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Gao Xingjian (1940- )


Chinese novelist, translator, dramatist, director, critic and artist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. His controversial plays combine elements from ancient masked drama with influences from Western modernism, represented by such writers as Artaud, Brecht and Beckett. Gao Xingjian's career as a writer was stopped in China when he wrote a play set against the background of the Tiananmen Square massacre. From the late 1980s Gao Xingjian has lived in France. He holds French citizenship and writes as fluently in French as in Chinese.

Girl: There are things you can explain, and there are things you can't. Don't you know that?
Man: Of course I do, but I still want to know about love.
Girl: What a fool!
Man: Then go find yourself someone who isn't.
(in Dialogue and Rebuttal, 1992)

Gao Xingjian was born in Ganzhou (Jiangxi province) in eastern China. His father was a bank official and his mother an amateur actress, a member of a Y.M.C.A. theater troupe before the Communist Revolution, and an avid reader of Western literature. As a child Gao was encouraged to paint, write and play the violin.

Gao studied French literature at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute between 1957-1962, taking a degree in French and literature. While in collage, he became a member of the drama society.  After graduating he worked as a translator for the journal China Reconstructs.

In the early 1960s, Gao's mother was sent to the countryside, where she drowned in an accident, and Gao was forced into farm labor. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Gao served for a period as the leader of a Red Guard brigade, but eventually he was sent to a re-education camp because of his learning. He had started to write for himself, but fearing the consequences the aspiring writer burned a suitcase full of manuscripts, including novels, plays and articles, and spent six years at hard labor in the fields. "I've always had this obsession with writing," Gao Xingjian has told. "It's what caused my suffering and misfortune in China, but I'm not about to stop. Even during the most difficult times in China, I carried on writing secretly, without thinking that one day I would get published."

After surviving cadre school Gao Xingjian was sent to southwestern China as a schoolteacher. For a short time he worked as a translator in the Chinese Writers Association and at the age of 38 he published his first novella, entitled Hanye zhong de xingchen (Stars on a Cold Night). The first opportunity to travel abroad opened for him in 1979 and he visited France and Italy. In 1981 he became a resident playwright at the People's Art Theatre in Beijing, China's foremost theatre company.

Between the years 1980 and 1988 Gao Xingjian published a prolifical stream of plays, short stories, essays, critiques, and his translations of Jacques Prévert's Paroles (1984) and Eugene Ionesco's La Cantatrice chauve (1985). Chezhan (Bus Stop), written for the company, was first politely declined due to its non-realistic tendencies. Following the spirit of Beckett's Waiting for Godot the story told  about a group of people have been waiting for the right bus for some ten years. The play was called when it opened as "the most pernicious work since the establishment of the People's Republic" and condemned by Communist Party officials. 

The publication of A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction (1981), based on ideas taken from the French structuralist school,  led to a heated debate about "spiritual pollution" and Gao was put under surveillance. Juedui xinhao (1982, Absolute Signal), a prodigal son tale, marked the breakthrough of Chinese experimental theatre. Accused of being anti-socialist, the production was stopped after thirteen performances. Gao Xingjian was barred from publication for one year and he went into self-exile in the mountains of southwest China. Upon returning to Beijing, he finished Yeren (Wilderness Man) in ten days. This politically uncontroversial play  dealing with the history of manking was favourably received.

In 1986 Gao Xingjian's Bi'an (The Other Shore), about manipulating the collective consciousness, was immediately banned but performed in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Allowed to travel abroad as a painter, he left China and settled in Paris, where he continued to write in Chinese and in French. After the massacre on the Square of Heavenly Peace in 1989 Gao Xingjian broke with the Chinese Communist Party. When he publicly condemned the acts against the student movement, he also closed the door to his home country. He dealt later with the massacre in the play Taowang (Exile), in which three characters, a young man, a young girl, and a middle-agen writer, run away from the pursuing People's Liberation Army soldiers. Originally it was written for a performing-arts center in Los Angeles, but then rejected. Eventually the play premiered in Swedish in 1992 at the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern in Stockholm. When it was performed in Germany, the setting was changed from Tiananmen Square to Germany during the Nazi era. Noteworthy, this play put Gao Xingjian also at odds with the Chinese Overseas Democratic Movement.

