decisively shape the literary and theatrical expectations of the Chinese theater. The word “Chineseness,” therefore, inescapably means for the eighteenth century English audience something drastically different from what it meant in its original Chinese setting. Such audiences found in the Oriental theater what on first consideration seemed not available in their own. And these “exotic” elements “found” there and “introduced” to the West were always strikingly different from their Chinese “sources” in terms of stylization, symbolizing, movement, make-up, and music. Even in the twentieth century, despite increasing knowledge of contacts with China and Chinese scholars, the reception of the Chinese theatrical tradition by figures like Bertolt Brecht was still to some extent inspired by a “creative” misunderstanding of the ingenious works of his foreign “critical” fathers and appropriated in such a way as to enrich his own limited space of “imagination.” Since Brecht appeared on the historical scene much later than his “fathers” like Hatchett and Voltaire, he explored with much more vigor than his predecessors what had been left unsaid in the Western reception of the Chinese theater. In order to outwit his Western predecessors, Brecht's “creative misreading” of the Chinese dramatic tradition was, to employ again the mechanism described in T. S. Eliot's “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a conforming and a surrendering to the two cultural traditions. At the same time, of course, it was an oedipal rebellion against both.

Brecht's concept of “Verfremdungseffekt” first occurred in his essay entitled “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” written in 1936, occasioned by Brecht's seeing Mei Lanfang's performance in Moscow. As his article reveals, Brecht was deeply impressed by the Chinese actor “who constantly keeps a distance between himself, his character, and the spectator. … Consequently he never loses control of himself; his performance is constantly on a conscious, artistic level with all emotion transposed.”34 As Pronko rightly points out, however, Brecht's “alienation effect” was a product of nothing more than his “misunderstanding” of the Chinese stage conventions. Chinese spectators were expected to react emotionally to the sad or happy scenes in Chinese opera. Pronko has also observed that Chinese music, originally used to appeal to deep emotions, was interpreted by Brecht as a means to break illusion and to establish a distance.35 In terms of the present argument, Brecht rebelled against his Western “father critics,” who first introduced the Chinese theater to the West, by pointing out those elements of “Chineseness” in the Chinese theater which they failed to perceive. He was therefore no longer interested in the exotic foreign manners and curious plots, as were his predecessors. Above all, he was not interested in seeing the Chinese tradition as “classical” and hence Aristotelian. His notion of “alienation effect” which he believed to be “Chinese,” however, as Pronko has rightly pointed out, “inspired” only his own version of reading the Chinese performing arts. His “unfamiliarity” with the Chinese theater, however, paradoxically makes him conform to the earlier tradition of the Western “critical fathers,” who revised Chinese theater in order to make it palatable to the West.

Seen from this perspective, Brecht is no “genius,” nor is he a “strong” poet. For all of his attempts to do otherwise, he only repeats what his Western “father Critics” had done in the past. His “misreading” and “misunderstanding” of the Chinese theater, and as the result of it, his creative notion of “alienation effect” are no more “ingenious” than his “critical” fathers' creation of a Chinese neoclassical drama. At the same time his “misreading,” or the deliberate use, of the Chinese theater also betrays Brecht as an unfaithful “critical son” to his Chinese ancestors. By an act of “creative” treason, however, he paradoxically fits himself into the foreign tradition as well as his own. He is therefore making a place for himself only by standing on the shoulders of ancient “giants” in two traditions.

Like Brecht, Gao Xingjian proved himself as no exception in following this law of the formation of a literary history. Coming quite late on the scene of the Chinese dramatic imagination, Gao Xingjian tried to create things “new” for his Chinese audience by introducing “exotic” and foreign theatrical traditions in his first two plays—The Bus Stop and The Absolute Signal. As we have already mentioned, his first two plays were heavily influenced by such Western dramatists as Artaud, Beckett, and Brecht. Later on, however, when the Chinese audience was overwhelmed by a flood of Western-style theater on the Chinese stage after the “open-door” policy was instituted, Gao Xingjian abandoned his Western critical fathers and returned to his own Chinese “parentage” in the traditional theater. In this way he was able to meet the changing literary expectations of his Chinese audience. Yet for reasons already suggested, his return to his own cultural father figures was in fact a return to the “Chineseness” of a theater which had earlier appealed to his foreign “fathers,” and appropriated by them through acts of creative “misreading.” Once again, then, we have an example of “belatedness” in which a son poet, in this case Gao Xingjian, felt compelled to find things “new” in a foreign culture, a culture which in fact is “originally” his own.

In this case Gao was fortunate enough to live in a time and place which enabled him to embrace simultaneously his own literary tradition—“to recover many artistic techniques already lost in the last century”—at the same time he could use something newly “created” by his Western “parental critics” out of his (Gao's) own tradition.36 As a belated critical son owing his debts to numerous “parental” critics from more than one culture, Gao benefits from both cultures, the East and the West, and from both historical heritages, the ancient and the modern, but he does so in a way that depends on misreadings and misunderstanding on every hand and in every direction. Because of this he ends up belonging exclusively to neither East nor West, but inclusively to both.

These remarks help us to understand the strange reception history of Wildman in which the play has been claimed by more than two national “parentages” in the critical reviews. On the one hand, Wildman can be perceived as a Chinese play only by those whose dramatic expectations are confined to a knowledge of the traditional Chinese theater. On the other hand, however, it can be regarded as being influenced by the Western theater only by those who take the concepts of Artaud and Brecht as purely Western, thus disregarding their debts to their Oriental “critical fathers.” In both cases, however, readers from different cultural backgrounds, with different dramatic and cultural expectations, inevitably receive Wildman differently. It could not be otherwise, even for those Chinese readers knowledgeable in Western theater or for Westerners who are acquainted with Chinese dramatic traditions. Just as producers of texts can only write from within their own historical and cultural space—and in Gao's case, that space was both Chinese and Western in paradoxical ways—so readers can only read on the basis of their own place in history. There are no ontologically grounded “truths” by which we can distinguish “Chineseness” from “Westerness.” The implications of this observation seem clear: what is important for us to pursue in our critical inquiry is the dynamics of interreactions and inter-relationships between tradition and individual talents, between literary production and literary reception. Needless to say, we cannot define or even separate one “comparative entity” from the other. Neither can we fruitfully determine such things as “emitter,” “receiver,” “origin,” “beginning,” “causality,” and “continuity.” Each term is inextricably tied to its opposite. There is no final reference, only shared properties of différance. Within that différance all that is Chinese appears as Western, all that is Western as Chinese. For sinology, then, world literature and world culture can no longer be ignored or assigned a secondary status as mere source or influence. Rather all that is “other” and “alien” to it—which is finally to say, all that is Western—must now be recognized and inscribed within its proper interests. All future studies of “comparative” drama, therefore, and perhaps in a more general sense, all future studies of any “national literature” situated in the context of world literature, need to take their departure from this observation.


  1. I wish to thank Marvin Carlson, Eugene Eoyang, Clifford C. Flanigan, Iriving Lo, and Brian Caraher for reading an earlier draft of this essay.

  2. For an English translation of Wildman, see Asian Theater Journal 7.2 (Fall 1990): 195-249, trans. Bruno Boubicek.

  3. For a brief survey of the Western influence in Gao Xingjian and his plays, see Geremie Barme, “A Touch of the Absurd—Introducing Gao Xingjian, and his Play The Bus Stop,Renditions 19 (1983): 373-76. For a more recent account of Gao Xingjian's indebtedness to Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, V. E. Meyerhold, and Mei Lanfang, see William Tay, “Avant-garde Theater in Post-Mao China: The Bus-Stop by Gao Xingjian,” Worlds Apart: Recent Chinese Writings and its Audiences, ed. Howard Goldblatt (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1990) 111-18.

  4. Barme 373-76.

  5. Xining Wang, “An Unconventional Blend,” China Daily [Beijing] 21 May 1985, 5.

  6. Wang 5.

  7. For an informative study of the main features of traditional Chinese theater available in English, see Tao-Ching Hsu, The Chinese Conception of the Theater (Seattle: The U of Washington P, 1985). Hsu's work is especially helpful in the context of this essay for its comparative perspective which treats as well other theatrical conventions such as the Greek, the Elizabethan, and the Japanese.

  8. Xingjian Gao, “Guanyu yanshude jianyi yu shuoming” [“Suggestion and Explanation for the Production of Wildman”], Shiyue [October] 2 (1985): 169.

  9. Gao 169.

  10. The quotations of the Chinese text in this essay are from Xingjian Gao, Yeren [Wildman], in Shiyuan 2 (1985): 142-68. The translations are mine unless indicated otherwise.

  11. Julian Baum, “Peking's Wildman Jolts Theater Goers,” The Christian Science Monitor 24 June 1985: 9.

  12. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove P, 1958) 48.

  13. Artaud 58.

  14. Artaud 36.

  15. Artaud 90.

  16. Artaud 90.

  17. This quotation is cited from Bruno Roubicek's English translation of Wildman 245.

  18. Artaud 91.

  19. Leonard Cabell Pronko, Theater East and West: Perspectives Toward a Total Theater (Berkeley: U of California P, 1967) 15.

  20. Artaud 83.

  21. Artaud 70.

  22. For a recent study in English in the primitive Chinese theater as religious ritual, see Qiuyu Yu's “Some observations on the Aesthetics of Primitive Chinese Theater,” Asian Theater Journal 6.1 (Spring 1989): 12-30. Drawing examples from various types of exorcistic performance (nuoxi), which are still more popular than film and TV programs in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Yu argues that in primitive Chinese performance, the aesthetic and ritual experience are very difficult to separate and that “ancient Chinese ritual performance to a great degree reflected the principal aspects of ancient Chinese society—ritual performance actually had become a rich social ceremony” (15).

  23. Gao, “Yeren yu wo” [“The Wildman and I”], Xiju dianying bao [Drama and Film Newspaper] 12 May 1985: 2.

  24. For an early account of Brecht and China, see Antony Tatlow's Brechts chinesische Gedichte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973). For a recent study of Brecht's reception in China, see Adrian Hsia, “The Reception of Bertolt Brecht in China and Its Impact on Chinese Drama,” Brecht and East Asian Theater, eds. Antony Tatlow and Tak-wai Wong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1982) 47-64.

  25. Ulrich Weisstein, Comparative Literature and Literary Theory: Survey and Introduction (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968) 29.

  26. A number of important earlier essays on the notion of literary influence have been collected in Influx: Essays on Literary History, ed. Ronald Primeau (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat P, 1977). For some recent—and sharply polemical—observations that seek to defend the traditional claims of “influence study,” see Anna Balakian, “Literary Theory and Comparative Literature,” Toward a Theory of Comparative Literature, ed. and intro. Mario J. Valdes, Proc. of the XIth International Comparative Literature Congress, 20-24 August 1985 (New York; Bern; Frankfurt am Main; Paris: Lang, 1990) 3:17-24. Balakian observes that “the word ‘influence’ has become a bad word, been confused with ‘imitation,’ and has even been viewed as a threat to ethnocentrism. It has been replaced by the theoreticians with the concept of ‘intertextuality,’ which is random, idiosyncratic, resulting in a free play of inter-referentiality which displays the virtuosity of the critic-manipulator rather than the fruits of scholarly research in the form of deep-sea plunging into literary works. The current theoretical version of influence study has become a major feature of what could be called ‘aleatory criticism’” (18).

  27. For an informative survey of the recent scholarship in Chinese-Western comparative literature, see Cecile Chu-Chin Sun, “Problems of Perspective in Chinese-Western Comparative Literature Studies,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 13.4 (1986): 531-48. For Sun, there are two common types of Chinese-Western comparative literature writings in the past twenty years which failed to recognize “1) what comparative literature is about and 2) the unique role of Chinese-Western comparative literature in the field” (533). The “myopic” school of comparison, for example, is “characterized by an over-emphasis on surface and random aspects of the works compared. The cultural contexts and literary conventions are seldom taken into account, in order to render the similarities tenable. The main purpose of this type of comparison is to claim that, after all, Chinese literature is not all that different from Western literatures” (533). The “hypermetropic” school, according to Sun, primarily applies Western theories to Chinese literature, “often in a wholesale fashion” (533). Sun believes that the “danger of this kind of approach lies in its undue confidence about the universal applicability of Western theory at the expense of the distinctive (and frequently intractable) features of Chinese literature” (542). Insightful and well-documented, Sun's article focuses on the lyric, and to a much lesser degree, the narrative, without touching on the issues of Chinese-Western dramatic studies, which in many ways remain the stepchild of comparative studies of Chinese and Western culture.

  28. In his essay “On Dramatic Theories,” Gao Xingjian surveyed the major dramatic traditions in the West, including those of Brecht and Artaud. Exploring the reasons why in recent years Chinese audiences have increasingly lost their interest in modern Chinese drama, Gao pointed out that the predominant Ibsenique tradition of social plays on the present Chinese stage has given too much emphasis to dramatic dialogue. For him, the Ibsenique tradition should be enhanced, if not replaced, by other dramatic traditions such as those of Brecht, Artaud, Chekhov, Gorky, and especially the classical Chinese theater, which employed singing, acting, dancing, and speaking in order to provide its audiences with theatrical experiences rather than mere concepts and ideas. See Xingjian Gao, “Lun xiju guan” [“On Dramatic Theories”], Xijujie [The Dramatic Circle] 1 (1983): 27-34.

  29. By “misunderstanding”—in quotation marks—I mean a view of a text or a cultural event by a “received” community that differs in important ways from the view of that same phenomenon in the community of its own “origins.” I do not mean to suggest the preexistence of an epistemologically grounded “proper” or “correct” understanding of the text to which a “misunderstanding” can be applied.

  30. Pronko 35.

  31. For a recent study in Western scholarship on the receptions of this Yuan drama in the West, see, for example, A. Owen Aldridge's chapter “Voltaire and the Mirage of China,” The Reemergence of World Literature: A Study of Asia and the West (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1986) 141-66. Aldridge's conclusions are telling in the light of the present study: “Voltaire's source was a translation of 1731 by a French Jesuit, Joseph Henri Premare, which was later included in a famous compilation by another Jesuit, Jean Baptiste Du Halde, under the title Description geographique,historique,chronologique,politique,et physique de l'empire de la Chine et de la tartarie chinoise (1735). Among the essential ingredients of the original Chinese work were song and music, but these were completely eliminated from Premare's translation and from Voltaire's adaptation as well. Since Voltaire's neoclassical drama departed from both the form and the substance of his Chinese source, one would be justified in asking whether his work should really be considered as an example of the penetration of Chinese culture. Should it instead be dismissed as mere Chinoiserie? The answer is that Voltaire himself understood a great deal more about Chinese civilization than his play reveals, but that he was prevented by the prevailing taste of the times from closely following his model” (145).

  32. Xiheng Fan, “Chong zhaoshi gu'er dao zhongguo gu'er—shang” [“From The Orphan of Chao to Orphelin de la Chine (Part I)”], Zhongguo bijiao wenxue [Comparative Literature in China] 4 (1987): 159-95.

  33. Pronko 37.

  34. Pronko 56.

  35. For more information on the paradoxical relationship between Brecht and Mei Lanfang's theories of theater, see William Huizhu Sun, “Mei Lanfang, Stanislavsky and Brecht on China's Stage and Their Aesthetic Significance,” Drama in the People's Republic of China, eds. Constantine Tung and Colin MacKerras SUNY P, 1987) 137-50. For a more general article on the reception of Mei Lanfang's performance in the Soviet Union in 1935 on the part of European theater artists such as Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Craig, Brecht, Eisenstein, Piscator, Tairov and Tretiakov, see George Banu's “Mei Lanfang: A Case Against and a Model for the Occidental Stage,” trans. Ella L. Wiswell and June V. Gibson, Asian Theater Journal 3.2 (Fall 1986): 153-78. See also Zuolin Huang, “A Supplement to Brecht's ‘Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,’” Brecht and East Asian Theater, eds. Antony Tatlow and Tak-wai Wong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1982) 96-110.

  36. Gao, “Guanyu yanshude jianyi yu shuoming,” 169


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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.”

Harry H. Kuoshu (essay date fall 1998)

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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 for Godot was pointed out by certain Chinese critics soon after its premiere. Since the playwright has a background in French literature, this observation came as no surprise;2 nevertheless, it played its role in a quickly aborted political campaign of “anti-bourgeois-contamination.” A Party-authorized critic used The Bus-Stop's resemblance to Beckett's play to label it anti-socialist, assuming that the futile waiting in the play shows a loss of confidence in socialism, a loss ascribed to contamination by “bourgeois, idealistic, egoistic world views.”3 Although The Bus-Stop was degraded by Party authorities in the short-lived campaign, more experimental plays, one of them by the same playwright and performed in the same theatre, were staged with enthusiastic acceptance. Contrasted with the fact that massive non-participation actually aborted a political campaign under a regime whose functioning relied heavily and continually on new campaigns, the enthusiasm for the small experimental theatres testifies to an anxiety produced by such totalitarian control and a desire to move beyond it.

Situating these Chinese experimental plays in this political culture, one wonders about the meaning of waiting and how The Bus-Stop and Waiting for Godot produce a comparable situation of waiting. Clearly the same situation is almost impossible to reproduce in such different performances. This is especially true when one considers the different audiences in their historical contexts, expectations and resourcefulness in access to codes for comprehension.4 Let's suppose that Waiting for Godot were staged in China. The performance would be bound to communicate through different codes and thus would produce different meanings from those of its Western performances. The performance of The Bus-Stop, on the contrary, is prescribed by known codes in a Chinese cultural context. Although sharing some surface similarities, The Bus-Stop and Waiting for Godot articulate different concepts of waiting. They are, to use Umberto Eco's term, two different “cultural units,” that is, differed semantic units inserted into differed cultural systems.5The Bus-Stop, nevertheless, does activate its audience's recently acquired knowledge of Godot and may serve as a cross-cultural bridge for the Chinese to enter Godot-like absurdity.6 With these initial assumptions, I will first examine the differences between Waiting for Godot and The Bus-Stop and then explore the possibility of the latter as a cultural transcription, or parody, of the former. This discussion assumes that readers are familiar with Waiting for Godot and relatively ignorant of The Bus-Stop. It thus uses certain aspects of the former as points of departure for retrieving similar ones in the latter for comparison.

The Bus-Stop is performed, as dictated by the playwright, in a small theatre-in-the-round.7 The bare stage contains only a bus stop sign at the center and a fence designed to keep people in line while waiting for the bus. The play begins on a Saturday afternoon but ends God knows when, since even a watch battery will run out. A group of people, eight all together, gradually gathers to catch a bus to get from their suburb into the big city. They wait and wait, mistaking some passing vehicles for their bus, which never comes. Their hopes for the bus are aroused and crushed time after time, but still they wait. Shock sets in when they realize that they have spent years waiting for the bus. At this point, they notice that a silent man among them has left long before, deciding to walk rather than to wait—a spotlight reveals him behind the audience climbing up to, and then walking on, a raised stand. They then regret that they waited; they should have walked to the city as he did. As the play ends, the theme music of “the silent man” arises with a little variation into grandeur and liveliness, and the seven performers all start talking to different parts of the audience, commenting on their waiting.

The formal similarities of The Bus-Stop and Waiting for Godot are obvious. They both deal with waiting for someone or something that never comes—in one case for Godot, in the other for a bus. They both treat waiting as human situation—one set in front of a tree by a country road, the other at a bus stop by the side of a suburban street. They both present the waiting group as contrasted with someone else—Gogo and Didi with Pozzo and Lucky, seven people with the silent man. These correlations—Godot and the bus, the tree and the bus stop sign, Pozzo and Lucky and the silent man—serve as convenient points of departure for revealing not the kindred codes but the striking differences between the two texts. “The codes,” as Eco observes, “insofar as they are accepted by a society, set up a ‘cultural’ world which is neither actual nor possible in the ontological sense; its existence is linked to a cultural order, which is the way in which a society thinks, speaks and, while speaking, explains the ‘purport’ of its thought through other thoughts.”8 With these correlations coherently marking off two different cultural orders, it will be interesting to see if, at a certain point, a cross-cultural perspective can bring an understanding of differed expressions of kindred human dilemmas.


