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A Conversation with Gao Xingjian

Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain (HarperCollins, 2001).

Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain (HarperCollins, 2001).

Gao Xingjian is the first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in 1940 in Jiangxi Province, Gao Xingjian earned a degree in French literature in Beijing and settled in Paris in 1987. His plays and translations set the trend for experimental drama in China, and he wrote Soul Mountain (HarperCollins) based on a journey he made through the remote mountains and ancient forests of southwest China. The New York Times called the book "remarkable," and this book has fostered interest in Gao's other works as well as contemporary Chinese literature in translation. Very much a renaissance man, Gao Xingjian is also a playwright, a critic and a painter. In granting him the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Prize Committee remarked, "In the writing of Gao Xingjian, literature is born anew from the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses."

Mr. Gao spoke at a sold-out event co-sponsored by the Asia Society, the China Institute, and the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) on February 26, 2001 in New York City. After a welcome by David Black, Executive Director of FIAF, the program was introduced by Nicholas Platt, President of the Asia Society. Gao Xingjian was accompanied by Mabel Lee, translator of the novel Soul Mountain. The interview was conducted by David Der-Wei Wang, Chair of Columbia University's Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and a Professor of Chinese Literature.

The following is an abridged version of David Der-Wei Wang's interview with Gao Xingjian, as interpreted from Chinese by Daniel Fertig.

In 1981, you published a short book, titled Preliminary Discussion of Modern Chinese Fiction, which immediately became a sourcebook for literature lovers and practitioners all over China. At the same time, this book also irritated many party censors and ideologues. My question is this: Given the very desolate circumstances of China in the early 1980s, how did you come to recognize such a different kind of literary practice -- call it modernism or modernist literature -- and what was your literary background in conjunction with the introduction of this modernistic practice to a Chinese audience?

At that time, the Cultural Revolution had just ended, and Chinese literature was going through a recovery. In the late '70s and early '80s, I wrote quite a bit of material, but I burned it and I was unable to publish it, and so this book, A Preliminary Discussion of Modernist Chinese Fiction, was my first opportunity to present something that I had written.

After 1949, China became a kind of Soviet socialist state, and it was impossible to have complete literary freedom, because Mao Zedong advocated several literary styles. One was revolutionary romanticism and the other was revolutionary realism, and my goal was to overturn this, or turn this on its head, but there was no way to do it directly. So the way I would write would try to find an indirect way of overturning these styles.

I was extremely careful at that time to not cross the line and I kept myself under control. That was how I went around writing at that time. I never imagined that what I wrote would create such problems for me.

I think most of the audience here is not quite so aware of your achievements as a dramatist, and that you started out your career in Chinese literature as a playwright and a director. Ever since 1984, you have either produced or written or directed plays which have won tremendous acclaim, and of course also raised many eyebrows at that time. In 1987, you chose to leave China for good, and after that you have come up with a cluster of terms or attitudes that can be neatly summarized by yourself as “nothingism,” or the absolute belief in personal autonomy in creative writing. I would like you to tell us a little more about how you traveled from China overseas, and how you came to have, in terms of your personal understanding, a different kind of literary attitude.

I realized that maintaining self-control and discipline and not going too far with my writing still led to adverse consequences for me. I really had a desire to express myself fully in my writing. I decided to write a book that I had no intention of publishing in China, and that would be Soul Mountain. I spent seven years writing it in France. After the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, it seemed like the appropriate time to make that statement. I finished it at that time and promulgated it.

I feel that my best works have actually been the works that I've published since Soul Mountain, because that's when I finally got rid of the constraints that I'd put around myself so as to not encounter problems with the Chinese government. In the last 12 years I've spent in France, I feel I've produced my best literature. And the attitude that can sum up what I've been doing the last 12 years is "nothingism." When I came overseas, I realized that there are many ideologies and many trends, and it's also very hard to produce honest art and honest literature. I decided that I didn't want to follow any of these ideologies or trends, because that's also a kind of pressure that doesn't allow absolute freedom. So I decided that I was only going to produce works that were satisfactory to me, and that meant not following any trends and being anti-ideological.