"When you use words, you're able to keep your mind alive. Writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence." (Gao Xingjian in an interview)

Gao Xingjian's reflective and impressionistic novel Soul Mountain, completed in 1989, is based on 10-month walking tour along the Yangtze River. The journey took five months and resulted from the author's personal crisis: in 1982 he had been mistakenly diagnosed with lung cancer – the ailment killed his father – and next year the Communist Party criticised Gao's works as "spiritual pollution''. Rumors spread that Gao was about to be sent to a labor camp.

In the work Gao Xingjian used different literary styles, techniques, and a variety of narrators. "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." At one point, the narrator criticizes the author, saying: "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, and are calling it fiction!" Soul Mountain is a travelogue, description of rural villages, a story of a love affair, pieces of folklore and history. One of its central themes – as in Gao's work in general – is a skeptical attitude to all generally accepted or authoritarian views: "Oh history oh history oh history oh history / Actually history can be read any way and this is a / major discovery!"

After concluding Soul Mountain Gao Xingjian wrote a short essay in which he rejected literature's "duty to the masses" and stated that "literature is not concerned with politics but is purely a matter of the individual." Gao Xingjian wanted to free artistic expression from its struggle for social approval, calling this kind of literature, that has recovered its innate, spiritual character, "cold literature". Before settling in France, he had read Nietzsche's major works, and developed a profound aversion to the philosopher, who had became highly popular in China. The plays Taowang (1989, Escape) and Kouwen siwang (2004,  The Man who Questios Death)  reflected his critical response to Nietzsche's notion of Superman and fashionable trends in art and literature.

As an artist Gao Xingjian has illustrated his own book covers and he has had some thirty international ink-wash painting exhibitions. He has translated into Chinese such authors as Beckett, Ionesco, Artaud and Brecht. Among his several awards are Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 1992, Prix Communauté française de Belgique 1994, and Prix du Nouvel An chinois 1997. Before the Nobel Prize, Gao earned most of his living from his works as an artist, not from his writings. In 1998 he acquired French citizenship.

"I'm not involved in politics, but that does not prevent me from criticizing the policies of Communist China. I say what I want to say. If I have chosen to live in exile, it is to be able to express myself freely without constraints."

After the decision of the Nobel committee China's Foreign Ministry called the award a political maneuver the nation took no pride in. Members of the Communist Party-line literati questioned whether the author and playwright was Nobel material. In Sweden Gao's way for the prize was paved by Goran Malmqvist, who had translated Gao's dramas and had them produced in Stockholm. Malmqvist is a China expert at the University of Stockholm and also one the academy members, who make the selection of Nobel laureates.

"From my experience in writing, I can say that literature is inherently man's affirmation of the value of his own self and that this is validated during the writing, literature is born primarily of the writer's need for self-fulfilment. Whether it has any impact on society comes after the completion of a work and that impact certainly is not determined by the wishes of the writer." (in the Nobel lecture, 2000)

Gao's autobiographical One's Man's Bible appeared in English in 2000. It is an account of China's Cultural Revolution, seen through the eyes of the author as a political activist, victim, and outside observer. "Tragedy, comedy and farce do not exist but are aesthetic judgements of human life that differ according to person, time and place." (in One Man's Bible, 2000) In the work the numerous narrators from Soul Mountain have reduced to "you" (Gao's alter ego), "he" (an old acquaintance), and "she" (a Jewish woman).

For further reading: Trees on the Mountain, ed. Stephen C. Soong and John Minford (1984); Chinese Writing and Exile by Gregory B. Lee (1993); 'Without Politics: Gao Xingjian on Literary Creation' by Mabel Lee in The Stockholm Journal of East Asian Studies, 6 (1995); 'Walking Out of Other People's Prisons: Liu Zaifu and Gao Xingjian on Chinese Literature in the 1990s' by Mabel Lee in Asian & African Studies, 5.1 (1996); 'Gao Xingjian’s Lingshan / Soul Mountain: Modernism and the Chinese Writer' in Heat 4 by Mabel Lee (1997); 'Introduction' by Gilbert C.F. Fong, in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian (1999); Towards a Modern Zen Theatre by Henry Y.H. Zhao (2000); 'Between the Individual and the Collective: Gao Xingjian's Fiction' by Sylvia Li-Chun Lin in World Literature Today, Winter (2001); 'Nobel meni ensi kerran Kiinaan' by Leo Pugin (Helsingin Sanomat on October 13, 2000); Gao Xingjian: Critical Assessments, ed. Kwok-kan Tam (2001); Soul of Chaos: Critical Perspectives on Gao Xingjian by Kwok-kan Tam (2002); 'Introduction' by Mabel Lee, in Escape and The Man Who Questions Death (2007)  