In Beckett's play, Godot seems to be deprived of any practical relationship with the two tramps. Since the audience can hardly tell in any practical sense why the two tramps wait for him, it must move to a metaphysical plane to understand the tramps' relationship to Godot. This kind of move is typical in an uncoded situation, as Eco explains in A Theory of Semiotics:

Faced with uncoded circumstances and complex contexts, the interpreter is obliged to recognize that the message does not rely on previous codes and yet that it must be understandable; if it is so, non-explicit conventions must exist; if not yet in existence, they have to exist (or to be posited).9

Since the play does not prompt the audience to see much significance in performing the details of ordinary, everyday activity, it encourages a transcended perception of them as depicting a metaphysical situation. Are there social reasons for such depiction? Yes. Herbert Blau has drawn on the words of Winston Churchill—“What is Europe now? It is a rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding-ground of pestilence and hate”—to establish the atmosphere out of which Godot was born: the despair, hunger, and disease of postwar Europe.10 The social reasons, however, still cannot explain why the tramps should wait for Godot. The play further prompts the audience into a metaphysical contemplation: “Please note that the author doesn't say so, but he forces us to say it. In ‘Godot’ there is ‘God.’”11 Godot leads the audience, as one critic puts it, “toward a metaphysics of boredom.”12 The play forces the audience to face the subjective reality of the tramps.

The bus in Gao's play, by comparison, is closely related to the life of the people who wait for it. These people want to get into the city and, therefore, have to wait for the bus. In a country where there were no private cars at the time of the play's production, nothing was more familiar in one's life than the bus. People and their relationships to the bus automatically remind the audience of social problems. Often there are not enough buses for all the passengers; people have to stand in line waiting for the bus; when the bus is too full for everyone to get on it, the queue is no longer respected. Getting into the bus becomes a battle of pushing and elbowing the others away. In this chaotic situation, so-called “backdoorism” (favoritism) becomes more and more prevalent in interpersonal relationship—those who are in favor with the bus company, or the bus driver himself, will be let on the bus through the back door while the others battle to squeeze in through the front door. Being reminded of all this, the audience will worry about the deterioration of human relationships. They wonder why there cannot be more buses, realize how the huge population of the country has become a serious social problem while the planned economy cannot provide enough jobs, and so on. In Gao's play, these social problems are vividly represented in people's waiting for the bus. Each time people mistake a passing vehicle for their bus, they try to enforce the rule of the queue, an effort that always causes tension in their relationships. A rural market director, who is last to join the group on the stage, even shouts to the driver of a passing vehicle he mistakes for the bus that he has just favored the bus company with some rare commodities and demands the privilege of the back door.

While there are abundant codes for understanding the wait for the bus in practical terms, the play also pushes its social and political critique beyond everyday concerns toward the depiction of an existential boredom:

GLASSES: Ah, life …

GIRL: Do you call this living?

GLASSES: Sure it is. Despite everything we're still alive.

GIRL: We might as well be dead.

GLASSES: Why don't you end it all, then?

GIRL: Because it seems like such a waste to come into this world and then get nothing out of life.

GLASSES: There should be some meaning to life.

GIRL: To live on like this, not really alive and not dead either—it's so boring!

(All walk on the spot and then turn around in circles as if possessed.)

(Bus [The Bus-Stop] 385)

The anxiety here, not unlike that in Waiting for Godot, is related to the mystery that the bus never comes and the production of meaning is blocked. In the highly politicized and Party-manipulated culture of the People's Republic of China, the ideological implication of the mystery is clear. One may argue that the play suggests a fundamental limit to the Party's conceptual system, which denies individual initiative and has blocked a diversified access to meaning in life.


While the decor of Beckett's play is accessible primarily in metaphysical codes, the decor of Gao's play communicates in social and ideological codes. Beckett's play seems set in nowhere: a tree can hardly reveal the exact location of the scene, and it can hardly contain much social meaning. This lack of social meaning endows the tree with metaphysical implications. A critic writes:

The tree on the stage, though it is a willow, obviously stands both for the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil (and, when it puts on green leaves, for the Tree of Life) and for the Cross. … it is also the Tree of Judas, on which they (Didi and Gogo) are recurrently tempted to hang themselves.13

Although others may disagree with his interpretation, this critic has surely found available codes that lend Beckett's decor a richness of connotation.

A Chinese bus stop sign is a plate printed with the bus route, which is like a map showing one's location and the bus's destination. In Gao's play, this bus stop sign is connotatively rich in its communication with the audience. First of all, it sets up a rural-urban contrast, which is much sharper than the Western world can conceive of in terms of living standards. The desire of the people who wait for the bus to go into the city is really the desire for a better life—one girl says: “Whenever I see city girls all done up and wearing those high-heel shoes, it makes me feel as though they've walked all over me and are flaunting themselves in front of me just to rub it in.” And a young man says: “I'm gonna have a taste of yoghurt if it's the last thing I do” (Bus 384, 320). The desire may also be interpreted as a national allegory, the rural-urban contrast replaced by an international perspective. With China's opening up to the world has come an anxiety about economic underdevelopment and the desire to catch up. Reproaching his carefree companion at the bus stop, a young man releases his anger: “We've been cast aside by life, forgotten. The world is fleeting by in front of you and you don't even see it. You might be happy to muddle along like this, but I'm not” (Bus 383). When asked about the value of taking the trouble to travel to the city for a chess tournament with city people, the old man retorts: “The whole point of chess is the feeling of exhilaration you get from it; it's all a matter of the spirit of the thing. The spirit of the thing, that's what life is all about” (Bus 383). Exchanges like these may possibly endorse a national allegory.

Secondly, the route printed on the bus stop sign reminds the audience of the country's journey toward a utopia. With an official ideology preaching that the present-day effort is to construct a society of great human happiness and an extreme abundance of material resources; with this ideology's strong teleological beliefs that the development of the country must be set on the right route to achieve these goals; and with the country's recent history of constant “battles” between the “socialist-roaders” and the “capitalist-roaders,” a Chinese audience can hardly miss the play's political allegory of the country's difficult and delayed journey from “the countryside” to “the city.”

The play challenges the above-mentioned ideology with a shock technique, a technique very similar to what Brecht says about his epic theatre, “What is ‘natural’ must have the force of what is startling,”14 even though Gao's earlier acknowledgment, consistent with his French background, is to Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty: to overwhelm the spectator completely and profoundly.15 This shock technique's function of demystifying an ideology coincides with Roland Barthes' idea that what looks natural must be perceived as historical.16 The myth being challenged by the play may not exactly be that of the utopia but rather the idea that there is a definite route for achieving this goal. In this respect, the bus stop sign posted on the stage as decor becomes crucial. It resembles Beckett's “tree of knowledge” as access to meaning. At the very beginning of the script, one finds the following description of the sign: “Owing to years of exposure to the winds and rains, what is painted on the plate is hardly recognizable now” (Ch [Chezhan] 119).

The passengers in the play, as a matter of habit, know this bus stop and gather here without needing to look at the sign. It is only when what appears to them as natural becomes absurd—that the bus never comes—that it occurs to them that they should have a look at the sign. They then find that the plate tells them nothing. There seem to be some stains on the plate, showing that a route change notice was probably pasted on it, but it has disappeared in “winds and rains,” The passengers are enraged:

OLD MAN: (heart-brokenly) Why is this sign still posted here? To pull our legs?

GIRL: Shall we leave? Let's go!

MARKET DIRECTOR: No, we have to sue them.


GLASSES: I think you have to blame yourself. Why didn't we take a good look at the sign? Why did we wait for so long? Let's go. There is nothing worth waiting for.

(Ch 137, intervening dialogue omitted)

Failing to offer access to meaning, the bus stop sign estranges the passengers on the stage. Likewise, the political campaigns in Chinese idiom are referred to as “winds and rains.” In this sense, the attention paid to the printing of a bus route faded by winds and rains gains strong ideological connotations as a challenge to the myth of the “socialist road.” The cruelty of the political campaigns in defense of “the socialist road” has turned the subject into a “sacred” one, deterring careful investigation. The shock is unavoidable when one is finally forced to look at it, only to find it has faded beyond recognition, just like the printing on the sign.


A look at the shock technique used in The Bus-Stop leads our discussion into the manner of performance of the two plays. In Beckett's play, the waiting of Didi and Gogo is contrasted with the journey of Pozzo and Lucky. One critic writes, “Didi and Gogo stand for the contemplative life. Pozzo and Lucky stand for the life of practical action taken, mistakenly, as an end in itself. Pozzo's blindness and Lucky's dumbness in the second act rub this point in.”17 With this pessimistic contrast, walking is excluded as a solution to anxiety. The waiting in Beckett's play is a situation with no way out, similar to Sartre's No Exit. Waiting in this sense becomes an existential reality which, as one critic describes it, is “without past or future, irremediably present.”18

In Gao's play, waiting produces a strong desire for its negation. The way out of it is suggested by the silent man, who not only provides a contrast to those who wait at the bus stop but also gives them hope and eventually mobilizes them to leave. The silent man communicates with those who wait at the bus stop through music, the theme of which is established when he first leaves the bus stop (the action of the play freezes briefly to draw the audience's attention to the music). Gao prescribes that the music be “filled with painful but determined explorations.” While waiting, people at the bus stop constantly hear “the silent man's music.” When they finally decide to be on their way, the music of “the silent man” becomes a louder march (Ch 138).

The different natures of the performing space and the different roles of the performers in this space also designate the different ways in which the concept of waiting is communicated between the audiences and the performers. Beckett's play is often performed in a proscenium theatre with a picture-frame stage. There is not only a physical distance between the stage and the seating area but also a purposefully created perceptual distance that keeps the audience from identifying with the performers in their immediate actions on the stage. Geneviève Serreau points out an effective moment in Waiting for Godot on a proscenium stage:

… the spectator is involved in this process of detachment; what happens repetitively is that after a sudden destruction of theatrical illusion, the stage becomes a stage, that bounded cube which opens only into the terrifying gulf of the audience. Thus, Vladimir cries out to a frightened Gogo, who “makes a rush towards back”: “Imbecile! There's no way out there.” Then, gesturing towards the audience: “There! Not a soul in sight! Off you go! Quick! (He pushes Estragon towards auditorium. Estragon recoils in horror.) You won't? (He contemplates auditorium.) Well I can understand that.”19

Although this can be perceived as a theatrical joke, it also conveys a bitter sense of human isolation that increases the perceptual distance all the more. With this distance, the clownish style of acting becomes appropriate. Serreau writes,

… clowns traditionally play a parodic role, one of demystification. … in Godot the sacred monster that must be demystified is man … man thrown into existence and seeking to solve his own problem, or rather renouncing any solution since he cannot use his traditional tools (reality of space, time, and matter).20

The sense of distance and the clownish style produce an unusual parody. The parody of human existence, it seems, has to be perceived at a distance that allows for metaphysical transcendence.

Gao's play, as its actions require, has to be performed in an arena where the performance space is totally encircled by the seating area. During the performance, the members of the audience actually become each other's background for watching, decreasing the distance between the audience and the performers. The viewers are encouraged to put themselves in the position of the performers. Let's look at an example:

OLD MAN: Maybe we should wait for the bus on the other side of the road?

GLASSES: No, that's for the bus going back to the countryside.

OLD MAN: (to the audience) You are also waiting for the bus? (to himself) They can't hear me. (louder) Are you waiting to go back to the countryside? (to himself) Still can't hear me. (to the young man with spectacles) Young man, my hearing is terrible. Could you ask them if they are going back to the countryside? If they all want to go back, we'd better not stay here to suffer as well.

(Ch 128)

“Going back” in this context signifies giving up hope. Faced with this option, one performer prefers waiting: “It doesn't matter too much to wait. You wait? It shows you still have hope. If you have nothing left to hope for, you're really damned …” (Ch 137). Waiting actually builds social bonding. Through communication between the performers and the audience, the stage and the seating area gradually merge into a shared situation of waiting, a shared social space. It is with the formation of this space that the role of the silent man becomes important. While the other performers walk through the audience to get into the acting space, the silent man walks out of the acting space—his music looms from behind the audience and he appears in the spotlight overlooking this space. The silent man seems to be the only character who achieves an allegorical aloofness.

The acting style of the silent man, however, can also be seen as the accent for the whole play. It corresponds to the other performers' occasional “lyrical transcendence” of the social space mentioned above, their comic detachment from roles, and their symbolic gesturing on a basically bare stage. This style, as Gao envisions it, should be “with poetic touches,” “resembling the performance of traditional operas such as Mei Lanfang while performing The Drunken Lady.21 It is interesting to note that while Brecht used Chinese acting to speak for his Alienation Effects, Gao has a similar dialogue with this traditional dramaturgy so as to lend the performance of his play a small sense of absurdity. Nevertheless, he does not mention the similar Western use of this dramaturgy, which he surely knew of. One wonders if the ideological undertone of his Western predecessor deterred Gao's acknowledgment.


The silent man is a shadow of Lu Xun's Passerby, the title character from his allegorical poetic drama, written in 1925.22 When The Bus-Stop was staged, The Passerby was performed as a prelude, with the actor who played the silent man playing the Passerby. In a discussion with the audience after the performance, Gao was asked about the possible influence of the theatre of the absurd and Beckett. He dodged the question by saying that his inspiration came mostly from Lu Xun, as indicated by using The Passerby as the prelude for his play. It is hard to know how much politics played a role in Gao's answer. Acknowledging Beckett's influence might have been politically problematic, while raising the battle banner of Lu Xun, a politically elevated Lu Xun, was a gesture that could not be easily attacked by official ideology.23 The early Lu Xun as a cultural nihilist, however, had always been difficult for Party-authorized readings. In the case of The Bus-Stop, no one would have wondered that Lu Xun could become a vehicle for Godot, that Lu Xun's Passerby could pass on his sense of absurdity, that feeling of loss of totality and an ambivalence about walking and staying put, to Gao's silent man, making him not as naively optimistic as he might first appear.

Although written about thirty years earlier than Waiting for Godot,The Passerby draws The Bus-Stop closer to Beckett through its contemplation of meaning and the image of the road. Devoid of social connotations, the setting of The Passerby is clearly akin to that of Waiting for Godot, since the place is only a vague “somewhere”—“to the east are a few trees and ruins, while to the west is uncultivated wasteland.” Attention, however, is drawn not to the tree, at which Beckett's characters look, but to “a trace that looks like a road yet is not a road”:24

PASSERBY: Do you know what kind of place lies ahead?

OLD MAN: Ahead? Ahead is the grave.

PASSERBY: (Startled) The grave?

YOUNG GIRL: No, no, no! Over there are many wild lilies and wild roses.25

The trace, which is both there and not there, both promising and menacing, is the Godot-like entity in Lu Xun's drama. Related to this “spatial representation of a temporal dilemma,” “the act of walking becomes,” as Leo Ou-fan Lee shrewdly observes, “the only significant act in an existence threatened with meaninglessness.”26 Walking becomes a metaphysical allegory; even walking may not offer access to meaning, walking seems to be what life is all about. The anxiety, however, comes with the presupposition of the existence of meaning and road (or, in our Western case, meaning and tree). In Chinese intellectual history, road, or tao, has long been the key concept for offering a sense of totality. Lu Xun, an iconoclast in modern Chinese literature, may have denounced not only the ancient “road” but also the concept of the road as sacred—“for actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”27 The denunciation of a sacred road may not take place without anxiety; the life of a cultural rebel itself may turn out to be perceived as a road rarely traveled by others: “Long, long had been my road and far, far was the journey,” a line Lu Xun borrowed from the ancient political exile Qu Yuan to use as the prefatory inscription to his short story collection, Wandering.28 Lee remarks that the decision made by the protagonist of Lu Xun's The Passerby seems to be “not so much that of a nihilist as that of an existentialist”; absurdity sets in with the loss of totality, the sense that the road is not readily available and the understanding that one has to get used to a life with no definite road.29

The Passerby relays this sense of absurdity to The Bus-Stop. “Godot,” designating a loss of totality of meaning, comes to the bus stop along a “Lu Xun trace” and proclaims his arrival with the performers' discovery of a blur on the bus stop sign that they believed to be the print of a definite bus route. It is a blur that can be seen as the replica of the “Lu Xun trace” along which “Godot” travels. While the printed bus route is irretrievable, and the bus does not come, one has to get used to living without them. The waiting becomes absurd when the object of waiting, which has subtly changed from the bus to the printed route, becomes unrecognizable but still commands one's attention. One character in Gao's play reflects, echoing Lu Xun's dilemma: “Should I stay or go? It's the enigma of our existence. Perhaps Fate has decreed that we must wait here forever, till we all grow old and die. But why do people accept the capricious rulings of Fate? Then again, what exactly is Fate?” (Bus 381).30

The silent man's act of walking corresponds to this contemplation. It becomes a statement of alienation, of abandoning the set road of the political totality. The silent man in Gao's play is not necessarily an allegory of achievement—that is, he is already there in the city—but he is an allegory of deviation: he is no longer yoked, as the others are, to “turn around in circles as if possessed” by the concept of a bus and a definite route. Although his action may not offer immediate access to meaning (his music expresses pain in exploration), the silent man draws the spotlight of admiration which differentiates him from Pozzo and Lucky and marks his action vis-à-vis the submission to totalitarian control as heroic. The Bus-Stop, after all, is not as nihilist as Waiting for Godot. It attributes existential absurdity more to the political result of totalitarian control than to an epistemological crisis. The silent man's call for deviated action and his challenge to the set route to the totality of meaning explains the artistic and ideological thrust of the Chinese experimental theatre. Its indebtedness to Western avant-gardists, in this perspective, may be not just a technical borrowing but a cultural transcription—the western codes that have produced their specific sorts of absurdity are transcribed into the codes of Chinese political culture to produce its own absurdity.


  1. “Trace” is a fairly archaic word used by Leo Ou-fan Lee, in his study of the life and works of Lu Xun, to translate the term henji (marks on the ground) in the “stage directions” opening Lu's poetic drama Guoke [The Passer-by]: “To the east are a few trees and ruins, while to the west is uncultivated wasteland. Between both points runs a trace that looks like a road and yet is not a road.” Lu Xun, Guoke, in Lu Xun quanji [Complete Works of Lu Xun], vol. II (Beijing, 1981), 188, quoted and trans. in Leo Ou-fan Lee, Voices from the Iron House: A Study of Lu Xun (Bloomington, IN, 1987), 101. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang translate henji as “a faint track.” See Lu Xun, The Passer-by, in Selected Works, trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, vol. I (Beijing, 1985), 336.

  2. Gao Xingjian's The Bus-Stop [Chezhan] (1983) was the second of three of his plays performed at The People's Art Theater of Beijing. The first and third were Juedui xinhao [Alarm Signal] (1982-83) and Yeren [Wildman] (1985).

    The Chinese script of Chezhan has been published in the bimonthly literary journal Shi yue [The October]. A partial English translation has been published in the journal Renditions. See Gao Xingjian, Chezhan,Shi yue (March 1983), 119-38; and Gao Xingjian, The Bus-Stop, trans. Geremie Barmé, Renditions 19-20 (1983), 379-86. Subsequent references to Barme's translation appear parenthetically in the text as (Bus), Subsequent references to the Chinese script published in Shi yue are my translations and appear parenthetically in the text as (Ch).

    Barmé's partial translation of The Bus-Stop was later collected into an anthology, along with an article of his on the play. See Gao Xingjian, The Bus-Stop, trans. Geremie Barmé, and Geremie Barmé, “A Touch of the Absurd: Introducing Gao Xingjian, and His Play The Bus-Stop,” both in Trees on the Mountain: An Anthology of New Chinese Writing, ed. Stephen C. Soong and John Minford (Hong Kong, 1984), 379-86, 373-78. For critical commentary, see also William Tay, “Avant-garde Theater in Post-Mao China: The Bus-Stop by Gao Xingjian,” in Worlds Apart: Recent Chinese Writing and Its Audiences, ed. Howard Goldblatt (Armonk, NY, 1990), 111-18.

  3. Gao Xingjian graduated from the French Department of Beijing Foreign Studies University.

  4. See He Wen, “On Seeing the Play The Bus-Stop,Wenyi bao [Literary Gazette (Beijing)] (March 1984), 21-25.

  5. I am using the term “audience” in such a general sense that it may refer to almost anyone living in a certain culture. The scope of this essay does not permit sociological distinctions of varied audiences.

  6. For the idea of “meaning” as “a cultural unit,” see Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington, IN, 1979), 66-68.

  7. Waiting for Godot was first available to Chinese readers in an anthology of Western absurd theatre. See Samuel Beckett, “Dengdai gedno,” trans. Shi Xianrong, in Huandanpai xiju ji [A Collection of Absurdist Plays] (Shanghai, 1980).

