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CP 20, November - December 1998
China - Art, culture, literature
A Writer in Exile: A Voice to Be Heard
An Interview with Writer Gao Xingjian
Gao Xingjian is famous in China. From 1980 onwards he was
the leader of the avant-garde theatre; for the first time since the death of Mao
Zedong, he introduced to the Chinese reading public the techniques of the modern
Western novel; and he championed the reading of modernist literature. His theoretical
work, Preliminary Explorations on the Art of Fiction (1) was to set off a violent
controversy over modernism and realism; and the boldness of his vision was to
lead to the banning of his plays from 1983 onwards. Gao made several journeys
into Chinas more remote provinces, both to evade the harassment to which
the Peking authorities were subjecting him, and to seek new sources of inspiration;
then, in 1988, he went abroad. The events of 1989 forced him to break completely
with the Communist Party and with his country, and to live in exile.
Gao Xingjian was born in 1940 in the province of Jiangxi (2). After taking
a degree in French, in 1962 he worked as a French translator at Pekings
Foreign Languages Institute before being sent, during the Cultural Revolution,
to schools for managers in Henan, and then in southern Anhui, to undergo "re-education".
In 1975 he was recalled to Peking to work on the French edition of China in Construction,
then in 1977 to a post at the Liaison Committee of Chinas WritersAssociation.
In this capacity, he came to France in 1978 as Ba Jins interpreter. In 1982
his play "Alarm Signal" was produced at the Popular Art Theatre in Peking,
opening the way to experimental theatre in China. In 1983 the same theatre put
on the play "The Bus Stop" (3), which was immediately banned even as
foreign critics were hailing the birth of avant-garde theatre. At the end of 1987,
he visited Germany and France. From that period onwards, his plays have been performed
on stages across Europe and in the United States: Stockholm, Paris, Vienna, Hamburg,
Edinburgh, Veroli (Italy), Poznan, Gnynia (Poland), Nuremberg and New York.
Gao Xingjians literary output has been considerable: thirteen plays,
three books on theory, three novels, numerous short stories, articles on fiction,
drama, painting and contemporary art. Moreover, his creative activity has not
been limited to literature, far from it: he has extended it to painting (4) and
The centrepiece of this abundant output, the long novel (562 pages in the Chinese
edition) The Mountain of the Spirits (5), was written between 1982 and 1989. Gao
Xingjian has repeatedly said that he never expected to publish it, and even less
to earn any money from it; this enabled him to suffer censorship with equanimity,
and to sustain a tone of untrammelled freedom. The Mountain of the Spirits is
the writers fundamental attempt to put into practice his own literary theories
about the novel, while "coming to terms with nostalgia for his homeland",
as he put it himself (6). A distinctive feature of this novel, unlike the authors
plays written in China, is that it is largely unknown to the reading public of
mainland China. It was finished in Paris in 1989, and published in 1990 in Taiwan
(7). When it came out in France in 1995, the novel was an undoubted success from
the start; with one accord, the French press lavished warm praise (8) on the book,
which sold widely and was reprinted several times.
Gao Xingjian has spoken extensively about his literary ideas, both on the theatre
and on fiction (9), in the course of seminars, public meetings with his readers,
He has recently published in Chinese a novel that is as significant as The
Mountain of the Spirits (10; it amounts to a final condemnation of the Chinese
communist regime, and also to a long poem on the life of an individual confronted
with that regime. It was timely for us to question him about his personal commitment
and his creative work ten years after his departure from China.
Gao Xingjian talks with Noël Dutrait
You have been in France now since 1988, and you have declared
that you would not return to China as long as the Communist Party remains in power.
Ten years later, what is your position?
I spoke those words after the Tiananmen massacre. At the time I wrote a play,
Abscondingr (11), which the Chinese authorities published as a sample of reactionary
writing in a collection they held up to criticism, called Collection of Reactionary
Remarks by "Elites" in Exile Abroad. Later they sealed off my flat in
Peking. So I said that, for as long as I lived, I would not go back to a so-called
homeland dominated by totalitarianism. These last years, the policy of openness
adopted in mainland China has definitely not led to democracy on the political
front; for intellectuals, the control exerted over freedom of expression is no
less strict than before; while human rights are still not guaranteed. I feel no
wish to return to a country that has banned my work. China, my own personal China,
is in my heart. I need no other.