Selected works:

  • Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan, 1981 [Preliminary exploration into the art of modern fiction]
  • Juedui xinhao, 1982  (first performed at the Beijing People's Art Theatre, dir. Lin Zhaohua)
    - Alarm Signal (tr. 1966)
  • Chezhan, 1983 (first performed at the Beijing People's Art Theatre, dir. Lin Zhaohua) 
    - The Bus Stop (tr. 1996) / Bus Stop (tr. 1998)
  • Ye ren, 1985 (first performed at the Beijing People's Art Theatre, dir. Lin Zhaohua)
    - Wild Man (translated by Bruno Roubicek, 1990)
  • You zhi gezi jiao Hongchur, 1984 [A pidgeon called Red Beak]
  • Gao Xingjian xiju ji, 1985 [Collected Plays by Gao Xingjian]
  • Bi'an, 1986
    - The Other Side (tr. 1977) / The Other Shore (translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong, in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, 1999)
  • Dui yizhong xiandai xiju de zhuiqui, 1988 [In search of modern theater]
  • Gei wo lao ye mai yu gan, 1988
    - Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather (translated by Mabel Lee, 2002)
    - Vaarin onkivapa (suom. Riina Vuorio, 2009)
  • Taowang, 1989
    - Fugitives (translated by Gregory B. Lee, 1993) / Escape (translated by Gilbert C.F. Fong, in Escape and The Man Who Questions Death, 2007)
  • Lingshan, 1990
    - Soul Mountain (translated by Mabel Lee, 2001)
    - Sielun vuori (suom. Riina Vuokko, 2003)
  • Sheng-si jie, 1991
    - Between Life and Death (translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong, in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, 1999)
  • Duihua yu fanjie, 1992
    - Dialogue and Rebuttal (translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong, in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, 1999)
  • Yeyoushen, 1993
    - Nocturnal Wanderer  (translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong, in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, 1999)
  • Shan-hai jing zhuan, 1993
    - Of Mountains and Seas: A Tragicomedy of the Gods in Three Acts (translated by Gilbert C.F. Fong, 2008)
  • Yeyou shen, 1995
    - Nocturnal Wanderer (translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong, in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, 1999)
  • Zhoumo sichongzou, 1995
    - Weekend Quartet  (translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong, in The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, 1999)
  • Meiyou zhuyi, 1996 [Without isms]
  • Yige ren de sheng jing, 1999
    - One Man’s Bible (translated by Mabel Lee, 2002)
    - Vapaan miehen raamattu (suom. Riina Vuokko, 2002)
  • The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian, 1999 (translated by Gilbert C.F. Fong; contains The Other Shore, 1986; Between Life and Death, 1991; Dialogue and Rebuttal, 1992; Nocturnal Wanderer, 1993; Weekend Quartet, 1995)
  • Ba yue xue, 2000
    - Snow in August (translated by Gilbert C.F. Fong, 2004)
  • 'My View on Creative Writing', 2000 (in United Daily, Taipei, 13 October 2000)
  • Pour une autre esthétique, 2002
    - Return to Painting (translated from the French by Nadia Benabid, 2002)
  • Kouwen siwang, 2004
    - The Man Who Questions Death (translated by Gilbert C.F. Fong, in Escape and The Man Who Questions Death, 2007) 
  • The Case for Literature, 2007 (translated by Mabel Lee)
  • Escape and The Man Who Questions Death: Two Plays by Gao Xingjian, 2007 (translated by Gilbert C.F. Fong)
  • Lun chuang zuo, 2008
  • Gao Xingjian, 2010
  • Gao Xingjian: Aesthetics and Creation, 2013 (translated by Mabel Lee)

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