  8. I attended a performance of The Bus-Stop and a discussion with the playwright and the director following the performance (The Bus-Stop, by Gao Xingjian, dir. Lin Zhaohua, prod. People's Art Theater of Beijing, summer 1983). Some of the descriptions here are based on my personal experience and observations.

  9. Eco, 61. See note 6.

  10. Ibid., 129.

  11. Herbert Blau, “Notes from the Underground,” in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, ed. Ruby Cohn (New York, 1967), 114.

  12. Jacques Audiberti, “At the Babylone: A Fortunate Move on the Theater Checkerboard,” trans. Ruby Cohn, in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, 14. See note 11.

  13. Alfonso Sastre, “Seven Notes on Waiting for Godot,” trans. Leonard C. Pranko, in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, 106.

  14. G. S. Fraser, “Waiting for Godot,” in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, 135.

  15. Bertolt Brecht, “Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. John Willett, 2nd ed. (New York, 1974), 71.

  16. See Gao Xingjian, “Gao Xingjian, Lin Zhaohua: tan Juedui xinhao de yishu gousi [Gao Xingjian and Lin Zhaohua on Alarm Signal],” in Juedui xinhao de yishu tansuo [Artistic Explorations of “Alarm Signal”], ed. Li Baoyun and Zheng Guangsai (Beijing, 1985), 104.

  17. See Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York, 1972), 109-111.

  18. Fraser, 133. See note 14.

  19. Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Samuel Beckett or Presence on the Stage,” in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, 21.

  20. Geneviève Serreau, “Beckett's Clowns,” trans. Ruby Cohn, in Casebook on Waiting for Godot, 175.

  21. Ibid., 172.

  22. Gao Xingjian, “Youguan benju yanchu de jidian jianyi [Suggestions for the Performance of The Bus-Stop],” in Chezhan, 138. See note 2.

  23. See Lu Xun, Guoke, in Lu Xun quanji, 188-94. See note 1.

  24. The preeminence of Lu Xun (1881-1936) in the history of modern Chinese literature was posthumously enhanced by the Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung, who made Lu Xun the role model for Chinese writers. “The chief commander of China's cultural revolution,” Mao writes, “he was not only a great man of letters but a great thinker and revolutionary. … on the cultural front he was the bravest and most correct, the firmest, the most loyal and the most ardent national hero, a hero without parallel in our history.” Mao Tse-Tung, “On New Democracy,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, vol. II (Peking, 1965), 372.

  25. Lu, Guoke, 188, quoted and trans. in Lee, 101.

  26. Lu, Guoke, 190, quoted and trans. in Lee, 102.

  27. Lee, 102.

  28. Lu Xun, “My Old Home,” in Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, trans. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang (New York, 1977), 64.

  29. Qu Yuen, Lisao [Encountering Sorrow], trans. David Hawkes, in Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, ed. Cyril Birch, vol. I (New York, 1965), 56; quoted in Lee, 43.

  30. Lee, 102.

Principal Works

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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.

Olivier Burckhardt (essay date April 2000)

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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 paradox of course is with the nature of language whose primary function is to categorise—and once we have categorised we stop considering the individual as individual—but language is a supple medium, often a great deal more supple than our own thinking.

A writer-artist living in Paris since 1987, Gao Xingjian was born in China in 1940, where his earliest recollections are of fleeing the invading Japanese forces. His upbringing was exceptionally liberal. The son of an amateur actress and a bank employee, from an early age he was encouraged to paint, write and play the violin. At seventeen he went to the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, taking a major in French language and literature, all the while developing his interest in traditional Chinese theatre alongside Western modern theatre, reading Stanislavski, Chekhov and Brecht and continuing to paint and study modern Western art. At the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Gao Xingjian had to destroy all his early writing, a trunkful of manuscripts which included several novels, articles on aesthetics and some fifteen plays. Sent to the countryside for “rehabilitation” for six years, he continued writing in hiding, burying his texts to avoid detection—but they too are now lost.

With the easing of Sino-Western relationships he was recalled to Beijing in 1975 to work as a translator on the French edition of China Reconstructs. While accompanying the writer Ba Jin to France in 1978 as interpreter, Gao Xingjian was able, for the first time, to see Western oil paintings in the original. The experience had deep repercussions.

Realising that his own work in oil painting was a pale reflection of what can be achieved in the medium, he abandoned Western techniques and returned to working with Chinese ink on rice paper. His abstract paintings exploit all the gradations that Chinese ink is capable of, suffused with an eerie luminosity that permeates into the darkest shadows. Many of the works can be read as inner landscapes—landscapes that go beyond the figurative towards a vision—a state of mind. A single dab of the brush heavy with ink suggests a presence in a desolate expanse. Zen is a term often employed when describing Gao Xingjian's paintings, where the human presence is distinct but somehow detached from common reality. In a brief outline of his thoughts on painting, he concludes:

If the self-expression of an artist becomes the direct expression of self, then one's art will be a mess. As the self (or ego) is a chaotic mass, or a black hole to begin with, unless an artist exercises self-knowledge and removes himself for dispassionate observation of the world (including the self), then what is there to see?

More than self-expression I see art as a case of self-purification—observing with a pair of somewhat sober eyes the ever-changing world and one's own mainly unconnected self. And although he may not understand the riddles of life, the artist can leave behind a surprise or two.

In his writing Gao Xingjian maintains the same stance as in painting. Having been forced to destroy his literary output of some twenty years, it was only in 1980 that one of his texts was published, a novella entitled Stars on a Cold Night. This was followed in 1981 by another novella, short stories and a booklet, Preliminary Exploration into the Techniques of Modern Fiction, which caused a major debate in the Chinese literary world by challenging the social realism that was the hallmark of Chinese literature and art under Mao. The authorities condemned the work and Gao was placed under surveillance.

Rather than the Western concept of a stream of consciousness, Gao opted for a stream of language in which inner and outer realities criss-cross each other. Through it the process-of-being is brought to the fore, not only via fantasies, dreams and emotions but also via the interaction with reality as reviewed by memories. A narrative flow is kept but without adhering to fixed plots.

In June 1981 Gao Xingjian joined the Beijing People's Art Theatre and wrote The Bus Stop (Chezhan) (original Chinese titles to the plays are given here to avoid confusion over the various possible translations). Although the play did not take any ideological stance, shifts in the political climate made it inadvisable to produce the play and Gao wrote Alarm Signal (Juedui xinhao) based on a story by Liu Huiyuan. The choice of the theme was probably influenced by self-censorship. As Gilbert Fong notes in his introduction to The Other Shore, the play “is a rather didactic prodigal son story—an attempted train robbery is thwarted by one of the villains who eventually realises his mistaken ways.” In form, however, its use of flashbacks, disjointed time sequences and innovative lighting and sound techniques made Alarm Signal the boldest experimental play ever staged in China at the time.

Although the authorities reacted with suspicion and threats of official sanctions, the public success of the play encouraged the staging of The Bus Stop in 1983. Run as a series of “rehearsals” for internal viewing by audiences restricted to theatrical circles, the play was preceded by The Passer-by, a short play by Lu Xun on whom Gao Xingjian wrote:

It was a misfortune for literature that the writer Lu Xun was crushed to death by the politician Lu Xun. Clearly, for Lu Xun it was not necessarily a misfortune but it may have been a source of regret.

The Bus Stop, subtitled A Lyrical Comedy Without Division of Acts, takes place at a suburban bus stop. Transformed into the Silent Man, the Passer-by joins the queue. The story-line is simplicity itself. To quote from McDougall and Louie's Literature of China in the Twentieth Century:

while a cross-section of Beijing society waits foolishly for buses that never come or never stop, the Silent Man sets off alone on his arduous journey. Skillfully employing the liveliest Beijing slang to be heard on stage since Lao She's Teahouse, Gao Xingjian satirises the passivity, vacillation and superficiality of key types in 1980s society, including a young hoodlum from the suburbs, a housewife preoccupied by the rising cost of food, a young woman fearful of growing too old to attract a husband, and a jovially corrupt factory boss. As the play reaches its climax, surreal effects are created by disco lights and frantic music. After endless argument (introducing the first polyphonic episode on the Chinese stage), the characters in the queue agree to walk into town, but when the stage lights darken, they are still irresolutely in place.

When news of the play reached party officials, a further series of “rehearsals” was ordered for the purpose of criticism. The attacks were virulent, with Gao being labelled a spiritual pollutant. Fearing the worst from the “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Movement” Gao took himself off to the mountains of south-western China, an area famed in ancient times for shamans and hermits.

Once assured that the political climate in Beijing had changed for the better, Gao returned there in late 1984 and wrote Wild Man (Yeren), a play of epic proportions that spans some eight millennia and incorporates themes from cosmology, mythology and the folk and shamanistic traditions of southern China. In his preface to the play Gao writes:

If Western-style theatre is to succeed in China, it must blend with the traditions of Chinese theatre. In Wild Man my aim is the rejuvenation of performance techniques associated with the distant roots of Chinese theatre, rather than adherence to established dramatic technique. Some modern thinkers, unduly concerned with the rationalisation of art, have lost the sensitivity that originally dwelt within them. In essence, the nature of drama is not to serve society but to stimulate both audience and performers alike. The loss of its utilitarian aims will bring about the self-liberation of art.

Considered politically innocuous, the play had tremendous success and, as Gilbert Fong notes, “represented the pinnacle of the development of experimental drama in China at the time.”

It is a sad irony that Gao's next play, The Other Shore (Bi'an), with which the present selection by the same title opens, was to prove, in many ways, to be prophetic.

Written in early 1986, it refers to a Buddhist metaphor, wherein to reach the other shore is to become enlightened. To use Gao's words, “It is destined that the individual will never be able to acquire the ultimate truth, which is known as God or the other shore.” The play's location is “from the real world to the non existent other shore.” Actors play in pairs with ropes, tugging and pulling, leading and being led, resisting and co-operating, then soon the ropes are disregarded and the actors communicate and establish relations with imaginary ropes. Tired of the game with its conflicts, entanglements and fragmentation, the crowd of actors are spurred on to cross the river and reach the other shore. Once there they attempt in vain to speak. Woman teaches the Crowd language, Man emerges from the Crowd to ask Woman who she is, the Crowd explore the darker side of language and in their frenzy kill Woman. As Man reprimands them and himself, the Crowd attempt to make him their leader. Notwithstanding the fact that he refuses, they continue to follow him. A series of independent narrative segments ensues. The Crowd find a leader who makes fools of them. Throughout Man seeks to understand and explore but is constantly harangued by the Crowd, who will not admit his independence. Towards the end of the play, after Man has asked various people what they are looking for, the Crowd do not believe that he doesn't know what he is seeking or that he is not seeking anything in the first place. When he says, “I'm not going to look for anything any more. I just want to go over there,” the Crowd refuse to let him go his own way.

In late 1986 yet another political shift brought about an anti-liberalism campaign and it became obvious that Gao would not be allowed to have his plays performed in China. Taking the unfinished manuscript of a novel he had been working on since the summer of 1982, Gao left Beijing in late 1987 and took up residence in Paris.

Once in Paris, Gao was able to earn his livelihood through writing and painting. In China he was not designated an “official painter,” so he had not been able to exhibit or sell his paintings save through unofficial channels. He was now able to exhibit regularly and his plays were staged in Europe, Hong Kong and Taiwan. At the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in spring 1989, Chiang Ching directed Gao's Variations on a Slow Tune (Sheng sheng man bianzou), based on the poem “Grief beyond belief” by Li Qingzhao (1084-c.1151), China's greatest woman poet. The motifs of the poem were interpreted through the movements of a dancer accompanied by a monologue set to music.

Following the brutal repression in Tiananmen Square later that same year, Gao was asked to write a play based on the events. He wrote Taowang, variously translated as Escape,Absconding or Exile. The play pleased no one. In the West, the commissioning theatre asked for the play to be partially rewritten. Gao withdrew it and paid for the translation. In China the authorities reacted by publishing the play accompanied by a caricature and a vicious attack on its author. His allotted flat in Beijing was confiscated and the security police took all the papers he had left there.

Set in the basement of a disused warehouse, the play opens with a young woman and a young man taking refuge there after the tanks were ordered into Tiananmen Square. Although total strangers, they are drawn physically close. A middle-aged man, also seeking shelter, comes into the basement. Full of ideological zeal, the young man begins to discuss the situation but cannot understand the middle-aged man's refusal to belong to any faction or doctrine, that he is a bystander, free to choose whether to become involved or not become involved, that he chooses to escape from the collective will, that he has no need of any isms.

Taowang was first staged only in 1992 in Sweden and Germany and broadcast on the BBC the same year. The reaction of the Chinese authorities, of some Western academics and of pro-democracy Chinese, albeit not all to the same degree, were on a par. Like Man, the main protagonist of The Other Shore, Gao was told that he should not, could not, must not, criticise the collective will. To belong to no faction whatsoever is to arouse the enmity of all factions. In an essay of 1990 titled “Bali suibi” (“Jottings from Paris”) Gao gave what can be interpreted as a direct answer to many of his critics when he wrote:

The writer is not the conscience of society nor is literature the mirror of society. The writer flees to the margin of society: he is a non-participant, an observer who looks on dispassionately. There is no need for the writer to be the conscience of society, for there has long been a surplus of social conscience. The writer simply uses his own conscience and knowledge to write his own works. He has responsibility only to himself.

In “Without Isms” an essay outlining his opposition to any form of indoctrination, be it political, aesthetic or philosophical, Gao Xingjian writes:

At birth a person is without isms but after birth all sorts of isms are forced upon him and to discard these later is not a simple matter. People are permitted to convert from one ism to another but they are not permitted to be without isms.

Gao does not advocate an eradication of isms but simply the right not to adhere to any. The brand of individuality that he seeks for himself is not an egocentric claim to superiority or god-like status; his concern is foremost to plumb the inner soul, to explore what it is to be an individual human being. Art, he says, “attempts to reach a realm that is unattainable in reality. Otherwise, why go through all the trouble?”

Ultimately the bedrock of the individual is the individual. And it is precisely the voice of the one thrown back onto himself that pervades all Gao Xingjian's work. Unlike much of post-Mao literature, which has been called scar-literature, Gao's output is not a retrospective of the painful experiences of the past. It is a banishment of the self to find the self.

To transpose the removal of the self to observe the self into a stage language, Gao Xingjian developed a specific mode of acting that encourages actors to view their role from three standpoints—the self, the actor and the role—which are brought to the surface, making no attempt to disguise the fact that a play is a play. The dialogue between audience and actor is highlighted via the neutrality of the actor, who must show that he is conscious that he is acting and must make the audience aware that they are watching a play. Thus the “theatricality” of the medium is brought to the fore.

One of the means Gao employs to implement the neutrality and purification of the self is the use of pronouns. Throughout his plays actors address their role by referring to themselves as you or he. The use of a second or third person pronoun never fails to surprise or remind both audience and actor that one is watching a play. The directness and simplicity of Gao Xingjian's language prevent the device from striking an artificial chord.

In his novel Ling Shan (Soul Mountain, recently translated into English by Mabel Lee and due to be published by HarperCollins this year), Gao employs the same idea in a narrative context with artful dexterity. The novel is boldly experimental and yet never alienates the reader. In an essay on modern Chinese and literary writing Gao comments on an experimental short story which he wrote in 1991:

The language is the simplest possible; the more the words and phrases are simple and clear, the more the reader disposes of a vast space of imagination, the more the images that are awakened in him become alive.

The simplicity of the language is also evident in Gao's plays, where the actor's role is not to embody the psychological make-up of the character but to present it to the audience, who becomes aware of the process free of artifice. The self, the “I,” is embodied in the “you” of the actor who interprets the “he” or “she” of the role.

Apart from The Other Shore, Gao Xingjian's last play to be written in China, the collection of five plays translated from the Chinese by Gilbert Fong include his most recent works. Between Life and Death (Shengsijie, 1991) written in French and subsequently in Chinese, makes use of traditional Chinese theatre but is not set in China. Performed first in France and Australia in 1993 and in New York at the Theater for the New City in 1997 as well as broadcast on Radio Free Asia in the USA, the play explores the agonies, memories and fantasies of Woman, the main protagonist. Between Life and Death has no specific narrative thread or plot; as the protagonist declares, at the end of the play, it is about the self.

With Dialogue and Rebuttal (Duihua yu fanjie) of 1992, Gao focuses on the near destruction of language and the act of narration itself. Inspired by a style of question and answer prominent in Chinese Zen Buddhism, the play opens with a couple who have just met and spent the night together. Their dialogues progressively reveal an indifference to communicate and form a series of unconnected language bubbles. Of all of Gao's plays, the skill with which personal pronouns are employed to differentiate between the actor, the role and the character, best brings out the extent to which language can trap the individual.

Gao's next plays, Nocturnal Wanderer (Yeyoushen) of 1993 and Weekend Quartet (Zhoumo sichongzou) of 1995, are framed within more definite narrative contexts. The subject matter of Nocturnal Wanderer, performed in the Theatre des Halles in Avignon in 1999, is a nightmare that explores the traditional theme of good and evil. The Avignon performance employed a strong burlesque and circus-like mode that suited the play well. As in a real nightmare, Sleepwalker, the main character, grapples with the situations and transformations that overtake him, his attempts to extricate himself from the bad dream are to no avail, and as another character points out to him, “Good dream or bad dream, you've gotta finish it.”

Gao Xingjian's most recent play, Weekend Quartet, is his most realistic work to date. The four protagonists have names and specific traits that characterise them. The play brings to the fore their individual viewpoints and is based on the structural elements of musical composition for a quartet. In writing the play, Gao studied some eighty quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Gorecki and others. The role of rhythm and tonality in Chinese is of paramount importance. Gao has said that Chinese, with its loose word order and ability to forgo notions of time, can be written almost as if one were composing music. Although some of the “musicality” of the work is lost in translation, the tension, point and counterpoint that the four characters play out retain the changes of mood.

Gao's blend of traditional Chinese theatre techniques and modern Western theatre offers a radically new interpretation of drama. His tripartition of the actor forgoes Stanislavski's total immersion in the role and Brecht's alienation. In his suggestions on producing the plays he refers to Grotowski's training method which “aims at helping the actor discover his own self and to release its potential.” The overwhelming impression, when watching one of Gao Xingjian's plays, is that one is watching a play—a ritual that enacts the bewilderment of modern man—and that one could walk on stage and cross the boundary to reach the surreal shore where myths are made and un-made.

Olivier Burckhardt (review date September 2000)

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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 1989 in Paris, where Gao currently lives. In its eighty-one short chapters, the novel alternates between an inner and outer journey. What begins as a search for the elusive mountain soon turns into an odyssey in the true sense of the word; a series of wanderings; a long adventurous journey where each episode creates a rhythmic unit of tension and counterpoise that gives the whole work a sense of unity.

Soul Mountain weaves together an intricate pattern of impressions, observations and dialogues. The critic of chapter 72 complains that the work isn't a novel and snarls, “You've slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!”—but what the critic cannot fathom is the lack of a named protagonist and that the I, you, she and he of the book are characters.

As in many of his plays, Gao Xingjian creates a light, almost ethereal atmosphere in the novel by alternating between first- and second-person pronouns. In an essay on modern Chinese and literary writing he is careful to note that “if the narrator is truly aware of what he writes, he will realise that the changing of pronouns does not constitute a simple and skilful play of style. The three characters, I, you and he, constitute three distinctive angles of narration that procure a stable psychological base.”

In her translation of Gao's Chinese, Mabel Lee has admirably succeeded in transposing the distinctive voice in which Soul Mountain is written. Gao's is a language where simplicity is refined to a crystalline quality. It is the total lack of artificiality or intellectual mind-games that makes Soul Mountain the kind of book that probes the human soul without any attempt to glorify or vilify. Reality and imagination are transposed into a flow of words which the reader can convincingly relate to and trust from the outset.

There are few modern novels that explore new forms of narration without alienating the reader to some extent or demanding various degrees of effort and skill in reading. The lyric quality of Soul Mountain removes such obstacles to understanding by taking a direct approach. There is no hidden meaning or an all-seeing agent to govern our perception. Rather, we are drawn into an individual's search for meaning, an individual who realises that there may be no meaning, that he means nothing, who chooses to write a book on the human self, who realises that the gods and demons summoned are summoned from within one's own self.