Your book The Mountain of the Spirits has been very successful
in France. How do you explain that success?
As Gérard Meudal, the Libération journalist, put it, the book
is about an individual who is opposed to all forms of oppression; it is also,
as the critic for Le Monde observed, a novel about man and nature (12). Although
it is concerned with the events taking place in China, the book goes beyond that
concrete environment. The difficulties of mans existence, and the hope that
each individual has of finding relief from them, on the spiritual level, are the
same in the East as in the West. So if the book has had a certain resonance for
French readers, it is not only because of their interest in Chinese culture.
You have said that, thanks to The Mountain of the Spirits,
you have come to terms with nostalgia for your homeland. In your latest, as yet
unpublished, novel, Yige ren de shenjing (The Bible of a Lonely Man), why do you
come back to the subject of China and its most recent history?
When I finished writing The Mountain of the Spirits in France, I thought I
had finished with nostalgia for my homeland, a nostalgia that becomes a heavy
burden for exiled Chinese writers in the West. One of the end results of living
in exile is that it enables the artist to conserve his creative force, but he
or she must then face up to a new reality. That is why I turned my attention towards
subjects that concern life in the West; in the five plays that I have written
since that moment (13), the Chinese background has gradually become blurred. I
am profoundly convinced that a man who has left his homeland, so called, can not
only live, but also continue to work creatively. It is only afterwards that he
can look back to examine the painful experience he may have lived through in his
own country. I thought I had established enough distance to come to terms with
that experience but, in fact, it was not so. I have worked on three successive
versions of the manuscript, and spent three years, to succeed at last in destroying
this tumour in the midst of all those memories that I had striven to forget. This
was the necessary condition for literary creation: art does not consist in airing
ones grievances and, if one cannot take pleasure in the creative process,
it is better not to venture into such sensitive areas. If I did go back into my
past to write this novel, it was also to seek relief for hidden suffering and
to enrich my interior life, so that later on I might write something even better.
Many people have already born witness to Chinas Cultural
Revolution. In writing this novel, what more do you personally hope to contribute?
So far, the writing that has dealt with the Cultural Revolution has been generally
designated the term "scar literature". Nevertheless, one may wonder,
who are the authors of these scars? I feel no interest in the writers who are
muzzled by the administrative authorities, nor in books that are the products
of self-censorship. What I wish to show is how the Cultural Revolutionthe
most radical manifestation of the communist revolution in this centuryturned
people into hired henchmen even before it made them objects of sacrifice. I seek
also to show the powerlessness and the fragility of the individual caught up in
this violent storm. Perhaps this would be a more suitable task for the contemporary
historian; but I am limiting myself to presenting a personal case, one that is
intended more as a psychological document, and one that cannot be found in those
archives already opened up or likely to be. I offer it as matter for reflection.
You have recently exhibited your latest ink paintings in
lIsle-sur-la-Sorgue (14). What significance does pictorial expression have
in your creative work?
Ever since my childhood, I have always been keen on both painting and writing,
but I never believed they would become my profession. Speaking in general, when
I am tired of writing, I paint; and when I am tired of painting, I write. Painting
calls upon how one sees things, and on physical force; writing, on ones
intellectual capacity; each regulates the other. Painting enables me instantly
to conjure up before my eyes my own interior perceptions: it is a small personal
world that is quite complete and leaves no room for doubtand that often
astonishes even me. It is a pure act of creation. Often I have no idea what I
am about to paint, and literature itself cannot match the pleasure that I take
in this discovery.
You are famous in China for having profoundly reformed the
art of writing for the theatre; and you have written several plays in French.
What place does dramatic art hold nowadays for you?
Writing my new novel has taken me a long time: my plans for writing new plays
have been held up. Between now and the end of the year I intend to finish a play
that was commissioned from me by the French Ministry of Culture called Le Quêteur
de la Mort (The Death collector). Next year two of my plays will be put on in
France, and I myself will be producing one of them. I am also planning a book
of theoretical reflections on painting. For the next year at least, I shall have
to put fiction writing to one side.