When Soul Mountain was first released in Taiwan in 1991, only about 90 or 91 copies were sold, right? And the second year, the following year, 1992, the situation was even worse; only about 62 or 63 copies were sold. But now, this book is a bestseller; it was number one in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, and in overseas Chinese communities, and for me, as a professional reader of Chinese literature, it hasn't been an easy read. This is truly a tremendous novel. The novel has an encyclopedic vision. It's really a very rich tapestry of all sorts of Chinese genres and narrative formats lumped together, creating something very unique. How did you come to such a tremendous vision of a Chinese literary world, and what would be your suggestion to readers like us? What would be step one in entering the world of Soul Mountain?

At the time that I was writing Soul Mountain, I didn't realize the impact that it would have in the literary world, and I didn’t really think about who the readership would be. In fact I was writing it for myself. At the time I was very interested in attitudes towards Chinese culture and Chinese history, and I realized that Chinese history was a history of power. I became very interested in the sources of Chinese culture and I traveled to where the novel takes place to investigate for myself what those sources were.

At the time I was also very much interested in the social conditions and the social station that one finds oneself in in China. I don't think that this is exclusive to Chinese society, but the problems that are addressed are common to all mankind. And other things that I was addressing in the book included self-doubt, one's own value in the world, and one's own doubts about one's place in that world, so it was an analysis of the process of how one person develops. Another issue was language, the problem of expressing these themes in language and the problem of how much one can articulate in language. So for me, this book was about the changes that one goes through. It wasn't one work; it was a process.

Could you tell us a little more about your experiment with the Chinese language, because, as you mentioned just now, you felt language must serve as the vehicle through which you can inquire into all the aspects of traditional Chinese cultural and historical legacies, and you also express your skepticism through this reworking of language. Particularly, you invented a term, "stream of language," as a way to summarize your intent. So could I ask you to tell us a little more about some specific experiment you did with this novel? For example, the use of the pronouns I, you, she or he, and so forth.

I also was investigating doubts one has about language, suspicions about language and questions of what a novel is and what purpose the novel serves. To me it's not that interesting to simply use language to describe characters or to describe a plot or to describe circumstances. I decided that the actual calling of names, of pronouns, was a subject worthy of investigation in itself; pronouns became the plot. But I also realize that if you're trying to narrate something about pronouns, and that's your plot, you have to do it through language. The minute that you use language, you come to the question of who is speaking and who is narrating. So I realized that this brought me back to the starting point of characterization and plot, and I thought that using pronouns and titles was a way of leading readers into the story.

So all three pronouns (you, me, he or she) can be used to refer to one person, and if I use the first person (I or me) then it's quite clear who I'm referring to. But if I use "he" or "she," then that creates some distance. It creates some distance and it gives a different perspective and allows me to create an artifice. It's an artifice of myself, a different perspective of looking at myself.

It's not merely playing games with language, since each of these pronouns gives you three different levels and three different starting points in which to enter the work. If you're describing a realistic setting and you talk about yourself, "I," then it's clear that I'm describing myself, or if I use the third person and am narrating circumstances, it's also quite clear that there's narration going on. But the second you bring in "you," the second person, it becomes a dialogue, and it becomes a trading of thoughts between people. The use of "you" creates a dialogue. And the way I used the third person was… to create some distance.

I'm now switching gears to the next topic, that is about another huge novel of yours which was published in 1995, One Man's Bible. Why is it called One Man's Bible and secondly, why, in such a tremendous memoir about the sufferings, the sorrows and atrocities across the first three decades of the People's Republic of China, again, you use women and particularly sexual encounters with women, as one way to redeem the lost memory, to recollect all those lost experiences?

This question is very refreshing and very startling, and I'd have to say that it is, of course, a man's bible. On the other hand, it's not limited to being a man's bible. It's also about an individual, about people in general, and it's about how people survive crises and survive disasters and atrocities. What is more interesting for me is that they're not heroes, as such, and the question is: How does a hero make it through disasters and crises, because this is a way of revealing the weakness of human beings? If everyone is a hero, then disasters and atrocities lose their meaning. It's only when certain people are heroes and others are not that these tragedies and disasters that mankind faces take on meaning.