The “she” invoked by “he” so that the loneliness might be alleviated by telling tales which invoke more gods and demons; the patter of children's bare feet on cobbled lanes that echo his childhood; the tales of Daoist recluses, Buddhist nuns and shamans that interweave through the novel; the description of some of China's most inaccessible mountain forests and remote villages—all these elements form a kaleidoscope of images and thoughts that is constantly being shifted and realigned. Soul Mountain offers the reader a momentary and partial view of a transient existence seen through the eyes of a painter with a keen sense of observation who relentlessly questions himself, knowing that even while pretending to understand, he doesn't understand.

Further Reading

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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 Prize in Literature.

Weeks, Linton. “Chinese Exile Wins Nobel for Literature.” Washington Post (13 October 2000): C1, C8.

Weeks discusses the significance of Gao's status as a Chinese dissident writer to his winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

———. “Hard Climb to Freedom's Peak.” Washington Post (22 February 2001): C1, C8.

Weeks interviews Gao about how his life has been altered since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Weeks also discusses Gao's narrative technique in Soul Mountain.

Additional coverage of Gao's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 193; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 2000; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3.

Howard Goldblatt (review date autumn 2000)

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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 adopted homeland; for that and other reasons, one welcomes this collection of his plays in translation. (Editor's Note: This review was written and submitted three months before the announcement of Gao's receipt of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Gilbert Fong's introduction is, in itself, a substantial piece of scholarship/criticism and serves to open a number of windows into the structure, intent, “meaning,” and idiosyncratic nature of Gao's more recent plays. Well written, well informed, thoughtful, and illuminating, this indispensable prefatory material is a boon to those who wish to appreciate the playwright's accomplishments. If there is a concern, it is that the translator appears at times to have forgotten that it is the plays for which a reader will come to the collection, not the explication. Then too, here and there, the text seems to be vying with the plays themselves for opacity. That said, given the complexity of Gao's creative work—including his long novel Spirit Mountain (Lingshan), recently published in English translation—and his finely honed views on the nature of drama, exile, marginalization, and more, Fong's comprehensive analysis is essential and rewarding. The three appendices—plays by Gao, selected criticism, and major productions—are most welcome.

The translations of the five largely experimental plays (his most famous play, Bus Stop [here rendered as Bus Station], available elsewhere, is not included) in no way do a disservice to the playwright. With Gao himself assuming the role of unofficial collaborator, the authority of the texts is unquestioned; not that Gao's English is at the level of his translator, but implications, significance of word choice, and the like are significantly aided in the finished product by his participation. Dramatic scripts and librettos are, at their best, poor substitutes for dramatic or musical creations; with Gao Xingjian, for whom stage setting and acting are so central to his work, this problem is exacerbated. Yet, since so few people will ever actually see Gao's plays performed, the volume at hand is likely the best we can hope for.

The translator, unlike many others, who seem to have a tin ear for real speech patterns, has produced smooth, idiomatic, and lively English versions of Gao's plays. Elegant when called for, colloquial when demanded, the language retains the illusion that the characters are speaking in English, and contemporary English at that. While some of the dialogue seems a bit slangy, to the detriment of that illusion, it is not a significant concern. Readers may not always be sure where these occasionally cryptic texts are taking them, but they are sure to enjoy the journey, with the editor/translator as tour guide.

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

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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 of Sydney, worked part time for five years on the novel. “Finding a publisher,” she says, “took two years.”

Lee's agent, Lyn Tranter of Australian Literary Management, took the novel to HarperCollins Australia, which published it in 1999 under its Flamingo imprint. This is the only English-language edition of the book, which was first published in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1980, then in Sweden and France.

World rights have not been sold, according to Rod Morrison, Gao's editor at HarperCollins Australia. Soul Mountain, while on a bestseller list in Australia, is not available in the United States but is being offered to publishers here and in Britain. However, The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, published by Chinese University Press in 1999, is available in English through the Internet.

Gao's plays have rarely been produced in the United States. The Yangtze Theatre Company gave 12 performances of Between Life and Death at an off-off-Broadway theater in 1997. “It was not living-room drama, that's for sure. It had great mythic quality,” said Crystal Field, artistic director of Theater for the New City in New York. “It was a beautifully done piece.”

The Nobel honor is “long overdue,” said Haiping Yan, an assistant professor of theater and comparative literature at the University of Colorado who edited some of Gao's plays for an anthology of contemporary Chinese literature.

She said Gao's reputation as a dramatist was established in 1982 with a production by the state-run People's Art Theater Company in Beijing of Bus Stop, a play that focuses on an anxious group of commuters waiting for a bus that never arrives, a work compared by Western critics to Samuel Beckett's absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot. But, Yan said, the play's perceived Western influence, together with its implicit criticisms of Chinese society, provoked a “national controversy,” and the production was closed down after only a few performances.

While Gao was influenced by European modernists such as Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, Yan added, he is “one of those authors whose artistic and humanistic social visions are deeply rooted in Chinese experience, but are also relevant to human experiences in general.”

Yan's colleague, Howard Goldblatt, a professor of East Asian literature, spoke to the significance of a Chinese author winning a Nobel: “It's become a national obsession to a certain degree. I think that any sort of international recognition in whatever field is important to them, to show their standing in the world community. And a country that large, with a long literary tradition, for them to have been frozen out so long is a bit of a slap in the face, I think.”

John-Thor Dahlburg (essay date 13 October 2000)

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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 that originated in the West.

During the upheaval of Mao Tse-tung's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, in which millions perished, the author was sent to political re-education camps and toiled for six years as an agricultural worker. During that chaotic period, he burned a suitcase filled with manuscripts to avoid their falling into the hands of government officials.

“In the writing of Gao Xingjian, literature is born anew from the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses,” said the Swedish Academy, which selects the winner of the Nobel in literature. “He is a perspicacious skeptic who makes no claim to be able to understand the world. He asserts that he has found freedom only in writing.”

“Art and propaganda are two different things,” the novelist once said. Gao is also a playwright, critic and artist—he paints the covers of his own books with India ink.

The Chinese-born writer's masterpiece, the nearly 700-page novel Soul Mountain, was written in the 1980s. It recounts the wanderings of an ethnologist among the minorities of southern China as he searches through space and time for his origins, inner peace and freedom.

The Swedish Academy called the book “masterful,” saying it recalls “the grandiose idea of German romanticism of a universal poetry.”

The 60-year-old author will receive a cash prize of $915,000. He is the first literature prize winner to come from outside Europe since Japan's Kenzaburo Oe won in 1994.

Though Gao is the first Chinese to win the literature prize, that will hardly gladden the heart of Beijing authorities. His works have been outlawed in his native land for a decade, and he is officially deemed persona non grata.

The Swedish Academy said it had no political agenda in singling out Gao as a dissident from Chinese communism or as a writer from the world's most populous country. The Swedish judges maintained they were simply honoring great literature.

Gao was born in 1940 in Jiangxi province, the son of a banker and an actress. He attended the Peking Foreign Language Institute, specializing in French and later in translating surrealist poets.

Only in 1979 was Gao allowed to publish and to travel abroad, notably in France and Italy. In the 1980s, he became one of the most prominent avant-garde figures of post-Maoist China, publishing short stories, essays and plays. His 1982 Alarm Signal became the first experimental play staged in Beijing in years.

The 1983 play Bus Stop, which teetered on the cutting edge because of its absurdity, was denounced by Chinese officialdom as “the most pernicious text written since the creation of the People's Republic.” It led to Gao being targeted in a crackdown on “spiritual pollution,” a code phrase for unwelcome Western cultural influences.

When another stage production, The Other Shore, was banned in 1986, Gao embarked on a 10-month walking tour of Sichuan province to avoid further harassment. He left China in 1987 and was admitted to France as a political refugee.

After the 1989 massacre of protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Gao resigned his membership in the Chinese Communist Party and joined the dissident movement.

Yet another of his plays, Fugitives, employs that slaughter of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators in central Beijing as its backdrop. Chinese officialdom responded by outlawing Gao's entire opus and declaring him an undesirable.

In his apartment in a working-class housing complex in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, Gao on Thursday called his Nobel Prize “a miracle.” He got the news, he said, in a two-minute telephone call from Stockholm.

“It is a great happiness, a great luck,” Gao, dressed in a gray sweatshirt and gray jeans, told Reuters Television in fluent French. “They announced it to me very simply and told me I had to prepare a 45-minute speech. I said that's very long.”

Living in an apartment decorated with his own paintings in white, black and gray, Gao said he did not think his Chinese origins played a role in his selection. “One must first be a writer,” he said.

“Gao has been one of the most important writers in creating what didn't exist before: a spoken drama in China as distinct from music drama, dance and the old traditions,” Horace Engdahl, the academy's permanent secretary, told a news conference in Stockholm.

Gao renounced his Chinese citizenship and became a French national two years ago.

This year's Nobel Prizes conclude today with the announcement in Oslo of the winner of the peace prize.

Anthony Kuhn (essay date 16 October 2000)

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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; whom the government considers subversive and whom the domestic media have largely been banned from discussing.

But with mainstream Chinese culture caught between unbridled commercialism and official censorship, the award may serve to draw attention to China's small but vital avant-garde arts sector, which Gao helped nurture before going into exile in France in 1987.

On Friday, China's Foreign Ministry dismissed Gao's award, saying in a statement that it “shows again the Nobel literature prize has been used for ulterior political motives, and it is not worth commenting on.”

And in a move certain to make Gao even less popular with Beijing, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian chipped in his praise for Gao on Saturday. Taiwanese media quoted Chen as saying, “We express our highest respects for his outstanding achievement.” Beijing views Taiwan as a separatist province.

The few Chinese intellectuals who had heard of Gao responded to the news of his prize with mixed emotions.

“We should congratulate him for his award,” said Shu Yi, head of the recently opened National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature in Beijing. But he added: “The award is stimulating and provocative for China. It makes us feel awkward—we don't know whether to laugh or cry.”

Shu said the award showed that the Nobel committee doesn't understand China, which, he said, has plenty of authors of greater stature. But he also railed at China's cultural bureaucracy for not doing a better job of translating and promoting the country's own literature.

“We can't expect foreigners to introduce China's literature to the rest of the world,” Shu said. “But China no longer has any great translators.”

Shu pointed out that the literary giants of early 20th century China were also translators. Novelists and playwrights such as Ba Jin, Lu Xun and Shu's father, Lao She, were typically schooled in the Chinese classics, then went overseas to study foreign languages and culture.

In much of the second half of the century, most Chinese got neither. Translators went to foreign-language schools based on the Soviet model where they were trained as technicians and taught to reject China's humanist heritage.

In Shu's opinion, the logical choice for the prize would have been the 96-year-old Ba Jin, who has previously been considered by the Nobel committee. Ba's leftist writings inspired idealistic Chinese youths to reject feudal traditions and join the Communist rebels in the caves of Yanan before they seized power in 1949.

On the fringes of China's avant-garde art world, opinions about Gao's prize were more positive.

“The Nobel Prize is not the Olympics, who's No. 1 or No. 2. It's about cultural concepts, not achievement,” said Meng Jinghui, a young director at China's Central Experimental Theater. “Really, it's about a bunch of old Swedes looking for meaningful works within their limited field of vision.

“I was very happy to hear of Gao's prize. He's someone who was right next to us.”

Before Gao left China, his greatest influence was in the rarefied world of avant-garde theater, and this is where his contributions are most evident today.

As a director and playwright at the People's Art Theater in the 1980s, Gao was part of a group of directors who used bold visual imagery, lighting, sound and acting techniques to introduce Chinese audiences to postmodern Western drama.

Like emerging Chinese genres from political pop and installation art to punk and rock music, the plays mocked Communist icons and the party's role as the lone arbiter of what is “true, good and beautiful” in art.

At first, the absurdity, alienation and vulgarity of these works left most Chinese audiences bewildered. Now, avant-garde art has begun to go commercial, imitated on billboards and television ads, as well as more mainstream works.

In contrast to Gao's days in China, government censors now largely ignore avant-garde theater, partly because of a political loosening, but also because the genre attracts small audiences and scarce media coverage. But this is slowly changing.

“Before, we avant-garde artists mostly just performed for each other,” Meng said. Now a night of experimental theater is the in thing for college students, yuppies and foreigners.

In 1990, Meng directed Eugene Ionesco's Bald Soprano, which Gao had translated from French. Meng put on two shows at a 200-seat playhouse, and most of the tickets were given away as comps. His next production this year will include 40 shows at an 800-seat theater, and he even expects some box office revenues.

In 1998, Meng achieved his biggest critical success by directing Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Italian playwright Dario Fo, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in literature. In Meng's modified version of the play, police beat to death a madman who discovers evidence of official corruption, then hire a director to script a cover-up of the killing.

Comparisons to Chinese society were so obvious they didn't need to be drawn. Meng laughed, recalling, “The more we pointed out that the story was set in Italy, the happier we were.”

Julia Lovell (essay date 20 October 2000)

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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 denouncing the “political purposes” of the Prize and declaring that it had lost authority. The Western press also played its part. In the wave of panic that swept the British media last Thursday afternoon (who is he? what has he written? how is his name pronounced?), everyone reached for the first security blanket of modern Chinese studies: the playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian is an exiled dissident (he lives in France). But what significance, if any, does this political virtue have for his writing?

Born in 1940, Gao Xingjian spent the first forty-seven years of his life in China. Though he did not start writing as a professional playwright until 1981, he was active in a drama group while at university in Beijing, where he studied French literature and was introduced to Brechtian theatre. After China re-opened her doors in 1979, the literary scene was quickly deluged with Western literature and theory. Widespread debates ensued on how to reconcile China's ambition to achieve cultural and social modernity with the spiritually polluting origins of these concepts in the bourgeois West.

Gao Xingjian contributed to these debates with a much-discussed booklet on techniques in modern fiction and with Bus Stop, a play influenced by the Theatre of the Absurd. Seven characters spend ten years waiting for a bus that never comes, expressing their hopes, disappointments and anxieties in a public transport vacuum. Aesthetics and individual subjectivity, however, were distinctly political issues in a China emerging from an authoritarian phase of proletarian realism: ten years waiting for a bus? what kind of realism is that? what are the masses to make of it? Gao's play fell victim to the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign. Rather than waiting to be sent for re-education, however, he took off on a five-month tour of China, a trip which yielded the novel Mountain of Souls, an exploration of the self in eighty-one chapters, a beleaguered concept both in China's past and present, but a mainstay of modern Western philosophy. All reassuringly dissident and accessible to the West.

Gao is not that easily categorized. A highly innovative playwright, in the 1980s he started developing a concept of “Total Theatre” that incorporated singing, dancing and acrobatics from Chinese sources. Chinese tradition, however, is not used for its own exotic sake, but rather as a dynamic means to create a “modern Eastern theatre” to treat wider, cross-cultural themes, such as human alienation. Set in remote rural China, his 1986 play Wildman aimed ambitiously to address both local questions of ecological disaster and the predicament of modern man. Nor is the West an indispensable model: Gao has written that he reads contemporary Western literature simply to avoid duplicating what others have already done.

Gao's reasons for exile emphasized the artistic over the political: on leaving China, he remarked, “an artist who wishes to express freely would not want to stay in this country unless he goes against his conscience.” In exile in France, he has not been unwilling to comment on politics: his play Fleeing was set during the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, but he refused to identify with either the protesters or the Communist Party. In the 1990s, he declared that his existence as a writer hinges on expression, not on representing a nation and its people. He is one of the least political of Chinese dissidents, and it is doubtless his assertion of aesthetic neutrality that appealed to the Nobel Committee.

In an ideal world, Gao Xingjian's prize would be feted as an award to an individual writer, who happened to be born in China, for his impressive achievements in both Chinese and French. In view of the heavily politicized course of modern Chinese literature, moreover, it's easy to sympathize with Gao Xingjian's detached stance. But recent Chinese history and the marginal position occupied by modern Chinese literature in the world literary economy inevitably make his Prize a political issue. Through circumstances beyond his control, Gao, an exile practically unknown to readers in contemporary China and a French citizen since 1998, will most likely be turned into a representative of China in the West. (It remains to be seen whether Gao Xingjian's new status in World Literature will convert to cultural capital in China, whether Beijing will reclaim him as a true son of China or continue to regard him as a turncoat Frenchman.) For China, winning a Nobel Prize for Literature for the first time has been a symbol of achieving global recognition as a modern culture. Although many Chinese intellectuals have long been aware that anxiety to secure the Prize risks a capitulation to Western literary values, the money and prestige that modern Chinese literature would stand to gain are a strong draw, especially as the chances of Chinese literature breaking into the world market are influenced by the politics of international translation and publishing. (The Economist predicted in 1998 that the Chinese football team would qualify for the World Cup finals long before a Chinese novelist won the Nobel Prize.) The bitterness of the Chinese' government is unsurprising, in view of this abrupt end to China's century-long quest for the Prize.

Yet leaving aside the official aspect to China's search for a Nobel Literature Prize, Gao Xingjian's laureateship does not solve the problem of Western unfamiliarity with most Chinese literature. China and its literature remain a blank in average Western perceptions, filled occasionally by the writings of exiled authors. While many Chinese are doubtless privately delighted at Gao's prize, there is a feeling among contemporary Chinese writers that the country has changed enormously since 1989, and that the Western exiles are not necessarily qualified spokesmen. There is also some suspicion about the “virtuous dissident” image attached to exiled writers, an image that is ably manipulated by publishers. The Chinese government's condemnation of the Nobel Prize simply reinforces this image.

The real challenge to World Literature still remains; to build a bridge to China's contemporary literature. When copies of Gao Xingjian's work reach bookshops in a few weeks time, it is to be hoped that modern Chinese literature in general will benefit from the increased attention.

Carol J. Williams (essay date 1 November 2000)

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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 professor of Chinese languages and literature, Malmqvist just happens to be the Swedish translator of this year's laureate, exiled dissident Gao Xingjian. He's also the confessed middleman in the writer's recent defection from one Swedish publisher to another just before the Nobel announcement.

The nine-month deliberations leading up to literature's most prestigious award are supposed to be held in the strictest confidence. Malmqvist insists that he neither broke the Swedish Academy's vow of silence nor did anything wrong in steering Gao into the hands of a publishing friend.

“There were no leaks from the Swedish Academy—certainly not from me. I'm not that foolish,” Malmqvist said Tuesday from Stockholm in a telephone interview with The Times. “No member of the Swedish Academy is allowed to say anything about the prize before it is announced.”

The announcement of the 60-year-old Gao's selection came Oct. 12, with a citation in which the academy said that in his writing, “literature is born anew from the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses.” Gao, now a French citizen, has written stories, essays and plays, but the citation called his nearly 700-page novel Soul Mountain, written in the 1980s, “masterful.”

And while disavowing any impropriety, Malmqvist readily conceded that he advised Gao to take Soul Mountain to Kjell Petersson at Stockholm's Atlantis Publishers, where Malmqvist also tried to transfer his own translation rights from the rival house that launched Gao's works in Sweden, Forum Publishers of the Bonnier Group.

Those behind-the-scenes maneuvers stirred up unseemly squabbles in the tiny Swedish publishing realm, which takes pride in the country's outsize role in recognizing the best of the written word. But the scandal has since taken on international proportions. Cultural figures gathered at the Frankfurt Book Fair last week denounced the translator's actions as self-serving, unprofessional and damaging to both the vaunted academy and the Nobel Prize in literature.

“He has struck a severe blow against the reputation of the Swedish Academy,” said German Culture Minister Michael Naumann, himself a former New York publisher.

“The eccentricity of the Swedish Academy's decisions has always vexed people,” Naumann said. “But eccentricity with concomitant commercial interests puts the credibility of the entire academy in doubt.”

One Swedish literary agent who was at the Frankfurt gathering explained, on condition she not be identified, that few in the interdependent business world of literature are willing to publicly criticize Malmqvist or Atlantis for fear of being “blacklisted” for future publication rights.

Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins, which last month bought the North American rights to Soul Mountain, said: “We don't really know about this brouhaha. I was surprised to hear this.”

Even Bonnier and Forum executives choose their words carefully in questioning the ethics of those they consider to be practicing the literary equivalent of insider trading.

“What should be said about the role of the academy and whether Mr. Malmqvist said things he shouldn't have, that's not for Bonnier to get involved in,” said Jonas Modig, president of the publishing group. “We don't want to express open criticism of the academy. … We have to preserve our relations with them.”

Executives at the jilted Forum, which had hoped to recoup losses from earlier Gao works that failed to sell in Sweden, said they are in principle satisfied with an out-of-court settlement reached with Atlantis in the past week that will allow them to issue a new edition of Gao short stories first published by Forum in 1988.