In an article called "Meiyou zhuyi" (I Have No
Doctrine), you declared that you were permanently opposed to "isms"
(zhuyi in Chinese). That amounts, does it not, to asserting a new dogma?
"Isms" are theoretical constructions; but the world, and man himself,
existed even before theory. One may explain existence with the help of theoretical
constructions, but if one lives by theory alone, whatever it is, it will lead
either to absurdity or to catastrophe. That has been proved many times over in
the history of humanity. Mans richness, the worlds richness, both
are infinite; their variations are inexhaustible. My doubts over principles are
born of my own experience. I fear them like the plague; it is better to keep as
far as possible from them. Even when I reflect on literature and art, I do not
shackle myself with this kind of theoretical constraint. Moreover, I remain at
the level of free expression. I am happy to speak, without attempting to pass
myself off as a theoretician. When I uttered the phrase "I have no doctrines",
it was only to express a feeling; but I refuse to be bound by definitions, deductions,
proofs and so on. Similarly, in my novels I expose the reality, but I offer no
conclusions about it.
On reading your article published last summer in Le Monde,
"The Spirit of Liberty, My France" (15), one can understand that you
have found a private space in France where you can live a normal life and give
free reign to your creative work. How do you see the future for your former compatriots
who cannot leave China?
The future of the Chinese people who live in mainland China is up to them.
There is no shortage of prophets to predict the future of China. I shall not act
as spokesman for the Chinese, or for the Chinese people. Such spokesmen exist
already in sufficient numbers: why should I do the same thing? What is more, I
think that speaking about the future can quickly become misleading or an anaesthetic.
Beckett wrote a tragedy on the absurdity of waiting; and I myself wrote a comedy
on that theme, eighteen years ago. A friend informed me recently that this playwhich
in its time had been banned in Pekinghad been performed again in Romania
and had created some stir. This play too was drawn from my own experience. I translated
into a literary form what was close to my heart at the time. You can see that
literature knows no frontiers.
Writing is a personal affair and cannot depend on the power of anyone else.
If I have chosen France, it is because this country is at least democratic and
guarantees more liberty to the individual than does Chinaeven though many
French people complain that they do not have enough of it. In any case, I can
write what I want: that is my good fortune. But I expect nothing of the future.
1. Gao Xingjian, Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan, Guangzhou, Huacheng
chubanshe, 1981, 129 p.
2. A biography of Gao Xingjian in French can be consulted in
the Dictionnaire universel des littératures, Paris, PUF, 1994. The writer
has himself talked about his own life in several articles: eg, "Geri huanghua"
(Faded Chrysanthemum), Minzhu Zhongguo, no. 8, 1992, p. 79-81, also published
in Meiyou zhuyi, (I have no doctrine), Hong Kong, Tiandi, 1996, pp. 158-166. See
also Mabel Lee, "Without Politics: Gao Xingjian on Literary Creation",
The Stockholm Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 6, 1995, pp. 82-101, which describes
Gaos itinerary from 1981 until today.
3. Gao Xingjian refers to this play in the last answer of this
interview. An excerpt of this play was translated into French by Danièle
Turc-Crisa in the anthology La remontée vers le jour, Aix-en-Provence,
Alinéa, 1988, pp. 135-148.
4. See for example the catalogue of his exhibition in Taipei:
Ink Paintings by Gao Xingjian, Taipei, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 1995, 94 p.
5. Gao Xingjian, Lingshan, Taipei, Lianjing, 1990, 563 p. Preface
by Ma Sen. Translated into French by Noël and Liliane Dutrait, La Montagne
de lAme, La Tour dAigues, Editions de lAube, 1995, 670 p. Other
works by Gao Xingjian (same translator, same publishing house) include Une canne
à pêche pour mon grand-père (A Fishing Rod for my Grand-father),
and a selection of interviews by Denis Bourgeois, Au plus près du réel,
1997. The Mountain of the Spirits has been translated into English by Mabel Lee
(University of Sydney) but has not yet been published.