So on one hand I was narrating, describing political crises and a political situation, and I wanted to describe that in detail and carefully. On the other hand, I'm also describing individuals' characteristics and weaknesses, and I also wanted to capture that in detail. And then there's the question of on what standard do you judge these people, what kind of morality or ethical standard are you using to judge them, and for me, the ultimate criterion is whether or not it's realistic, whether or not it's authentic. That's the real standard.

I was also describing the superstitions of people, or the utopias that we try and create. Man tends to think that he is a creator, that he is like God. This is especially true of intellectuals, and in the last century, intellectuals tended to forget that they were like everyone else. Writing this book was a description of man going from a state of God back to a state of man, back to being a normal person.

The following are audience questions selected by Torrey L. Whitman, President of the China Insitute.

What does it mean to be a writer either in exile or in diaspora?

On the first level, I think that in the 20th century, the problem of exile or alienation is particularly pronounced for writers and artists. A second level is the more spiritual level, that exile also means overcoming ideology and overcoming attitudes and overcoming trends, and so exile has also been a way of pursuing nothingism or overcoming ideology. A third level is that artists tend to be on the margins of society. So from that perspective, exile is a kind of appropriate mental state, at least for artists. This is a good thing. If you were in the center of society, you'd be receiving input and pressure from too many different areas, and that's not the kind of environment that an artist needs to cultivate his own creativity and his own thoughts.

Who are your favorite Chinese and foreign authors of the 20th century? When you read foreign authors, do you read them in French translation, or in Chinese? Do you think it makes a difference whether you read them in French translation or in Chinese translation?

There are many authors that I like, and I grew up surrounded by books. My father had many books in the house, and my mother had an appreciation for foreign literature, so we also had foreign authors in translation, and from a very young age I was reading not only children's books, but real literature. At that time I read many of the classics from the Western and Chinese canon. After I studied French, this opened up a new arena for me and gave me access to foreign literature in the original. At the time, many French authors in China were banned, so it was still difficult to read certain French authors. And I read a great, great deal, so that during college I would sometimes read 50 or more plays in one week.

To give you one example of what I read when I was getting my education, I read Goethe's Faust, which had been translated into Chinese in three volumes. It was not easy to get the volumes from the library, so I had to wait before I could take them out. I took the first volume out and had to wait a long time to get it, and many people had borrowed it. When I took the second book out, I also had to wait for that, but only about 10 people had borrowed that book. And then finally when I got to the third volume, I was the only one who had borrowed the book!

To what extent do you think you have accomplished your linguistic experiment in such a novel as Soul Mountain, and do you have any regrets?

Writing for me is very difficult, and it took me seven years to write Soul Mountain. For me, recently, writing has become more and more difficult, and I think that my Chinese is not at the level that I would like it to be. The enterprise of describing something in language that has never been described before is a very difficult thing to do. When you decide to do away with old clichés or old phraseologies, and to come up with a new way of saying something, it's extremely difficult.

Do you feel that you are part of a larger expatriate community of writers and artists in France, and if you would, would you share with us your dearest memory of the first years you lived in France?

When I went to France, I was already an author and a playwright, and I was recognized in my field. When I arrived in France, I think it was less of a transition for me than it would be for younger authors or artists who were not recognized. I think it's very difficult for Chinese authors to go to a foreign country and it's very difficult to break into that society. For me, I was already known in my field. That's not to say that I was known as a famous person, but in literature and drama, I was known. In addition, there was no language problem for me. I knew French, and I very rapidly became a part of French society, so for me, I never really felt that I became part of a Chinese artists' community. I felt very much that as soon as I arrived I became a full member of French society.

Have you been back to China since you left? Do you plan to go back to China, or would you like to? And if you do go back to China, do you have any idea what you will find there?

Since it was announced that I received the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has condemned my works and criticized them harshly. All of my works are now banned from getting into China or being published in China. How many authors are there who want to return to the country that banned his or her books?