That compromise, for which Forum must pay Malmqvist “a small sum” for the translation it already paid for, also obliges Forum to drop its legal pursuit of the rights to other Gao works, said Forum public relations director Annelie Eldh.

Eldh and others point to a number of suspicious coincidences as evidence that ethical rules were broken. Forum was informed by letter from Petersson a couple of days before the Nobel announcement that Atlantis was taking over rights to Gao works in light of a purported letter sent to Forum by the author July 6—a letter both Bonnier and Forum say they never got.

The Swedish Academy, whose 18 members make the final selection of a Nobel laureate after a 16-person prize committee narrows the nominations to a handful, takes the public position that nothing untoward occurred in this year's decision.

“As we understand it, there was nothing inappropriate,” said Carola Hermelin, the academy administrator who serves as its spokeswoman. “We only say that members should be very careful and sensitive.”

Those outside the hallowed institution, however, insist that there is most certainly an academic tongue-lashing being directed at Malmqvist and other members whose private interests might compromise the academy's reputation.

The Swedish Authors Assn., of which Malmqvist is a member, brushes off any suggestion that professional standards are needed and insists that the out-of-court settlement reached by Forum and Atlantis closes the issue.

While Swedish journalists covering cultural affairs commented on the questionable actions of Malmqvist immediately after the prize announcement, they say the issue never really riled anyone in Sweden outside literary circles.

“I think he did leak information, although maybe not directly. I think he wanted something good to come of this, and I don't think he sees anything he did as wrong,” said Asa Beckman, literary critic for the influential Dagens Nyheter newspaper. “I think he's just very enthusiastic about his work.”

Malmqvist said he steered Gao, whose works he has translated since the 1970s, to Petersson because he thought the author's earlier works hadn't been properly promoted by Forum.

“Mr. Petersson has read 98٪ of Gao Xingjian's literature. He has the right to guess, as anyone else does, who would be the recipient” of the Nobel Prize, Malmqvist said of the Atlantis chief's insight into the commercial and cultural value of Gao's work. “Mr. Petersson has a nose for literature—reads books for a living—and having heard me say this is a very important talent might have had its influence. I liked it [Soul Mountain] and wanted him to publish it, and the fact that I'm a member of the Swedish Academy cannot hinder me from uttering my views about Chinese literature.”

Malmqvist bristled at the suggestion that he was pursuing his own financial interests in promoting Gao within the academy and simultaneously attempting to shift his translation rights to Atlantis.

“I don't translate for money. It's my hobby and my pleasure,” insisted the scholar, who has held an academy seat since 1985. Malmqvist said he has earned only about $8,000 from his previous translations of Gao—“less than a cleaning woman working for black-market money would accept.”

Petersson, the new publisher—who expects to have Soul Mountain on Swedish bookstore shelves later this month—also rejected any suggestion of impropriety or profit motive. With an initial printing of 5,000 planned for a work described in the profession as “highly literary”—meaning unlikely to enrapture the masses—Atlantis has no expectations of fortune, he says.

Jennifer K. Ruark (essay date 8 December 2000)

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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 publicists at HarperCollins in New York were bewildered when they started getting phone calls asking for copies. It turned out the book, translated by Mabel Lee, was published by the press's Australian branch. The New York office rushed an American edition into print that at press time was due out on December 5.

Until then, the University of Michigan Press has cornered the U.S. market on Gao with The Other Shore, which it has distributed for the Chinese University Press, of Hong Kong, since October of last year. Michigan had sold fewer than 100 copies and had only 50 more in stock when the Nobel was announced, says the press's publicist, Jessica Sysak. Editors quickly requested more, and the press has now sold 10,000 copies and ordered a third printing.

The title play—which refers to the Buddhist land of enlightenment—is a series of disjointed episodes, beginning with an improvised rope game and ending with a crowd of people who utter seemingly random sentences (including, “It's so bad, what kind of stupid play is this anyway?”). Several scenes in which a mob torments a nonconformist suggest not only the loneliness of the individual but also the dangers of collectivism. A note in the text by Mr. Gao warns that “it is best not to resort to literary analysis outside of theatrical performance or to uncover hidden meanings in the text in performing the play.” Chinese authorities disagreed: They forbade the play's performance soon after it was written in 1986.


The Other Shore has since been performed under Mr. Gao's direction in Hong Kong (and Taiwan) and the book is apparently selling well there. Staff of the Chinese University Press could not be reached for comment, but a source in Hong Kong says both Soul Mountain and The Other Shore “are available in all the bookstores and there has been discussion of Gao coming to Hong Kong under Hong Kong government auspices in the near future.”

That source is Colin Day, the former head of the University of Michigan Press and as of this summer the director of Hong Kong University Press, where he is also capitalizing on the Nobel laureate's sudden international acclaim. In a few months the press will publish what Mr. Day calls “the first substantial critical work on Gao's writing (and painting),” by Jessica Yeung, a lecturer in the translation department at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. It is “indicative of the degree of freedom here that Gao's The Other Shore is published by Chinese University Press, who are making a big splash about it,” writes Mr. Day in an e-mail message.

“Hong Kong is still very separate from the rest of China,” he writes. “Of course there is a wariness here about possible threats to basic freedoms and some things do justify such watchfulness. But the worries are about the possible implications for future freedoms, they are not about infringements of present freedoms. I, of course, asked questions about this, but was, and am, reassured that there is a very serious commitment to academic freedom in this university and in Hong Kong.”

Mr. Day arrived in August, after 12 years at Michigan. “It felt time to move on and try some new kind of challenge,” he writes. “Running a press in a new country seemed to meet the requirement!”

As director, he will expand the press's publications (now about 30 titles a year, most in English), focusing on studies of Hong Kong's culture and society and on building the press's lists in linguistics, Chinese history, law, and education.

Mr. Day will also increase the proportion of books the press publishes in Chinese. But he doesn't claim to be an expert. Although he has studied Mandarin Chinese off and on for years, he says now he's just trying to acquire a little “survival Cantonese.”

Jonathan Levi (review date 17 December 2000)

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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 not only relatively unknown in this country but virtually untranslated into English. A resident of Paris since the late 1980s, Gao is best known in Europe for his plays and his paintings. But it seems, according to the helpful introduction by the Australian translator Mabel Lee (who also provides a bibliography of Gao's works in English and French), that the author was also something of a political thorn in the Beijing of the early 1980s. Soul Mountain, written in 1990, is the first example of Gao's fiction to appear in English. As a true work of great literature, it ought immediately to vault Gao out of obscurity and into the ranks of the first-class laureates.

Soul Mountain is billed as a novel. But it is a novel in which the author has included “travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of [his] own invention.” It is a novel that threatens at first, in the style of fellow laureate Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, to join the school of bronchio-topographical fiction. The middle-aged hero, like the author himself, has recently been forced to confront his mortality thanks to a diagnosis of lung cancer. Yet, after six weeks of lying on a stone slab outside a forgotten cemetery practicing “a form of qigong related to the Eight Trigrams” and studying “The Book of Changes with Corrections to the Zhou Commentary,” the hero has another X-ray taken and, mirabile dictu, the shadow on his lung is gone. In search of a new way for his new life (and because his writings have put him out of sympathy with the government), he leaves Beijing for the source of the Yangtze and the mysterious and mystical Lingshan or Soul Mountain.

Barely into the journey, however, the novel takes a turn that no tubercular dream of Hans Castorp's could ever have imagined. The identity of the hero divides. Sometimes “I,” sometimes “he” and, after he creates a fictional female traveling companion with her own problems of escape and discovery, sometimes “you,” the personalities of the hero mix as freely as the spirits of the folk tales and stories of the ordinary people he encounters, to whom miracles happen as easily as disasters. Split or together, the hero travels up mountains by bus and foot, down rivers by boat, across nature reserves full of mythic snakes, sleeping rough or in local inns and friendly houses where there is always the imagined company of a fellow drinker or a curious woman.

Quickly Soul Mountain ceases to be the story of Mann and becomes a splendid stewpot in the spirit of Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, the historical mosaics of Eduardo Galeano and the hopscotch jigsaws of Julio Cortázar. Anthropology mixes with political history, stories of bear-footed Wild Men meld with tales of opium gangsters and crooked cadres, Confucian aphorisms rime chapters as barnacled as the catalogs of proverbs in Moby-Dick. One hallucinogenic chapter on a Tibetan plateau takes the hero past his old fear of death. “A dark blue sun circles within an even darker moon, you hold your breath enraptured, stop breathing, reach the extremity of life.” To a score that could have been written by Iannis Xenakis for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey the hero looks out from “the physical body you failed to abandon. … In the darkness, in the corner of the room, the line of bright red lights on your tape recorder is flashing.” In another odyssey, he journeys through a nether world where the river sighs with the moans of girls who have drowned themselves in the weeds.

Occasionally the philosophy reeks more of M. Scott Peck than “Der Zauberberg.” “When you think about it, life in fact doesn't have what may be called ultimate goals. It's just like this hornet's nest. It's a pity to abandon it, yet if one tries to remove it one will encounter a stinging attack. Best to leave it just hanging there so that it can be admired.” Much better are the moments when Gao lets the story ripen with the tang of parable, as in one brief encounter when a beautiful young girl lets the hero take her photograph in exchange for the promise he will send her a copy in Chengdu. “Later,” he writes, “when I return to Chengdu, I pass by this old street. I remember the number of her house and go past the front of it but don't go in. I don't send her the photo afterwards either. After developing my big pile of film, apart from the few I really need, I don't print most of it. I don't know,” he adds, “whether or not one day I'll have all this film made into prints, nor do I know whether she will look as stunningly beautiful in the photo.”

In the end, Gao's wanderer returns to Beijing, cured of the very miracle that set him on his journey. Motion has taken him not just away from himself and his past life but to the lives and—even more important—the stories of hundreds of other men and women. He has found survival not just in motion but in words. And ultimately, it is the miracle of those words that wins Nobels.

Sylvia Li-Chun Lin (essay date winter 2001)

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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 outside of academic circles. What was unusual was the excitement in China over the selection of a Chinese Nobel laureate of whom most had never heard. As a self-exiled writer and naturalized French citizen, Gao Xingjian has witnessed the erasure of his name from the literary scene and the national collective memory in China for reasons that will be briefly explained in the following pages.

This is not to say that Gao's selection went unnoticed in the country of his birth; the Shanghai novelist Wang Anyi, for instance, announced that she was “very happy a Chinese writer won this award, no matter where he lives.”1 And the internationally renowned novelist Mo Yan has spoken of Gao's enormous contributions. But this essay does not concern itself with the Chinese—either the nation's youth, who were ecstatic over the choice but had no idea who the man was, or representatives of the official establishment, who were furious at what they viewed as an intentional provocation by the Swedish Academy or were utterly dismissive of his talents (“a very very average” writer, some said). Rather, I shall use this opportunity to introduce Gao's fictional works to Western readers.

Gao Xingjian was born in Jiangxi Province in 1940. As a French major in college, he obtained a broad knowledge of Western literary theories, particularly modernist writings, which prompted the publication of A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction in 1981.2 Published during the thaw immediately following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), this treatise aroused heated debate among scholars and writers in China and “awakened a self-awareness in literature,”3 but also sparked attacks of “spiritual pollution” on Gao, who was then put under surveillance.

In July 1983, his short play Bus Stop was banned after ten performances, for it was considered by some to be “the most pernicious work since the establishment of the People's Republic.”4Bus Stop, in the vein of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, portrays a group of people waiting for a bus to take them to the city, although their bus never comes. During their ten-year wait, the individual riders reveal their dreams and desires; this was later viewed by Gao's detractors as a direct criticism of the Communist Party, which had failed to take the people into the city, the symbol of prosperity. The ten-year waiting period can also be read as a metaphor for the Cultural Revolution, during which Gao himself had burned mounds of his writings for fear of persecution, particularly since his wife at the time had reported to the authorities on the “unsavory” content of his writings.5

Political pressure was further compounded by a diagnosis of lung cancer, the cause of his father's death only a few years earlier. Although an X-ray later proved the diagnosis wrong, the impact on Gao was life-changing; meanwhile, the nightmare of persecution remained persistent in the form of a rumor of his imminent consignment to a prison farm in the remote province of Qinghai. Gao quickly decided to leave Beijing and set out on a roaming journey in Southern China. In 1987 he went to Germany on a fellowship and vowed not to return to Communist China until the totalitarian system was overthrown. He would go even further, by denouncing a system that allows for no dissent; in 1989 he publicly condemned the crackdown on the student movement in Tiananmen Square, an act that sealed his fate in China. His works were banned and his name was never mentioned again, except privately among small groups of intellectuals. When the October 2000 announcement came, the Chinese government dismissed the news as “a Frenchman with a Chinese name winning the Nobel.” No wonder people in China did not know who he was, let alone have any familiarity with his works.

Although Gao Xingjian and his works have been politicized by supporters and detractors alike, he insists that he does not subscribe to any particular literary school of thought or align himself with any political faction, including nationalism and patriotism. “I consider literary creation to be a kind of challenge against society waged by an individual's existence,” he has written; “even though this challenge may be insignificant, it is at least a gesture.”6

In August 1989, soon after the Tiananmen massacre, a performing-arts center in Los Angeles contacted Gao with a request to write a play in support of the students' movement. When Gao gave them the play, they told him it wouldn't work for an American audience because it didn't have a hero. They needed a hero in the American fashion, but his play didn't have a single one. So they asked him to revise it; Gao responded that since the Chinese Communist Party could not make him alter his plays, he was not about to do so for the American theater.7 It is, in part, this challenge against society and an uncompromising attitude toward his beliefs and creative principles that won such high praise from the members of the Swedish Academy.

One of the qualities that place Gao Xingjian squarely in the ranks of the most respected Nobel laureates is the universal appeal of his works, which are distinctively Chinese and yet transcend national boundaries. Unlike so many modern and contemporary Chinese writers, who seem “obsessed with China,”8 Gao, though drawing his inspiration from Chinese culture, nevertheless ponders more fundamental issues of human existence. Among his favorite themes is the relationship between the individual and the collective entity, which can be a society or a small group of people. In addition to the famous (or “infamous”) Bus Stop, which incurred official censorship, his other plays, equally well received in Europe, also tackle this issue. Absconding,9 for instance, the play rejected by the Los Angeles Center for the Performing Arts, deals with three characters who hide in a small warehouse on the night of the Tiananmen massacre. Coming from disparate backgrounds, the characters express different views on political movements. One of them, a middle-aged man, even goes so far as to claim that all mass movements are controlled by a political power from behind the scenes and thus become games of political struggle. According to Gao, when the play was performed in Germany, the setting was changed from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to Germany during the Nazi era.10 To his European adapters, it was obvious that the choice between resistance and collaboration, as well as an individual's role in any kind of movement, is by no means uniquely Chinese, and easily finds historical resonance elsewhere; nevertheless, the Communist Party chose to read his plays as an open attack on its authority.

The conflict between individual and collective rights and responsibilities is prominently featured in Gao's plays predating the Tiananmen massacre as well. In early 1986, he completed a short play titled The Other Shore, which was immediately banned in the People's Republic and was performed only in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The notion of the other shore comes from the Buddhist concept that human life (on this shore) is full of suffering, and that one can expect salvation only after reaching the other shore. What complicates this play is the fact that the playwright does not allow the characters to obtain salvation or happiness even after they reach the other shore. Worse yet, they are further mired in manipulation and power struggles. The main character, Man, is sought out to lead the others, but then is persecuted when he refuses to be part of the collective. Representing the ultimate individualist, Man yearns for independence, but fails when the collective demands a total surrender of his individuality. Even his search for love is thwarted. Like Gao the playwright, Man becomes an outcast and leaves the stage in the form of a withered heart.

MAN: (Weakly) Who are you?

SHADOW: Your heart.

(As the crowd watches the drooping, blind, and deaf heart slouch past them, Shadow quietly drags Man away. The crowd slowly follows behind the heart, which is extremely old and actually invisible. All exit.)11

Readers and viewers of Gao's plays in China (if the librettos were available and the plays could be staged, of course) would undoubtedly recognize them as criticisms of Chinese society, in which the individual is constantly required to participate in collective activities. It is no wonder then that the Communist Party regards Gao's work as pernicious, since such a totalitarian entity can allow no dissenting voice or quest for individuality. What readers need to bear in mind, however, is that this is by no means a uniquely Chinese problem. As shown in Gao's plays, man cannot exist alone, for he needs the Other. The Other is like a fire on a cold night; one builds a fire to keep warm, but gets burned if one gets too close to it. How to achieve a balanced, comfortable distance between Self and Other is, as Gao's works invariably demonstrate, a perennial problem for people all over the world.

This distance is essential in any society, be it Christian, Confucian, or something else, in which the dominating thought seeks to encroach upon marginal ideologies. This, however, does not mean that Gao Xingjian is a propagandist who wages a frontal attack on any dominant ideology. Rather, he approaches this issue by reflecting upon traditional Chinese culture, which, contrary to general perception, is anything but homogeneously Confucian. His long novel Lingshan (Eng. Soul Mountain) is the perfect example. Instead of questioning the impact of totalitarian Communist rule on the individual, Gao elevates the focus of examination to the level of individual versus collective in the context of dominant Confucian tenets versus marginalized cultures.

In Soul Mountain Gao employs two narrators, “I” and “you,” clearly the two halves of one self; the absence of “we” makes this abundantly clear.12 While the “I” explores the connection between man and nature in a wandering journey into the natural preserves of Western and Southern China, the “you” delineates the relationship between man and woman through an encounter with a “she”:

You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness. You know that this loneliness of mine is incurable, that no-one can save me and that I can only talk with myself as the partner of my conversation.

As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation. … Like me, you wander wherever you like. As the distance increases there is a converging of the two until unavoidably you and I merge and are inseparable. At this point there is a need to step back and to create space.13

Such an experiment with technique may not please every reader, but it allows Gao to reflect upon the relationship between Self and Other (be it a woman or nature itself), which is reminiscent of the existentialist question expounded in Sartre (incidentally, also a Nobel selectee, but one who refused the prize).

Through the narrator's journey in search of Soul Mountain, a physical locale and a spiritual site as well, the author incorporates local legends and supernatural tales from traditions of the Han Chinese and Chinese minorities on the borders. The critic Henry Zhao has argued that, in Gao's mind, there is an official culture represented by power and symbolized by rationalism, male power, and inculcation. This has been the dominant culture in Chinese society for centuries, one that can only be countered with an opposite culture represented by antirationalism, woman, and nature.14 Such a view, if indeed it is held by Gao, may strike feminists and postcolonial theorists as chauvinistic and imperialistic, for the gender Other—woman—and the ethnic Other—China's minorities—can be regarded as mere foils for the Han Chinese man in quest of self-discovery. If that were the case, then this work could be considered just another male-centered intellectual exercise. But we cannot deny that in Chinese society, Confucian rationality, represented by Northern orthodoxy and the imperial government, has always been suspicious of the South and of that segment of Chinese culture that is imaginative and has an investment in the supernatural. In this sense, Gao's spiritual journey to return to nature serves the higher purpose of recognizing the legitimate status of minority cultures that are an integral part of Chinese civilization. Moreover, it is an implicit criticism of the dominant ideology—be it Communist or Confucian—and the latter's relentless demand for conformity and submission.

An inherent prerequisite for questioning the orthodox ideology and restoring the legitimacy of minority traditions is skepticism. One must reexamine ideas and beliefs that have been accepted for generations as “truth” and acknowledge that the foremost object of skepticism is history. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator “I” comes to the “historical” site where the legendary Yu, one of the earliest Chinese kings, is rumored to have eliminated the problem of flooding for the Chinese populace:

In Yu's tomb there are now artefacts for reference but the experts still cannot decipher the tadpole-like script on the stone epitaph opposite the main hall. I look at it from various angles, ruminate for a long time, and suddenly it occurs to me that it can be read in this way: history is a riddle,

it can also be read as: history is lies
and it can also be read as: history is nonsense
and yet it can be read as: history is prediction
and then it can be read as: history is sour fruit
yet still it can be read as: history clangs like iron
and it can be read as: history is balls of wheat-flour dumplings
or it can be read as: history is shrouds for wrapping corpses
or taking it further it can be read as: history is a drug to induce sweating
or taking it further it can also be read as: history is ghosts banging on the walls
and in the same way it can be read as: history is antiques
and even: history is rational thinking
or even: history is experience
and even: history is proof
and even: history is a dish of scattered pearls
and even: history is a sequence of cause and effect
or else: history is analogy
or: history is a state of mind
and furthermore: history is history
and: history is absolutely nothing
even: history is bad sighs
Oh history oh history oh history oh history
Actually history can be read any way and this is a major discovery!