6. See the dialogue between Gao Xingjian and Yang Lian entitled
"Piaopo shi women huodele shenme ? Gao Xingjian he Yang Lian de duihua"
(What does wandering bring us? A dialogie between Gao Xingjian and Yanglian),
in Yanglian & You You, Renjing, guihua (Scenes of Men, Words of Devils), Zhongyang
bianyi chubanshe, 1994, pp. 293-327, also published with a different title: "Liuwang
shi women huode shenme ?" (What does exile bring us?), in Meiyou zhuyi, op.
cit., pp. 116-155.
7. Abroad, Swedish sinologists were the first ones to take an
interest in this work. Goran Malmqvist translated and published it as early as
1992 (Andarnas berg, Forum, 1992). In the article "Why Pure Literature?Random
Thoughts on Estheticism in Contemporary Chinese Literature", Torbjörn
Lodén was explaining his intrest thus: "To me, his recent novel The
Mountain of the Spirits (Lingshan) stands out as a successful example of a literary
experiment with language and form which illuminates cultural and social realities
that we have not known before." See Inside out. Modernism and Postmodernism
in Chinese Literary Culture, Wendy Larson and Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg (ed.), Aarhus
University Press, 1993, pp. 153-160. In another article, "World Literature
with Chinese Characteristics: On a Novel by Gao Xingjian" (The Stockholm
Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 4, 1993, pp. 17-32), the same author does
not hesitate to classify this novel amongst the major works of world literature,
together with works by Oe Kenzaburo, Derek Walcott or V. S. Naipaul. In Australia,
see also Mabel Lee, op. cit., as well as "Personal Freedom in Twentieth-Century
China: Reclaiming the Self" in Yang Lians Yi and Gao Xingjians
Lingshan in History, Literature and Society: Essays in Honour of S. N. Mukherjee,
Mabel Lee and Michael Wilding (ed.), Sydney Studies in Society and Culture, 1996,
vol. 15, pp. 133-155.
8. See, among others, Alain Peyraube, "Voyage au bout de
la Chine", Le Monde des livres, December 16th 1995; Gérard Meudal,
"La longue marche du résident Gao", Libération, December
21st 1995; Diane de Margerie, "Gao Xingjian, fragments dune Chine dévastée",
Le Figaro littéraire, January 11th 1996; André Clavel, "Lisez
Gao Xingjian", LExpress, November 23rd 1995.
9. Beside the essay mentioned above, see "Wenxue yu xuanxue,
guanyu Lingshan" (Metaphysics and Literature, regarding The Mountain of the
Spirits), in Jintian, no. 3, 1992; "Zhongguo liuwang wenxue de kunjing"
(The difficult situation of Chinese literature in exile), in Mingbao yuekan, no.
10, 1992; "An Interview with Gao Xingjian", by Denis Lancry, Sapriphage,
no. 18, 1993, pp. 38-48; "Geri huanghua", op. cit.; "Clés
pour mon théâtre", in Littératures dExtrême-Orient
au XXe siècle, translated by Annie Curien, Arles, Editions Philippe Picquier,
1993, pp. 218-229; "Meiyou zhuyi" (I Have No Doctrine), Wenyi pinglun,
Hong Kong, no. 1, 1995, pp. 42-47; Ba (Postface), in Gei wo laoye mai yugan (A
Fishing Rod for my Grand-father), Taipei, Editions Lianhe, 1989, p. 260. A collection
of his articles was published under the title Meiyou zhuyi, op. cit. Gao Xingjian
also elaborated on the circumstances of the writing and publishing of The Mountain
of the Spirits during a talk organised by the Wenyibao of Hong Kong. See "Yansu
wenxue, liuxing wenxue de zhengaozhong, kan Xianggang wenxue zouxiang"
(The Orientation of Hong Kong Literature in the Dispute Between Serious Literature
and Popular Literature], Wenyibao, no. 1, 1996, p. 4-14.
10. Yige ren de shenjing (The Bible of a Lonely Man), to be published
11. French translation: La Fuite, Carnières (Belgique),
Editions Lansman, 1992.
12. See note 8.
13. See Gao Xingjian xiju liuzhong (Six Plays by Gao Xingjian),
Taipei, Dijiao, 1996.
14. The exhibition "Recent paintings by Gao Xingjian"
took place in La Tour des Cardinaux Art Gallery from July 3rd to August 2nd 1998.
15. See Le Monde August 20th 1998.