Gao Xingjian

Gao Xingjian
b. 1940, Ganzhou
Playwright, novelist, artist
As playwright, writer and literary critic, Gao Xingjian has made multifaceted contributions to post-Mao culture. Graduating from Beijing Foreign Languages Institute in 1962, Gao began to publish only in 1978, the same year he began working as a French translator for the Chinese Writers’ Association. In 1981, he was appointed scriptwriter at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. Between 1980 and 1982 he also published Techniques of Modern Fiction (Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao) in serial form, introducing modernist literary techniques to Chinese readers. The project caused a sensation and was so influential that it encouraged many artists and writers to experiment with new artistic forms, although the state deemed it necessary to launch a campaign against both modernism and Gao’s works.
As a playwright Gao first attracted attention with Alarm Signal (Juedui xinghao, 1982), which articulates the psychological conflict of the protagonist, who must choose between the moral prescription against thieving and the threats made by outlaws pressuring him to steal. Despite these didactic elements, the play was considered a bold theatrical experiment. Staged in a small theatre, it broke down the fourth wall—the illusion of the stage—and the lack of a set forced the performers to use symbolic gestures.
Gao’s second play (actually written before Alarm Signal), Bus Stop (Chezhan, 1983), is drawn from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: it too centres on futile waiting. Gao shares Beckett’s existential concern with the meaning of life, yet at the same time he includes historical and cultural aspects specific to China: eventually the characters realize that they have waited ten years and the bus stop is in fact out of service. While Gao modifies Beckett’s understanding of the impossibility of a final ending by including an optimistic vision of change, the play nevertheless seemed radically pessimistic in the early post-Mao era, when the optimistic outlook was invariably associated with the state propaganda machine.
Wild Man (Yeren, 1985) represents another new direction in Gao’s stage writing. In addition to continuing the investigation into existential questions, the play introduces cultural and historical reflection. The play examines modernity in the form of science and progress from the perspective of the ecologist, contrasting contemporary society with an original harmony with nature as represented by ancient customs and attitudes. The scientific search for the wild man and the commercial exploitation of primitive forests imbue modernity with tragedy. Again Gao expands on the practice of modern Chinese Huaju (spoken drama) by synthesizing dialogue, dance and singing. The combination of styles and themes in this play already points to his later, more famous works. Gao’s next play, The Other Shore (Bi’an), explores the conflict between individuality and collectivism. The play was so philosophical, anti-social and abstract that even though it was published in 1986, it was never staged while Gao lived in China.
In China, Gao is mainly known as a playwright and critic. But in 1988 he emigrated to France, where he has lived as an artist and won fame for his novel Soul Mountain (Lingshan, 1995; trans. Mabel Lee, HarperCollins, 2000). Written in the form of the picaresque novel, it represents a yearning to escape the official culture and ‘go home’, returning to a world of folk culture, myth and nature. In a dialectical metaphor of escape and return, the narrative perspective alternates between the first and second personal pronouns in different chapters. If T can be understood as signifying a search for the self, ‘you’ conveys a sense of a removed and self-conscious contemplation of the searching subject. Gao’s second novel One Man’s Bible (Yigeren de sheng jing, 1998; trans. Mabel Lee, HarperCollins, 2002) examines the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution through its invasion of personal space. Both the violation of the female body and ideological reforms are seen as examples of such violation. The use of bodily memories and the theme of privacy are critical techniques in the analysis of this period of collective cruelty. In 2000, Gao was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Fung, Gilbert (ed. and trans.) (1999). The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press
Tam, Kwok-kan (ed.) (2001). Soul of Chaos: Critical Perspectives on Gao Xingjian. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.
Wang, Xinmin (ed.) (1997). Zhong guo dangdai xiju shigang [Compendium of Contemporary Chinese Drama]. Beijing: Shehuikexue wenxian chubanshe.
Yi, Sha (ed.) (2000). On Gao Xingjian (Gao Xingjian pingshuo). Hong Kong: Mirror Books.
(2002). Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 14.2 (Fall) [special issue on Gao Xingjian].

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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