Such a skeptical attitude is, of course, not permitted under Communist rule, for the latter promotes a single interpretation of history that serves the Party and rejects dissent. But for Gao, it is precisely this skeptical attitude that preserves the integrity of his work; that is, his skepticism goes beyond a criticism of Communist society or even Confucian culture, as he does not subscribe to any single political belief. He questions the authoritarian view because it is only human to do so, whether one lives in China or elsewhere.

Soul Mountain is considered a highly autobiographical work, as it relates to Gao's search for a utopia after being given a second chance in life, while simultaneously dealing with the increasing pressure of political persecution. His second novel, Yige ren de Shengjing (One Man's Bible), is even more autobiographical; and yet, like Soul Mountain, it seeks to reach a higher level of truth and a broader humanity. As its title suggests, though it may be but one man's Bible, it is a Bible nonetheless, and deals with one man's life during a turbulent era of Chinese history while he searches for the meaning of existence in the face of human cruelty, trauma, and memory.

Read against Soul Mountain,One Man's Bible is strikingly different in its realistic portrayal of historical events. The major narratological difference is that the “I,” “you,” and “she” in Soul Mountain are here reduced to “you,” “he,” and “she.” The critic Liu Zaifu argues that, as the novel deals with the Cultural Revolution, the “I” is inevitably strangled by merciless reality.15 In other words, in the frenzy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the individual “I” cannot survive. Unlike the “I” in Soul Mountain, who can embark upon self-imposed exile, the “I” in the latter novel must be eliminated. Such a narrative technique clearly sets Gao apart from the authors of the many Cultural Revolution memoirs that have flooded the market (Chinese and Western alike) in recent years. Gao's work is not an attempt to condemn the large-scale persecution so prevalent in modern Chinese history, but a sincere and sometimes brutally honest examination of the human psyche.

The story begins with an encounter between “you” and a Jewish woman in Hong Kong on the eve of the crown colony's turnover to the motherland, and cuts back and forth between the current “you” and the past “he.” “You” is Gao's alter ego, one who has been living in the West and appears in Hong Kong for performances of his plays. His meeting the Jewish “she,” an old acquaintance from China, calls to mind historical similarities between the Jews' fate in World War II and the fate of the Chinese during the disastrous ten-year Cultural Revolution (often referred to in China as its own “holocaust”). But the two individuals deal with the past very differently; “she” needs to remember and seems to enjoy the masochistic pleasure of shouldering the sufferings and sorrows of all Jews, while “you” wants to forget everything, which inevitably leads to the creation of “he,” who travels back to the past. “He” recalls how he was once a fervent participant, until finally realizing that he was nothing but a pawn in a political struggle among higher powers. “He” tries to flee from the cruelties that one person inflicts upon another for no obvious reason other than hysteria motivated by mass madness. While “he” relives the past, “you” is also forced to reflect upon his former self and the process of writing.

You have to liberate from memory that he, that child, that boy, that man who had yet to reach adulthood, that lucky surviving daydreamer, that insolent fellow, the one who was growing trickier by the day, the past you who had not lost your conscience, cruel and yet not without sympathy. Don't defend him and repent for him. When you observe him and listen to him, you naturally feel an uncontrollable sorrow and regret, but don't let the emotion spread and become sentimental feelings. If you stripped him of his mask to examine him, you'd have to turn him into a fictional construct, someone completely unrelated to you, awaiting your discovery. Only then would this narrative bring you the pleasure of writing, and curiosity and exploration would come naturally.16

You write this book for yourself. This book about exile is your One Man's Bible and you are your own God and disciple as well. You don't sacrifice yourself for others, so don't expect others to sacrifice for you. That is only fair. Everyone wants happiness; how could you have it all? You must know that there has never been much happiness in this world to begin with.


Critics of Gao's work have generally focused on his techniques and themes, and not much has been written about women, though they play a significant role in his novels. As mentioned earlier, feminists might find his treatment of women in Soul Mountain bordering on male chauvinism. While I agree that Gao gives women a prominent role in countering the male-centered Chinese culture in Soul Mountain, one might nonetheless find the portrayal in One Man's Bible less satisfying, even disturbing. Appearing in a series of encounters fraught with sexual overtones, the female characters in this long novel are somewhat flat and lack autonomy.

Gao has indicated in a private conversation with a writer friend, Ma Jian, that “of course this world could not exist without women. Men would find it impossible to survive without them, and so do I. Without women, a literary work would be boring to write, let alone to read.”17 Some might also argue that sexual desire is an integral part of the human psyche, one which should be included in an exposé of the darkest aspects of the Cultural Revolution. However, what remains debatable is the significance of juxtaposing the portrayal of relentless persecution of the individual with sexual encounters in which most of the women are passive objects for sexual gratification.

Like Soul Mountain,One Man's Bible does not have a clear, linear story line, but incorporates a juxtaposition of episodic recollections and meditations on life, love, and suffering. Obviously, Gao Xingjian does not intend for his two novels to be read merely as stories of the Cultural Revolution or as fantastic travelogues. Both are difficult texts because the author constantly forces readers away from the plots and into his reflections on larger issues. In this sense, they have the quality of the “alienation effect” made famous by Brecht, one of Gao's favorite Western playwrights. They also show how Gao combines dramatic techniques with novelistic themes; ultimately, he would like readers to regard him as a disciple of modernism and a practitioner of “art for art's sake,” one who views his responsibility as a writer as both passionately personal and nonideological. He himself has written:

Literature itself generally has no mission, no group, no movement, no ideology; the writer is solitary, unique. The placards of various ideologies have been attached to him by others so that he can be easily identified and put into archives or else put up for sale.18

For Gao, of course, those placards have also led to exile and excommunication from his homeland. The ultimate significance of Gao Xingjian's selection as winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature, one whose nationalistic and political overtones often obscure the act of writing itself, may well rest in at least one apparent victory of the individual over the collective. I suspect that “China's” first Nobel laureate takes considerable pleasure in that possibility.


  1. See Jonathan Mirsky, “Chinese Writers Rejoice Over Nobel Prize to Gao,” International Herald Tribune, 20 October 2000, p. 11.

  2. This work has not been translated into English; the title is taken from Mabel Lee's introduction to Soul Mountain, Sydney/New York, HarperCollins, 2000, p. vii.

  3. Chen Sihe, “The First Kite of Modernism,” China Times (Taipei), 30 October 2000.

  4. From Theater & Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama, ed. Haiping Yan, New York, Sharpe, 1998, p. xviii. This was uttered by a senior Party member, as quoted in Mabel Lee's introduction, p. viii.

  5. From the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, 15 October 2000.

  6. Gao Xingjian, “My view on Creative Writing,” United Daily (Taipei), 13 October 2000.

  7. “I'm a Chinese After All,” interview with Gao Xingjian in Ming Pao (Hong Kong), 15 October 2000.

  8. This comment, widely quoted among scholars of Chinese literature, was made by C. T. Hsia, Emeritus Professor of Chinese at Columbia University.

  9. Absconding is Mabel Lee's translation of the original title, Taowang, also rendered as Exile by Gilbert C. F. Fong, in the appendix to The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, Hong Kong, Chinese University Press, 1999. It is also sometimes referred to as Fugitives.

  10. “I'm a Chinese After All.”

  11. The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, p. 40.

  12. See Mabel Lee, “Pronouns as Protagonists: Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain as Autobiography,” in Gao Xingjian: Critical Assessments, ed. Kwok-kan Tam, forthcoming from the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong, 2001, n.p.

  13. Soul Mountain, tr. Mabel Lee, pp. 312-13.

  14. Henry Yiheng Zhao, introduction to Selected Works of Gao Xingjian, Hong Kong, Mingchuang chubanshe, 1999, p. 4.

  15. Liu Zaifu, “Epilogue,” in Gao Xingjian, Yige ren de Shengjing (One Man's Bible), Taipei, Lianjing chuban shiye youxian gongsi, 1999, pp. 451-56.

  16. Yige ren de Shengjing (One Man's Bible), p. 188. The translation here is mine. A complete translation by Mabel Lee will be published in late 2001.

  17. Ma Jian, “Wuxian de xiaxiang” (“Dreams with No Limits”), Ming Pao yuekan (Hong Kong), 11/2000, p. 48.

  18. Gao Xingjian, “Bali suibi” (“Jottings from Paris”), in his Meiyou zhuyi (Without Isms), Hong Kong, Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, 1996. Quoted and translated in Mabel Lee, “Gao Xingjian on the Issue of Literary Creation for the Modern Writer,” in Gao Xingjian: Critical Assessments, n.p.

Yan Haiping (essay date winter 2001)

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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 playwrights in the early 1980s, as spiritual children of the long tradition of Chinese literary ethics,2 viewed themselves as “speakers for the common folk” and “authors of social conscience and cultural change.”3 Connected with yet different from many of his contemporaries in this regard, Gao Xingjian appeared on the nation's cultural scene with a distinctive impulse: taking Western literary modernism in general and the theater of the absurd in particular as points of engagement, his first staged play, Juedui xinghao (Absolute Signal; 1982),4 treats of such overt social issues as youth unemployment and juvenile delinquency to enact a mode of psychic rhythms subjectively felt by socially detached individuals.5 Such a mode with its defining impulse enacted through a range of innovative visual images becomes crystallized in Gao's dramatic narrative, Chezhan (Eng. Bus Stop),6 his second play, staged by the People's Art Theater Company the following year (1983).

A seemingly Beckettian play, Bus Stop focuses on a group of people of different social identities who have been waiting for ten years at a bus station somewhere between countryside and city for a bus that is to take them into the latter. One bus after another passes by, but none stops at their station. While waiting and agonizing over their individual dreams and desires, they hardly notice that one silent middle-aged man leaves the station after several buses have passed: “He strides away without turning his head even once. Music rises, the melody evoking a painful and persistent search” (BS, [Bus Stop] 125). By the end of the play, the people begin to realize that perhaps this bus stop has been suspended or the bus route has been changed; they finally decide to stop waiting and begin preparing to walk to the city, as the middle-aged man has just done alone.

Realistic in characterization and symbolist in structure, the play provoked immediate controversy in Beijing cultural circles, followed by heated discussion in major cultural centers throughout the nation. Some critics stressed the play's creativity, and hailed its message that people should take charge of their lives and not waste themselves in blind waiting. Others contended that the play contained a basic negation of the operations of contemporary Chinese society, a condescending attitude toward the deluded “pitiable multitude,” and an “elitist” position embodied in the “silent man” walking alone to the city.7

Bus Stop was suspended by authorities in July 1983, after only ten performances, having been judged “seriously flawed” by decision-making officials; nevertheless, enthusiasm for Gao's “new theater experiment” intrinsically associated with Western modernist theater was spreading among an ever-growing number of dramatists across the nation. While the “Era of Cultural Pluralism” was heralded by several rising new writers in the mid-1980s,8 it appeared clear that Western modernism and modernist theater were among the most frequently evoked categories redefining the esthetic and political bases of Chinese theater, culture, and society.

Indeed, Bus Stop (some sources list Bus Station as the title) seems to have both registered and issued a structural and ideological departure from the tradition of socialist realism of PRC theater and culture since the 1950s. Yet the implications of this departure are much more complex than what surfaced in the tense debates surrounding its public staging. It is interesting to note that those who denounced it and those who embraced it both viewed the play as “a Chinese version of Western modernism,” an esthetic and political position-taking that seizes Western modernism as the transparent inspiration for the fashioning of a Chinese cultural modernity. At odds with the assertions of both its admirers and its detractors, however, Bus Stop with its center of dramatic gravity—the “silent middle-aged man”—is no mere imitation of European modernism. Evidently aware of the historically specific motives of modernism in post—World War II Europe—e.g., epistemological uncertainty and despair, existential agony, and ontological nothingness—and their historically specific function in deconstructing the established yet crisis-ridden Maoist culture in postrevolutionary China, Gao Xingjian articulates the features of his drama as follows in an essay titled “Modernism and Chinese Literature” (1987):

The movement of contemporary Chinese literature toward modernity shares some features with Western modernism, but it cannot possibly repeat the process of development of modern Western literature. The school of modernism that has emerged in China, in general terms, is rather different from that of Western modernism. … Unlike Western modernism, which is underlined by a negation of the Self, Chinese modernism is founded on an affirmation of the Self; it exposes the absurdities in the realities of Chinese society but does not—as Western modernism does—take absurdity as constitutive of the existential conditions of humanity. … A critical skepticism about the old humanism is the point of departure for Western modernism; but for Chinese modernists, the rediscovery of humanism that was lost under the social conditions of modern and contemporary Chinese society is their core. Such rediscovered humanism is imbued, in effect, with the spirit of romanticism.9

Such a rediscovered humanism in the spirit of romanticism, while not overtly rejecting Chinese socialist collectivism, focuses on the individuality of the nation's citizens, which had been radically deemphasized if not erased in contemporary Chinese public discourses. One may then argue that, while Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot visibly provides a situational impulse for Gao's play, Bus Stop has an unmistakably Chinese quality in terms of its structural implications in the post-Mao era. Beckett's play explores the loss of humanity's ontological meaning in the postwar West; Gao's play centers on what he considers the blind multitude who have been trapped by illusory, group-bound conventions and promises throughout their lives. As an embodiment of epistemological negation of Western modernity, Godot offers nothing; indeed, it suspends any possibility for change. As an embodiment of disillusionment about Chinese socialist practices, Bus Stop offers the mode of the “silent man” who tropes humanistic enlightenment and an individual search for direction in life at a moment of social transformation and political uncertainty.

The global magnitude and the profundity of such transformation and uncertainty, which was unexpected if not unimaginable in the early 1980s to most Chinese dramatists, as the last decade of the twentieth century soon witnessed, shows just how impossibly illusory and/or heroically imperative is the life-path that Gao Xingjian's rediscovered self has to carve in its subsequent journeys within a turbulent world of posthumanist if not posthuman modernity. In another “more China-specific”10 play written in the aftermath of the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989, Tao wang (Eng. The Fugitives), the lyrics of the self in Bus Stop linger, but no longer as an unmediated emancipatory impetus. Depicting a group of three—two men and one woman—who are trapped by their social conditions as much as by the humanist configuration of their “selves,” Gao writes his lyric flow of the self into an “oozy puddle” of “dirty water or blood” (F, [The Fugitives,] 67-68) in which culturally figured and disfigured desiring selves are imprisoned and of which they are physically constitutive. “The misfortune of the human not only results from external political oppression, social conformity, dominating fashions, and the will-to-power of the others,” he writes in his “Afterword,” tremulously close to Derrida or Foucault and their intellectual fellow travelers who demystify, displace, and suspend “the modern self” as a manufactured optic and discursive closure; “it results from the ‘human self’ as well. Such a self is not divine and is not issued from the gods” (F, 73). Yet ultimately, a non-Foucauldian but humanist spirit throbbing in a world (whether it is deemed modern, postmodern, premodern, or all of these together in a muddy mixture) that constantly decenters the human, Gao turns his dramatic writing into a personal battle of life-and-death magnitude. It is a battle against the violent practices of a humanly decentering world by persistent theatermaking, thereby opening up a liminal space between the death of the modern self and a haunting shadow that may prefigure its return as both impossible and imperative.

Sheng si jie (Eng. Between Life and Death), a “woman's pouring out of the human agony,” as Jean-Pierre Leonardini in Paris terms it,11 or “a seventy-minute mad scene,” as Bert Wechsler in New York prefers,12 is a play of one extended act during which an actress shows how “she”—the protagonist, referred to only as Woman—tears through several life-and-death turns “to find out for sure if she's real or just a body without a soul.”13 As the act begins, the actress is struggling to say something, but then stops and, after an agonizing pause which suggests an abyss of bottomless agony, she suddenly erupts and “cannot control her outburst” (BLD, [Between Life and Death,] 47). The first part of this outburst, which “lasts for seventy minutes” and engages a male actor (Man) who responds to its momentum with detached and ambiguous gestures, enacts a painful rhythm of longing for “love” between intimates, a love locked in its deformation by actions of betrayal, cruelty, deception, and indifference. Displaying all the typical “feminine” features, including a body with “superfluous jewels” and a mind of “irrational jealousy,” “possessiveness,” and “groundless anxieties,” the actress lowers her eyes and looks down, seeing “half a wooden leg, whose paint has peeled off, slowly stretch[ing] out from under her skirt,” then stretching out farther “until it finally comes off her skirt” (BLD, 56). As the actress reacts with wide-eyed horror to what she sees, an arm appears from inside her shawl, then slowly “falls off from the shawl. From the palm up, the paint has peeled off as with the detached wooden leg” (57). In the midst of such human disembodiment, physically and figuratively, the Woman enacts how the protagonist (“she”) desperately attempts to escape from this nightmare of living destruction.

WOMAN: No! (Runs away.) This is too horrible, she can't continue to be cut up like this, she can't keep on butchering herself to death! She must run now, run away from this room! (Simulates action of opening a door.) Strange, she can't open the door, how could she be so stupid? How could she possibly lock herself in? (Crawls all over the room in a circle around the pile of man's clothing, the jewellery box and the detached arm and leg.) She can't find the key! How can this be possible? … (Stops, staring blankly at the detached arm and leg.) She just can't understand, can't understand what's happening here. Her home, this warm and comfortable little nest of hers, has turned into a horrifying abyss overnight, how could this be? … She's got to get out. (Shouting.) She wants to get—out—


Locked in a living death accentuated by the ticking of a clock that is increasing in volume, the actress simultaneously shifts among and acts out several of “she's” real or imagined memories in a search for the always-elusive self that may or may not have ever existed. First, there was the dark, damp, locked house from which her father escaped and her mother disappeared with another man, and in which her brother broke an antique vase—“a family heirloom”—and her grandpa died of cancer which had spread to his bone marrow, forcing him to turn to opium to kill the pain. Evocative of a semidynastic and semicolonial China, with its opium-overdosed “grandpa” and its “doorless houses,” the Woman's enacting of what “she” remembers intimates some temporal and spatial traces which respond to the haunting question, “How did it all begin?” (59).

Then there is the memory of her having had a modern romance with all its expected signifiers, yet all turns out to be false. Her prince wrote identical love letters to her best friend in her class: “She wants to tell a romantic story, … but everything has been so hypocritical … that it's made her utterly sick” (62). An almost unbearable memory follows: her witness to her modern mother's humiliation at the hands of various male lovers, and her own desperate seeking of her mother's love, which was met only with constant negligence and cruelty. When her mother died a strikingly modern death—in a car crash—it ended her youthful dreams and emptied them of all meaning (63). Then “she” remembers how she was once seduced by a woman and a man who jointly abused her body (the man) and mind (the woman) to sustain their moribund marriage; her escape from them sent her onto a highway “alone at night,” leading to a confrontation with “a masked man who blocks her way”—death itself—in an increasingly violent and isolated postmodern “fog” that is everywhere (69-70): “She's only scared that nobody'll know when she's dead. She's even more afraid of a prolonged death, afraid of being crippled, being half dead and half living, nothing is more horrifying than that” (70).

Yet “she” seems to be coming out of her early fatal abyss and lingers on as a living entity as the play enters its final section. As she works through death scenes of what seem to be the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern moment and between the human traces of an identifiable China and an unidentifiable world in a kind of narrative fluidity, the actress's version of what “she” remembers takes on the potent force of mourning, which is also a “carrying through,”14 a sorting-out, a leavetaking, and almost a chain-breaking liberation. As “she” resists her fear of a man in black with a mammoth policing eye on his palm and a woman without a head on her shoulders, “she” is also shown to have transferentially experienced the agony of a Buddhist nun struggling to reach “the other shore” from this world. When the nun cuts her own stomach open, pulls out her intestines, and cards them one by one to cleanse them, “she” is resonating with the nun and every physicalized emotion involved in the nun's action. Living in and out of the body of the nun and circled by an old man or his shadow whose monkhood comments on her real or illusory space, “she” reaches beyond her state of liminal being by tearing through the narrow passage between life and death, almost emerging at the other end, which may or may not mean “her true self” (57).

“She” has almost emerged at the other end, but not quite: “Everything is enshrouded in the big Chaos, only a glimmer of secret light still exists in her heart, sometimes it's bright and sometimes it's dark, and if she can't even prevent it from disappearing, then all will return to Nothingness” (77). Interweaving the Woman, “she,” and the audience in overlapping rhythms of living agony, the play's performance ends with questions rather than affirmations.

