Gao Xingjian

Gao Xingjian

Past Event: Saturday, February 24, 2001

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Novelist and playwright Gao Xingjian was virtually unknown to Western readers until he became China’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. Gao was born in 1940 in the Jiangxi province of eastern China. His parents were avid readers, particularly of Western literature translated into Chinese, and encouraged Gao’s reading and journal writing from an early age. After studying in state schools and earning a university degree in French, Gao began work as a writer and painter in Beijing.

Like other intellectuals and artists, Gao faced political repression during most of the 1960s. Fearing imprisonment, he burned all of his writings when the Cultural Revolution broke in 1966 and spent the next several years writing in secret. He reemerged publically in the early 1980s with the publication of a collection of essays and several plays, all of which were eventually banned. In 1982 Gao began writing a novel that would become his masterpiece, Soul Mountain. “I realized it wasn’t worth it anymore to be writing plays for the public. So I decided to work on a novel for myself so I could avoid the criticisms of the authorities, to be able to write an entirely personal book without thinking that it would be published,” said Gao.

A year later, Gao was incorrectly diagnosed with lung cancer. Resigned to death, he spent six weeks indulging his appetites and reading philosophy. Eventually, he discovered the misdiagnosis; however, a new threat arose when rumors began to circulate that he was to be sent to a prison farm because of his controversial writing. Gao left Beijing and disappeared into the remote forest regions of Sichuan, and then spent five months following the course of the Yangtze River out of China. His amazing 15,000 kilometer sojourn forms the basis of Soul Mountain.

The autobiographical novel, which was completed in 1989, recounts a dual journey—a literal journey into the heart of China and a spiritual journey of the self. In Soul Mountain, Gao blends fiction, philosophy, history, and fable to create a rich and extraordinary work. Soul Mountain was elegantly translated into English over the course of a decade by the renowned China specialist Mabel Lee.

Gao Xingjian is the author of eighteen plays, two novels, and several works of literary criticism. All of his works have been banned on the Chinese mainland since 1985. In addition to Soul MountainThe Other Shore, a collection of five of his plays, has been translated into English and is available in the United States. Gao lives in Paris where he also works as a painter.

Excerpt from Soul Mountain (2000)
It is a fine day with not a trace of cloud in the sky and the vault of heaven is amazingly remote and clear. Beneath the sky is a solitary stockade with layers of pylon houses built on the edge of a precipitous cliff. In the distance it looks quite beautiful, like a hornet’s nest hanging on a rock wall. The dream is like this. You are at the bottom of the cliff, walking one way and the other, but can’t find the road up. You can see yourself getting closer and then suddenly you are moving further away. After going in circles for quite some time you finally give up and just let your legs carry you along the mountain road. When it disappears behind the cliff, you can’t help feeling disappointed. You have no idea where the mountain road beneath your feet leads but in any case you don’t actually have a destination.

You walk straight ahead and the road goes around in circles. Actually, there has never been a definite goal in your life. All your goals keep changing as time passes and as locations change, and in the end the goals no longer exist. 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. At this point in your thinking, your feet become lighter, it is fine wherever your feet take you, as long as there are sights to see.

Selected WorkSoul Mountain (2000)The Other Shore (1999)

LinksGao’s Nobel lectureAn interview with GaoBook review of Soul Mountain