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.
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.
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.
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.”