WOMAN: Is this a story? A romance? A farce? A fable? A joke? An admonishment? An essay not good enough to be a poem, or poetic prose which is not quite an essay? It's not a song, because it has meaning but no spirit, it resembles a riddle, but it has no answer. Is it an illusion, no more than the ramblings in an idiot's dream? … Is this about him, about you, about me, about her who is that girl, about her but not her, … not about me, and not about you or all of you, … it's merely the self, … that so-called self looking at her, looking at me, what more can you or I say? … What is the self?


From a “silent man” who resolutely walks alone toward an unknown city for an individual actualization, to “a glimmer of secret light [that] still exists in her heart,” but caught in a living agony under the shifting shadows of a nun and monkhood, one sees a figurative displacement that registers an immense rupture in Gao Xingjian's narrative enterprise, in his imaginative world of representation. Surely this rupture between the two figurative enactments of the self—one man and one woman—has a gendered dimension, but one would do better by taking seriously Gao's “suggestions” on how to produce the play, especially his suggestion that its staging “should not strive for naturalness” but rather “for utter theatricality” (OS, [The Other Shore,] 80). At once gender-specific and gender-exceeding, the self of romanticism or the poetics of the humanist subject initiated by Gao in his dramatic praxis of the early 1980s has profoundly transmuted with a distinct Buddhist tremor. His other major plays written since the early 1990s, including Duihua yu fanji (1992; Eng. Dialogue and Rebuttal) and Ye you shen (1993; Eng. Nocturnal Wanderer), also evidence such a rupturing change: the form of the former is “inspired by the gongan style of question and answer in Chinese Zen Buddhism” (OS, 136); the form of the latter is that of a dream, a nightmare that both employs and suspends the connection between reality and illusion (OS, 189).

Gao Xingjian himself is aware of the traces of such a Buddhist spirituality in his dramatic textures and language rhythms, and of how such spiritual fabrics intrinsic to his writing distinguish him from modern Western writers in general and Western literary modernists in particular. Informed on matters of traditional Christian metaphysics and engaged with modern psychoanalytic rewritings of foundational cultural principles, he defines his spiritual traits within the frameworks of Chinese Taoism, Zhuangzi's narratives, and a certain kind of pan-Buddhism: “What differentiates me from authors of Western traditions is perhaps an attitude of serene and reflective observation. It is the attitude that I live regarding society and the self.”15

Still the self, however ruptured. The self as the center of Gao's experiential, observant, cognitive, imaginative, and narrative gravity persists throughout the immense rupture between the “silent man” in Bus Stop and the “outbursting woman” in Between Life and Death. Gao Xingjian is, then, no Buddhist, Taoist, or practicing believer of Zhuangzi's philosophy, as he himself notes: “Zhuangzi's philosophy of ‘letting things take their course’ and [his adherence to] Buddhist teachings on renouncing the world seem to me a trifle excessive in their passivity; I, after all, want to do something. I am neither a Taoist nor a Buddhist. My writing is a method of self-rescue.”16 From his “rediscovered humanism imbued with the spirit of romanticism”17 to his writing process as “a method” that “rescues the self,” one sees a life-and-death struggle to revisit the ideal of the Enlightenment, which has become “the bone in the choking throat of Western culture” (borrowing Stephen Greenblatt's recent line on Shakespeare's Hamlet).18 More ambitiously or more desperately, or both, it is also a struggle to reenact through what he calls “another kind of drama” such an ideal of the modern self, which has choked so many to death. One can hardly overemphasize the importance of Gao Xingjian's theoretical explorations in drama and his formal innovations in theater practice and stagecraft.

“Another kind of drama” as a concept was formally proposed by Gao Xingjian in 1993, in an essay bearing that very title. Recognizing the limitations of the established system of Western theater in the twentieth century, which he views as “an era of directoral dictatorship,”19 Gao argues for a revival of the central importance of acting (or “the performance process”) in theater and redefines this process in a way that both engages and extends the theory and practice of Stanislavski (who focused more on identification between the performer and his or her scripted role) and Diderot (who insisted on the separation of the two), and also revises Brecht (who refashioned Diderotian cognitive esthetics to create his own brand of political poetics using the concepts of “alienation” and “dialectics”).

I believe that the art of theater, ultimately, depends on the actor's acting for its actualization. … I have observed and analyzed the actor's acting in traditional Chinese music drama, and have discovered that, while Western acting theories have long been discussing the relationship between the actor and his or her scripted role, such a relationship has always been premised upon a two-dimensionally conceived dynamic, which overlooks the passage between the actor as a living human who acts and the scripted role that he or she enters. I call this passage “the medium of neutrality.” It means that, before the actor enters the role, he or she needs to purify his or her body of his or her self in daily life, a leavetaking as it were. If theater acting validates this third medium of neutrality as a process, fully opens it up, reveals it, and lays it bare, then the configurations of the relationship among “the self—the actor—the role” would afford the art of acting many more new possibilities. The ways of playwriting would also be enriched.20

In other words, allow the human body and human action to return to, inhabit, and constitute the center stage both of the theater and of the world.

But such a return and reentry of the human self is hardly a resurrection of the ideal subject of the European Enlightenment. It is not premised upon the supremacy of the Cartesian cogito, the abstract individual sovereignty, and the modern apparatus with its eternalized value system as the overlord of universality. Rather, it assumes a multidimensional, constantly changing and shifting, and inherently transformative system of human relationships. It is through such a relational system that the human self (which on Gao Xingjian's stage is “a secret glimmer”) might gain new possibilities to act in this human world, but act with an acute consciousness of its constant self-making and remaking within, against, with, and through the forces and shapes of others without the ontological certainty of its ahistorical or transhistorical “true self.”

The human self, then, is a relationally conditioned process of acting, a constant remaking of itself by self-consciously inhabiting the relational system that Gao calls the “medium of neutrality.” The sociocultural implications of this theatrical impulse, which is central to Gao's dramatic writing, are concisely articulated in his 1995 Libération interview with Gérard Meudal.

The process of fictional narrative [and dramatic performance] involves three “persons,” at least three. The self, “I,” in daily life shifts almost indiscernibly into “You” when monologues engendered through meditation take place. Where does the third person, the Other, come from? When one thinks more philosophically, taking leave of one's own body, the “I” then becomes an eye of neutrality that looks back on the self's body; the Other comes from such a leavetaking from the objective, living, material world.21

The Other, the medium of neutrality, is therefore a system of human relations through which the possibilities of making and remaking the acting self (or the self in acting) are opened up as three-dimensional motions without the constraint of Hegelian immanence or its more secular version, humanist ontology. Enacting and enacted as a posthumanist impulse in Gao Xingjian's reenvisioning, the human self is fundamentally theatrical in its configuration, the human self in and as a theatrical agency. It is through such a reenvisioning of theater and its central dynamics—human acting—as a site of human agency in the making that the rupture between Gao's “humanist self” of the 1980s and its ghostly “secret glimmer” of the 1990s is transfigured into a source of enormous creativity.

Hence Gao Xingjian's probings into and engagements with a Chinese dramatic culture that is premised and thrives upon its theatricality are essential to an understanding of his concept of “another kind of drama,” his theatrical rather than ontological process of (re)making the human self. His play Ming jie (1991; Eng. Hades, though I would prefer City of the Dead as more modernly evocative), drawn from many versions of the Chinese story about how the Taoist sage Zhuangzi tested his wife's love for him, is an intriguing case in point. In part 1 of the play, Zhuangzi pretends to have died and then acts as the Prince of Chu State to seduce his weeping wife, who now believes herself widowed. We then see how the wife in her “widowhood” is affected by the feigned love of this “prince,” how this pretend “prince” turns out to be her “dead” husband, and how she cuts herself open with a hatchet and dies after being deranged by the unrealness of what feels real and by a perceived reality that turns out to be unreal.

In part 2, the wife's ghost, now in the City of the Dead, haunts the city's legal and political courts, making a variety of theatrically stirring sounds, facial expressions, gestures, and movements, which are witnessed and commented on by a group of human ghosts whose names and stories are all recorded in Chinese (oral) folk literature. The human effects and material consequences of Zhuangzi's play-acting are rendered physically and graphically real in the ghost-wife's highly theatrical motions, as are the rhythms and movements of this dead woman in the body of a living actress who refuses to disappear and insists on her theatrical agency with a vengeance. Indeed, the human and material realness that is embodied here through such stirringly theatrical acting is so overwhelmingly potent that it renders the play's coda—wherein Zhuangzi sings his signature song, which cancels “the real”—almost irrelevant as the point of the play.22 Such potent realness of acting and theatrical agency, as Gao views it, is produced through the relational dynamics between the actor and the acted, the acting and the audience, an intertwined human field his poetics calls “the medium of neutrality,” with temporally and spatially infinite human possibilities.23

Shanhaijing zhuan (1993; Eng. The Story of the Classic of Seas and Mountains, though my preference would be Stories of Shanhaijing: A Three-Act Tragicomedy of the Gods), a play that is quite possibly one of the world's dramatic masterpieces of the twentieth century, is a monumental reenactment of Chinese myths originating in the Yangtze River valley and its surrounding regions, a land of human and natural abundance. The term Shanhaijing literally means “classics of the mountains and seas” and serves as the generic title of some eighteen volumes of written texts ranging from extended longer narratives to tales of only a few lines about enchanting rivers and hills, various tribal peoples and their customs and rituals, intriguing animals or spirits or goblins, human and nonhuman marvels, magical scenes, and legends and myths—a veritable cultural trove of ancient Chinese mythological imagining. Evidently, it was not composed by a single author at one specific time; instead, it was probably the product of many hands, most likely completed during the Period of the Warring States (475-221 B.C.), then expanded during the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 B.C.-200 A.D.). In “Some Explanations and Suggestions on Staging Stories of Shanhaijing,” Gao Xingjian makes certain that his readers and the producer or director of the play understand that his dramatization is based on the historical texts in close consultation with prominent scholars on the Shanhaijing. Even more important is his statement that he regards this trove of ancient Chinese mythology as a constantly renewable theatrical resource for the remaking of the human spirit and human drama, since, as he writes, “its richness and colorfulness matches the trove of Greek mythology.”24

Rich and colorful indeed! And most imaginatively free and forthrightly theatrical. The play opens with a scene in which the goddess Nu Wa molds figures from the yellow earth, uses magic ropes to multiply them, then gives them life and the ability to bear children, thereby creating an ever-renewable humanity. As this process of creation is enacted against a background of furious flooding, vast rainfall, cosmic thunder, and flashes of light presaging earthquakes or auroras of unknown kinds, a folklore artist observes, narrates, comments upon and explains the action, and sings in time with the rhythms of the actress's marvelous performance, rendering Nu Wa's actions essentially those of human creativity. When, still in act 1, ten fiery suns who are also brothers are shown to be committing all kinds of outrages in the sky while burning the human lands below to cinders, along comes Yi, another mythological god, who breathes in agony with ordinary humans and kills nine of the suns with his bow and arrow, leaving only one in the sky, since he is needed by the common mortals below. Yi, portrayed by an actor whose expressions and movements are all observed and illuminated by the folklore artist and his songs, is revealed as more a farmer's son than a mythological god.

In act 2, as the gods fight for supreme dominance over the fluid and human and celestial spheres and drag every earthly and celestial being through mud and blood, there appears the Jinwei Bird. Formerly the young daughter of the Sun God who had gone to the East Sea in search of love, only to drown in the waves, she now returns in the shape of a small bird determined to fill up the sea so that it will never take another life. She picks up small stones, leaves of grass, and tree branches with her delicate beak, then flies to the sea and drops them into the water. Each and every day, she continues doing this, without cease—an impossible task, but a necessary one that gives form and meaning to her existence.

In act 3, the commingled human and celestial spheres are separated, and all the connecting passages between the two are closed off. The struggle among the gods for dominion is now over. Yet before “the century of the Emperor”25 and its order appear on the horizon, the human world is inundated in a violent flood caused by the final battle among the gods. Taking center stage at this point is Gun, the grandson of one of the gods, whose heart weeps for the mortals caught up in the violent flood. Overhearing suggestions made by two struggling humans, Gun decides to steal from the gods the mythical soil that can multiply itself in volume and stop the floodwaters. The gods, angered by Gun's defiance of their decrees and his tenderness toward humankind, send Zhurong, the god of fire, to punish him. Gun is killed by Zhurong, yet begets a son, Dayu. Continuing his father's will and working day and night, Dayu ultimately spreads the soil across “nine ancient continents,” so that the vast and consolidated land of China is finally brought into being.

Legends and mythological stories of this kind, and many others, fill the play with an epic grandeur, a stunning constellation of colorful figures, gestures, and movements that animates the acting onstage and mobilizes the sensibility of the audience, while producing an extraordinary theatricality made up of ordinary human bodies. Among the forces at work here is a poetics of the mythological creativity of ordinary humans with their distinct physical bodies and artistic abilities, showing how such larger-than-life mythological occurrences can be fully actualized in and through the extraordinary theatrical talents and actions of mere mortal human beings. Indeed, Gao Xingjian believes that poetry in drama can only be engendered in and through such human enactments of conscious theatricality, in and through the motions of acting that constitute theatrical agency.26

For a posthumanist if not posthuman theater and world (some call it postmodern or simply post-), the “theatrical agency” theorized and enacted by Gao Xingjian, with its promises of making “another kind of drama,” another kind of world, and another kind of human subject, deserves further close, sustained examination and explication. (The limitations of and problems in Gao's dramatic theory and theatrical practice also need more study.) Suffice it to say here that, as the first Nobel laureate in literature who writes primarily in Chinese, Gao Xingjian envisions “another kind of drama” as an essentially posthumanist gesture which requires still a good deal more articulation and development. It may contain a formative impetus that prefigures certain cultural rhythms with which the human subject of the modern world can regain his or her home—in and through the varying forms and shapes of a colorful theatrical agency—in a changing world that has long exiled its human spirits.27 If we gently probe the theatrical impulse and the posthumanism in Gao's major dramatic works, one would hope, such spirits can show us their formative momentum and indicate to us their still-unfolding, possible futures.


  1. The definition of such modernization is uncertain and shifting in the Chinese context throughout the reform era. See Wang Hui, “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity,” Social Text, 16:2 (Summer 1998), pp. 8-44.

  2. See Cyril Birch, “The Man—or Woman—of Letters as Hero,” postscript to Yue Daiyun, Intellectuals in Chinese Fiction, Berkeley, University of California Institute of East Asian Studies, 1988, pp. 134-43. For a more specific discussion of the continuity of such Chinese literary ethics in the cultural ethos of theater circles in the 1980s, please see Haiping Yan, “Theatre and Society: An Introduction to Contemporary Chinese Drama,” in Theatre and Society: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama, ed. Haiping Yan, Armonk (N.Y.), Sharpe, 1998, pp. ix-xlvi.

  3. See Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker, Ideology, Power, Text, Stanford (Ca.), Stanford University Press, 1998.

  4. Gao Xingjian and Liu Huiyuan, Juedui xinghao [Absolute Signal], Shiyue [October], 1982, no. 5.

  5. See Lin Zaohua, “Lin Zaohua on His Cooperation with Gao Xingjian,”, 8 December 2000.

  6. Gao Xingjian, Chezhan [Eng. Bus Stop], Shiyue, 1983, no. 3, pp. 119-38. (Subsequently abbreviated as BS.)

  7. See “Bianzhe an” [“Notes from the Editor”] in “Chezhan sanren tan” [A Dialogue by Three Critics on Bus Stop], Xijubao [On Theater], March 1984, pp. 3-7.

  8. See “Liu Xinwu tan xingshiqi de bianhua” [“Liu Xinwu on the Literary Changes in the New Era”], Liu Xinwu and Li Li, Wenhui yuekan [Wenhui Monthly], 1988, no. 5.

  9. Gao Xingjian, “Chidao de xiandaizhuyi yu dangjin zhongguo wenxue” [“The Slow Arrival of Modernism and Contemporary Chinese Literature”], a speech given at the Hong Kong conference “Contemporary Chinese Literature and Modernism,” 11 October 1987, and published in Gao Xingjian, Meiyou zhuyi [No Isms], Hong Kong, Tiandi, 1996, p. 102.

  10. Gao Xingjian, Tao wang [Eng. The Fugitives], in Gao Xingjian xi ju liu zhong [Six Volumes of Gao Xingjian's Plays], Xindian, Di Jiao Chubanshe, 1995, vol. 4, p. 72. (Subsequently abbreviated as F.)

  11. Jean Pierre Léonardini, L'Humanité, 21 July 1993.

  12. See “One Woman's Many Problems,” in “Reviews of Asian American Theatre by Bert Wechsler,” taken from “NY Theatre-wire,” at, 22 February 1997.

  13. Gao Xingjian, Between Life and Death [orig. Sheng si jie], in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, tr. Gilbert C. F. Fong, Hong Kong, Chinese University Press, 1999, p. 57. (Subsequently abbreviated as BLD. Subsequent references to The Other Shore are abbreviated as OS.)

  14. See Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in his General Psychological Theory, New York, Collier, 1972, pp. 164-65, 166-67.

  15. Gao Xingjian, “My Views on Creative Writing,”, 8 December 2000, p. 1.

  16. Ibid., pp. 1-2.

  17. Gao Xingjian, “Chidao de xiandaizhuyi …,” p. 102.

  18. Stephen Greenblatt, “On Shakespeare's Richard III,” public lecture, 21 February 2001, University of Michigan.

  19. Gao Xingjian, “Another Kind of Drama,” in Six Volumes …, vol. 5, p. 130.

  20. Ibid., p. 131.

  21. “How Does Gao Move the Mountains,” interview with Gao Xingjian by Gérard Meudal, Libération (Paris), 21 December 1995.

  22. Gao Xingjian, Six Volumes …, vol. 2, p. 64.

  23. Gao Xingjian, “My Plays and My Key,” Six Volumes …, vol. 2, p. 85.

  24. Gao Xingjian, “Some Explanations and Suggestions on Staging Stories of Shanhaijing,Six Volumes …, vol. 3, p. 107.

  25. Six Volumes …, vol. 3, p. 105.

  26. “My Plays and My Key,” p. 84.

  27. It should be noted here that the musicality of human subjects, in both making and remaking and in their infinite variations, occurs again in Weekend Quartet (1996), now visualized, oralized, and explicitly theatricalized. This play is contained in The Other Shore, pp. 191-253. Gao's most recent drama (his eighteenth) is titled Snow in August and was just published in early 2001 in Taipei by Jin Lian Chubanshe; it will soon be produced by Hu Yaohen in Taipei and offers one more highly innovative instance of “another kind of drama.”

Fatima Wu (review date winter 2001)

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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 China to the east coast. This journey, which lasted over five months, gave birth to the book Soul Mountain.

The work is an account of Gao's odyssey, or a pagan's Pilgrim's Progress. In eighty-one chapters covering over five hundred pages, the author makes use of multiple narrators named “I,” “you,” “he,” and “she” to iterate various perspectives of his ideas. One can regard the text as a traveler's journal recording Gao's feelings and routes, or even as a philosophical treatise on life, religion, culture, history, et cetera. It is also an extended monologue, bordering on stream of consciousness, by a writer who is eager to find himself and to make sense of the world around him. Above all, the book records one lonely individual's quest for his soul.

Soul Mountain distinguishes itself from contemporary Chinese literature in its form, content, and narrative technique. Maybe because Gao is also an artist, descriptions of nature in the narrative stand out in readers' eyes as paintings. The eighty-one chapters are held together not by plot or characters, but by the search for truth in a collective mind. When human beings are unhappy, whom or what can they blame? Religion? Politics? History? Culture? The opposite sex? Amid the philosophical discussions of life, Gao intersperses stories of love, tales of political persecution, and fables. These fictional narratives add to the meaning of life that Gao is searching for. They reflect the world around him, the people and the suffocating environment.

Like Wordsworth, Gao perhaps finds redemption only in nature, in its beauty and serenity. Hence the quest for Soul Mountain, of whose existence no one is certain. But unlike Wordsworth, who found meaning in nature and salvation in God, Gao renounces both the Buddhist and Taoist sects while failing to reach his destination. At the end of the narrative, he proclaims, “I comprehend nothing, I understand nothing.”

Gao finished this book in 1989, and by that time he had already emigrated to Paris. The seven-year quest recounted here, presented through the eyes of a poet and a painter, enhances the work's literary and visual effect. Overall, Mabel Lee's translation can be deemed superb and outstanding, revealing not only the nihilistic and frustrated mood of the narrator but also the beauty and the all-embracing arms nature.

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

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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? Or about the perversions of social will on the pure, animal needs of the individual? On page 506, the loyal reader is told that God is a small green frog on a snowy windowsill in Sichuan province, that conclusions are bogus, the self is elusive and nothing can be understood.

And he gets the $900,000.

Last October, Gao Xingjian (pronounced gow shing-jen) became the first Chinese Nobel laureate (poet Bei Dao has been a past finalist), yet officials in Beijing were not happy about it. Soul Mountain, which won him the award, has been banned in China since 1985. One state newspaper, the Yangcheng Evening News, called him “an awful writer.” Chinese officials refused to attend the prize ceremonies in January. In China, Gao, 61, a playwright, critic, painter and novelist, has been considered a dissident writer since his play Bus Stop, in which eight characters wait for a bus, was banned in 1983, described by a government official as “the most poisonous play written since 1949.”

We meet here on one of the city's signature gray winter days (no wonder they read so much). Gao, who has come here from France, where he has lived since 1988, is polite and handsome in a black cashmere coat. He hardly moves when he talks. Underneath some of his answers to some questions is a well of warmth; others he has answered so much they skim the surface of his expressiveness. We talk as he heads to the University Bookstore, where the signatures he will inscribe on 80 “stock” copies of Soul Mountain are too beautiful for the day.

Mabel Lee, who translated Soul Mountain, is traveling with Gao on the book tour and translating for him; he speaks French and Mandarin but not English. Lee, who is neat, with cropped white hair and a black leather jacket, keeps saying, “I am not a translator.” She does not speak French. Each time I show the slightest inclination to speak in French, she tries, albeit politely, to abandon us. An honorary associate professor of Chinese Studies at Australia's University of Sydney, Lee came to work with him almost by accident; she was visiting a friend in Paris in 1995 and decided to visit Gao. She asked if he had a translator for Soul Mountain, and he said no.

“The first chapter was by far the hardest,” she says, “because I had never done it before. “His writing is like poetry. It can be very natural, like speech, but also classical. He is trying to depoliticize language.”

“I thought Bus Stop was a comedy,” Gao says when asked about the play that made him an enemy of the state. “But during the Cultural Revolution, it was perceived as something entirely different. Why? Because the authorities lack humor,” he says, smiling mischievously.

“He's trying,” Lee explains, “to force people to think.”

Soul Mountain has received mixed reviews. The glowing ones compare Gao to Thomas Mann, Herman Melville and even Henry David Thoreau. The translation has been criticized as wooden. Other reviewers have grumbled about how its use of pronouns is confusing. Gao divides the author's self into “I,” “you,” “he” and “she,” and each chapter has one of these narrators.

“I wanted,” he says, “to move away from characters and to emphasize the loneliness of the narrator. There's a great deal of loneliness in Communist China. Let's say the situation in China exaggerates human loneliness, which exists everywhere. This is because at various times you were afraid to speak freely.”

There is a great sense of freedom in the book and a strong feeling of what Gao calls “primitive” loneliness. “I never expected it to be published,” Gao says. “I had begun to censor my own work, and I wanted to write something without self-censorship.” After Bus Stop, government officials began to carefully scrutinize Gao's work.

In 1983 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease that killed his father. After two weeks of qui-gong exercises (Taoist exercises not unlike tai chi), the tumor disappeared. Gao began a six-month journey, 9,300 miles into western Sichuan and the forests of Yunnan, following the Yangtze River like a pilgrim through metasequoias and linden, maple and plum trees, looking for Lingshan (which translates as “soul mountain”).

“I was looking for the other China,” Gao says. “The China of dragons and colors and stories.” State culture, he has written, is soul-killing. Micro-cultures are soul-enhancing. Gao traveled among Daqi people and Miao, through the Ba kingdom and the Haiba in Tibet. He listened to dream sacrifice songs and watched dragon-boat ceremonies. “In the end,” he wrote, “to forget one's ancestors is a crime.”

Gao's current wandering in the U.S. is almost as peripatetic, a strange book tour from Washington, D.C., to Seattle to New York. Rick Simonson, manager of Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle, says, “Mysterious things happen,” when asked how Gao ended in Seattle. (“Par grand hazard” is Gao's explanation.) Elliott Bay has a huge and loyal clientele. Thirteen years ago, the store had its first reading with Toni Morrison. Five years ago a secret reading with Salman Rushdie drew 1,000 people.

Soul Mountain, which was published first in Australia and only recently released by HarperCollins in the U.S., “has done well here, even before the Nobel,” Simonson says. A reading Saturday night was organized by Seattle Arts and Lectures and Elliot Bay Books at A Contemporary Theatre, ACT. More than 400 tickets sold.

Gao was born in Nanjing, in eastern China, during the Japanese invasion. He had a Westernized, liberal upbringing; his father was a senior official in the Bank of China, as was his father's father. His mother, an amateur actress raised in an aristocratic household and educated by American missionaries, possessed many translations of Western writers such as Steinbeck, Balzac and Baudelaire, as well as surrealists and Russians.

In 1960, during the Great Leap Forward, Gao's mother was sent to the country to work, and she drowned in an accident. “She was very important to me,” Gao says. Asked if the woman he recalls at length in Soul Mountain who is raped repeatedly by local boys and drowns was based on his mother, he says “yes.”

Gao graduated in 1962 from the French Department of Foreign Languages Institute in Beijing. After this, he joined the Communist Party and was elected leader of a Red Guard faction. When he left the Red Guard, his wife denounced him. They divorced, and he began five years of manual labor at a cadre school in the country.

The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and lasted until Mao's death in 1976. Gao worked as a translator of the French edition of China Reconstructs and also translated Beckett and Ionesco. During his “re-education” in the 1970s, Gao would wrap his manuscripts in plastic and bury them under the floor of the hut where he lived.

Gao has written 18 plays, four books of criticism and five novels (not including one he wrote when he was 10).

Conversation, slipping among French and Chinese and English, is a little awkward, but we all relax when the subject of men and women comes up, a huge and complex part of the book. “It is,” Gao says in French, “the most interesting of subjects. I like, in particular, discussing it with women. There are three things that are beautiful: women, nature and art.” Gao has been married two times, and will not, he says today, do it again. But he has a girlfriend.

“I couldn't live without love,” he says, ‘because the world is so horrible.’ For a moment, we three forget which language is being spoken. “At bottom,” he says, “there is no difference between men and women everywhere. At bottom, literature does not have a national identity, either. When I read translations of Western authors as a child, I wasn't reading foreign literature.”

Gao renounced his party membership in 1989, after Tiananmen Square. He became a French citizen in 1998. His most appreciative audience, so far, has been in France. “My French readers think Soul Mountain is a book about themselves, not about China. There's a greater freedom in China now than before, but still not as much as an artist feels in France. In the past century, politics has interfered too much in peoples' lives. This is not limited to China. It's the same all over.”

Gao lives in a working-class suburb of Paris called Bagnolet (he hasn't moved since winning the prize). When he first came to France, he began, after seeing Picasso's drawings, to draw in ink and to learn more about Western art. His drawings are exhibited regularly. “Painting has been my profession,” he says. “It has provided the resources for me to write.” His next novel to appear in English, One Man's Bible, about his experience with the Red Guard, is being translated by Lee and will be published by HarperCollins some time next year.

“Here are some words,” I tell Gao, “that appeared frequently in Soul Mountain. Tell me the first thing that comes to mind when I say them.” I want to see if he is still game for a little Dada exercise.

“Freedom.” “Wonderful.”

“Will.” “Important.”

“Lonely.” “Necessary.”

“Blood.” “J'ai peur.” (“I am afraid.”)

“Meaning.” “Nonsense.”

“Culture.” “Ocean.”

“Self.” “Quelquefois, l'enfer.

(“Sometimes hell.”)

“I may not believe in ghosts,” Gao says when asked about his religion, “but I have a reverence for what can't be known. Pre-communist Chinese culture wasn't so bad. It was full of traditions that were destroyed by the communists. I have a religious feeling. Young people in China today follow fashions. Following fashion is a kind of mob mentality. I have always been antifashion, anti-trend. Even as a child, I preferred hiding in a corner and not doing what everyone else did.

“Apart from soccer,” he says, “things that everyone wishes to do are suspect. And I was smart enough to know that I had no future,” he says smiling, “in soccer.”

David Mehegan (essay date 7 March 2001)

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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 short talk was on literature and freedom. The writer must break free, he said, of all constraints and external pressures: political, social, economic. “For a writer trapped by ideology,” he said, “it is hard to achieve freedom. I take a stand against ‘isms’ of any kind; I try to jump out of all frameworks.”

In the four months since he became the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Gao Xingjian's selection still makes waves. His works are banned in China and his receipt of the Nobel was denounced last month by a state-controlled newspaper as “ludicrous,” “disappointing,” and “a kind of joke played by the Swedish Academy on the Chinese people.” It's not only the government that scorns him. Some Chinese, writers and others, find his work difficult and obscure, and resent his refusal to be a spokesman for anti-Beijing elements. In a talk at a Hong Kong university in February, he angered local writers by refusing to criticize the government. His four-city American tour ended in Cambridge last week, and though most in the Harvard audience acclaimed him and lined up to take his picture and hand him books to sign, even there a few hostile voices were heard. Speaking Chinese and paraphrased by the interpreter, one young man vehemently complained that Gao was not chosen in honor of his works, but because he is a rebel—a slap to China.

Speaking of his epic novel, Soul Mountain, recently published in English, Gao said, “I asked that the words ‘us’ and ‘we’ not be used in the translation, since they do not appear in the original. I have an instinctive dislike of ‘we.’ I come from a China where ‘we’ has completely vanquished ‘I.’”

A more radical rejection of traditional Chinese thinking, some scholars say, would be hard to imagine. Gao, 60, is a rebel of sorts, as a writer. He is an odd sort of rebel—not a political spokesman such as Vaclav Havel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Born in 1940, he majored in French at Beijing University. He also became a painter. Though modernist Western works were banned in China, he discovered they were available in French, so he immersed himself in Kafka, Ionesco, Beckett, Sartre, Joyce, and Thomas Mann. In the 1960s, he wrote plays, poems, and fiction, but burned most of his manuscripts during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. He was denounced by his wife and sent to a “reeducation camp.”


In the late 1970s, Gao began to write again, and several of his plays were produced, including Absolute Signal,Bus Stop, and The Wild Man. He also published an influential short book on modernist fiction. He was gaining an audience, but in 1983 he ran afoul of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's “oppose spiritual pollution” campaign, and his works were blacklisted. (They still are, but Chinese writers are finding them on the Internet. That year he heard a rumor that he was about to be imprisoned, so he lit out for the territory: to the remote regions of western China, where he went on a 9,000-mile trek, following the Yangtze River from its source to its mouth. That long march through villages, to various mountaintops and river towns, provided the raw material for Gao's strange novel, LingshanSoul Mountain.

In 1987, he traveled to France and decided to stay, and began to write Soul Mountain, he says, “to dispel my inner loneliness.” It was published in Taiwan, and later in Europe, but drew little notice. Shocked by the violence of Tiananmen Square in 1989, he resigned from the Communist Party, gained refugee status, and moved into a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Paris, writing and eking out a living as a painter. In 1998 he became a French citizen.

Soul Mountain is incomparable—a sort of Chinese Canterbury Tales with one teller, or a Moby-Dick on land, except that at least Captain Ahab knew who he was and what he was looking for. The unnamed traveler of Soul Mountain is seeking self, hometown, memories of the past, spiritual enlightenment, romantic interludes, and the truth in lore and legend. The often-lyrical, dreamlike tale has no overarching narrative or clear sequence in time. Its most remarked upon feature is its strangely shifting narrative voice. Sometimes the traveler is “I,” sometimes “you.” Throughout, he retells folk tales of rural indigenous peoples: mostly bitter and violent, full of rape, suicide, betrayal, and grief.


There's a sadness in Soul Mountain that makes one think inevitably of the man who can't be “we.” The traveler can never connect. He climbs a mountain looking for a legendary Daoist monk, the last of the “Pure Unity Sect,” but ends up running away in terror after the hostile monk shuns him. And whenever the traveler connects erotically with a woman, he splits so that “she” and “you” relate, while another part of himself narrates. It comes to seem that the women are only projections of his fragmented self.

But these themes apparently represent Gao's aesthetic self more than his life. In person, he's affable, and a man with friends—he hoped to reconnect with a few in Boston—and is active in theater and art circles in France. “I am not a misanthrope,” he said with a smile during an interview in his Cambridge hotel. He sipped espresso and spoke of Soul Mountain and the writer's life through his book's translator, Mabel Lee.

“The book questions everything,” he says, “all the paradigms of existence—history, society, politics. It raises doubts about consciousness, self, even the ability of language to express the self. It emphasizes how difficult it is for human beings to connect with one another.”

Asked if he ever misses his cultural roots, Gao replies, “Homesickness is a drug for a writer. I have a continuous quest for new understanding and knowledge; this has made me write about China, but also about the West. If a writer cannot start something new, his life force is missing and he should give up writing. After I left China, I wrote 10 full-length plays, four of them in French.”

In his Nobel address, Gao had insisted that literature is apolitical—“purely a matter of the individual.” He spoke almost mystically of “cold literature,” which is indifferent to fashion, criticism, or the marketplace, and which “will flee to survive.” During the interview, he explained, “Cold literature confronts hot, passionate literature, which turns literature into political propaganda. It also confronts consumerist literature. It is using a dispassionate, neutral third eye to observe man and the environment.”


For some Chinese, Gao's individuality is hard to swallow. “In the Chinese language,” explains Yaohua Shi, a professor of Chinese literature at UMass-Amherst who admires Gao's work, “one rarely uses the singular pronoun. In English we say ‘my country,’ but in Chinese we would say ‘our country.’ To call it ‘my country’ sounds presumptuous, as if it belongs to you.”

But in a sense Gao's China, the China of Soul Mountain, does belong to him. In a television interview last week, he said he did not wish to return, that China is within him.

Leo Lee, professor of Chinese literature at Harvard, says China's literary establishment has been obsessed with winning the Nobel Prize as a national achievement. “They blow it out of proportion,” Lee says: “two Japanese have won, one Indian has won—a Chinese must win the Nobel. When this was announced, everyone was surprised.” The choice of Gao, an expatriate with French citizenship, seemed to mock the dream.

But Gao resists the idea of being a national hero. In his Harvard talk, he said, “Nations are not the boundaries of culture, nor literature, nor a text. When we read a Western author, we do not think of what country he comes from, but of what moves us.”

Besides its $940,000 cash prize, the Nobel confers fame, and Soul Mountain, published in the United States by HarperCollins, is selling briskly. It soon will be available in a downloadable version from PerfectBound, HarperCollins's new international e-book imprint. Mabel Lee is busily translating Gao's second novel, One Man's Bible, which is concerned with the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

In the interview, Gao said, “There is huge pressure on me since winning the prize. I have been totally unable to write or paint. All these interviews and invitations are a sort of task, a response to the enthusiasm that people have given me. I hope to continue writing next year, and paint as well. Saul Bellow once said that the Nobel Prize is the kiss of death. I don't want it to be so for me.”

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

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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 neolithic pottery spindle whorls (or spinning wheels, as your translator so quaintly renders them). Or again, you might be talking to friends. You press-gang your reader into being a character in some parts of the book [Soul Mountain] by addressing him (and it evidently is him) as “you” and telling him what he is doing in the middle of the action. This allows the reviewer to “you” the author.

When you are not staggering up the misty wooded slopes or seeking the truth from sages, you occasionally like to involve your reader in a sex scene. Every few chapters you drag us poor embarrassed things into these second-person bouts with anonymous women, all desperate for your favours as you go through your prolonged mid-life crisis. Sorry about the cliché, but if ever there was a mid-life crisis, this is its book.

It was some time after 1980, and you had passed forty. As you tell it here, you had psyched yourself up to cope with a diagnosis of the lung cancer that killed your father, only to have the disease miraculously disappear. This was when the thought police were trying their hardest to take back the little spaces that some state-owned publishers had used to publish truer and more interesting things in the late 1970s. You had already made a splash with your absurdist short play Bus Stop, a touch of Beckett about people waiting, not for Godot but for a bus (successful state socialism, perhaps) that never comes. You were now unpublishable, and the cops may have been after you. So it was time to head for the hills. Presumably this book comes from your long journey from the mountains of the southwest to the sea. You are much too knowing to have written it straight as a novel, or a travelogue, or a diary, and too modern to have imprisoned yourself within a coherent narrative. Besides, it is fun playing transgressive and teasing the reader. You give yourself permission to pile up a jumbled heap of eighty-one chapters. You can even have a “critic” near the end tell the writer (another switch of person) that the book breaks all the rules. This gives you/him the cue to write an unpunctuated page of unconnected ramblings. You finish the book with a small green frog that you just happen to know is God looking in at you through the window, and tell your readers you don't understand anything.

If they choose to read the book, they have asked for what they get. It is amiably self-indulgent, and fun in places if one can keep going through the longueurs and forget about the language. At least it isn't too obviously in the dominant tradition of twentieth-century Chinese writing that tries to do the reader good and save the nation. Or is it really out to improve us? Take the eighty-one chapters, for example. That is not just nine times nine, which would be Oriental enough. It is also the same number of chapters as in the received text of the Dao de jing. Doesn't that suggest earnest seeking after the timeless wisdom of the East? Probably you are a little inclined that way. You enjoy sounding off about Chinese cultures, ancient and modern. You go to find people who live not in the world of politics and money, but in Buddhist monasteries, Daoist temples, isolated huts lost in the mountains. You do your Yangtze Valley version of Synge on the Aran Islands, looking for the lost authenticities of dying traditions.

Your Swedish translator must have done a good job on your book to persuade his fellow members of the Nobel Academy to give you the big prize. It is a pity about this well-intentioned English version, which clumps along in hobnailed boots. I haven't read the book you wrote, Lingshan, only this translated Soul Mountain. The problem with the English is not so much the occasional howler—we translators all make those from time to time—but the clumsiness of expression in virtually every paragraph. For that if for no other reason, this is a book best read fast.

Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas (review date summer 2001)

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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 much of southwest China, driven both by the desire to escape official persecution back in Beijing and the search for renewed spiritual grounding. This vast remote region of China—with its primeval forests, diverse minority nationalities, and remnants of authentic Buddhism and Taoism—has long represented a reservoir of oppositional cultural traditions against the dominant Han Confucianism, of which it is implied that communism is just another version. Posing as an ethnographer collecting vestiges of folk rituals and songs, the protagonist searches randomly for epiphanic moments, yet never deludes himself that these tribal or religious orders of life offer him a personal solution—if nothing else, he is too fiercely individualistic and this-worldly. Within this loose, perhaps all-too-familiar narrative structure lies the real interest and achievement of the novel. Alternating chapters switch between the protagonist's first-person account of his ramblings and a second-person narrative that apparently is his internalized dialogues and monologues addressed to himself. On both narrative levels, or trajectories, an enormous range of stories are recounted. There are many dozens of them, and all kinds—travel incidents, made-up tales, recollections, folk stories, myths, parables, dreams—as if the novel is attempting to manifest the release of repressed narratives as resources for personal and cultural renewal. However, although there are moments when the protagonist achieves a sense of nonteleological oneness, or Taoist emptying, Lingshan (Spirit or Soul Mountain) remains, as in the famous Buddhist parable Gao frequently alludes to, on the other shore. Both thematically and formally, Soul Mountain hovers between mere randomness and the prototypical meaningfulness of the unfolding search itself.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date summer 2001)

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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 comprehensible story. Though story, at least in the sense of most contemporary novels, is not what Xingjian is attempting in this book. Instead, he cobbles together a mix of folklore, character sketches, and snapshots of the rural Chinese countryside to create a modernist mosaic. The result is half-memoir, half-fiction, an expatriate's re-imagined journey through the Qiang, Miao, and Yi districts—places as much on the fringe of Chinese history as civilization. From biologists studying giant Pandas to Daoist masters and small-town Communist thugs, the people we meet along the way are interesting enough. Still, the interactions are minimal. After all, a traveler who gets involved is only asking for trouble. The question is whether the resulting introspective narration can hold your attention. For those readers with a steady interest in modern China and the psychological isolation of its society, the answer is yes. For those readers with a less precise motivation, who simply want to lose themselves in a story, the answer is otherwise.