Authors: Gao Xingjian
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee
HarperCollins e-book extras:
It was not that he didn’t remember. . .
The curtain is partly open.
He needed a nest, a refuge. . .
Warm and moist, writhing flesh.
He did not know how he had returned. . .
A man you don’t know has invited you. . .
Boom! Boom! Pneumatic hammers. . .
“Why don’t you tell me about that. . .
Late at night, after the criticism. . .
The lights are off, and you’re lying. . .
As he lay in Lin’s nuptial bed. . .
The telephone wakes you and you wonder. . .
March wind. Why March? And why wind?
“So you weren’t declared the enemy?”
He recalled that, as a youngster, he once. . .
In the taxi on the way to the. . .
It was a tailor-made new society, brand new. . .
You find retelling that period quite. . .
The first battle between Red Guards. . .
“There’s a rock there,” the joker. . .
Lin had her head down. . .
And how is Margarethe?
During the Cultural Revolution, big posters. . .
Is it worth writing pure literature,. . .
He saw no future in the total chaos. . .
So you can, in fact, turn back. . .
He looked at the cracks in the. . .
It was winter again.
“Why were you arrested?”
Bags of cement had been stacked. . .
A vast quagmire, reeds growing here. . .
The bag the girl left with him had. . .
He first read it in a stenciled pamphlet.
Beyond the pass at Shanhaiguan. . .
“Haul out before the people that evil scum. . .
A young woman is lying on top of you.
Buses were parked in front of the. . .
That soul mate of yours, Louis Armstrong,. . .
“Don’t think peace will reign once. . .
His head was a total blank.
The old date tree outside the window. . .
“You’re just using me, this isn’t love.”
It was winter again, and he was sitting. . .
On the market days of the four villages. . .
If you can use the smiling face of Buddha. . .
A day of rain and another day. . .
If one views the world through a lens,. . .
She wants to look at ancient forests.
n this small town, the electricity. . .
Unlike Margarethe, Sylvie was bored. . .
“The people are victorious!”
The first time he ever saw the great man. . .
You no longer live in other people’s. . .
One day, passing Drum Tower. . .
It was with difficulty that he pulled. . .
The place is New York.
He came upon a crowd.
You are in the military port of Toulon. . .
Enough! he says.
Perpignan is a city in the French border. . .
A Conversation with Gao Xingjian
Mr. Gao spoke at a sold-out event co-sponsored by the Asia Society, the China Institute, and the French Institute Alliance Française (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 of the University of Sydney, who is the translator of his novels
One Man’s Bible
. 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.
David Der-Wei Wang:
In 1981, you published a short book, titled
A Preliminary Discussion on the Art of Modern 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 modernist practice to a Chinese audience?
At that time, the Cultural Revolution had just ended, and Chinese literature was going through a recovery. Prior to that I had written many works but I was unable to present them for publication, in fact I had burned them all. So this book,
A Preliminary Discussion on the Art of Modern Fiction
, was my first opportunity to publish something that I had written.
After 1949, China became a Soviet-style socialist state, and it was impossible to have complete literary freedom, because Mao Zedong had established guidelines for literary styles. One was revolutionary romanticism and the other was revolutionary realism. My goal was to overturn this, or turn this on its head, but it was impossible to do this directly. So in my writings I tried to find indirect ways of subverting these styles.
I was extremely careful at that time to not cross the line and I exercised self-censorship. That was how I wrote at that time, and I did not imagine that what I wrote would still create such problems for me.
I think most in the audience here are not aware of your achievements as a dramatist, and that you had started your career in Chinese literature as a playwright and a director. Since 1982, you have written and directed plays that have won tremendous acclaim, and of course also raised many eyebrows. . . . In 1987, you chose to leave China for good, and after that you have come up with a cluster
of terms or attitudes that you neatly summarized as “no -isms,” 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 even while carefully exercising self-censorship, my writings still led to adverse consequences for me. But I had an overwhelming desire to express myself fully in my writing, and I decided to write a book that I did not intend to publish: that book was
. I started writing it in Beijing in 1982 and finalized the manuscript a year or so after I had relocated to Paris. The Tiananmen Square events of 1989 made me feel that the time had come for me to stop endlessly revising the manuscript. I submitted the manuscript to a publisher in late 1989 and it was published the following year.
I feel that my best works have actually been the works that I have written since
, because that was when I finally got rid of all the constraints that I had inflicted upon myself so as to not encounter problems with the Chinese government. In the past twelve or so years that I have spent in France, I feel I have produced my best works. And the attitude that sums up my work over these years is “no -isms.” When I came overseas, I realized that there were many other ideologies and trends, and that it was also very hard to produce honest art and honest literature. I decided that I did not want to follow any of these ideologies or trends, because these also exerted a kind of pressure, and obstructed absolute creative freedom. So I decided that I was only going to produce works that were satisfying for me, and that meant not following any trends and being anti-ideology, that is not being “politically correct.”
was first released in Taiwan in 1990, only about ninety . . . copies were sold, right? And the second year, the following year, 1991, the situation was even worse; only about . . . sixty-three copies were sold. But now, this book is a bestseller; it is
[the] number-one best seller in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and in overseas Chinese communities. Yet, for me, even as a professional reader of Chinese literature, this book was not an easy read. This is truly a tremendous novel. The novel has an encyclopedic vision. It is a very rich tapestry of all sorts of Chinese genres and narrative formats all lumped together and 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
When I was writing
, it did not occur to me that it would have such an impact in the literary world. I did not think about what sort of people might read it. In fact, I was writing it for myself. At the time I was intrigued by people’s attitudes towards Chinese civilization and Chinese history, and I came to the realization that Chinese history was a history of power and authority. I therefore became interested in the sources of Chinese civilization and I traveled to those sources to investigate for myself. These were the places I wrote about in the novel.
At the time I was also very interested in various issues of Chinese society. My investigations revealed that many of these issues are not exclusive to Chinese society, but are issues that are common to all human society. In
I also addressed issues such as 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 an individual 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 an individual goes through in life. It did not have a single theme; the whole work was a process.
Could you tell us a little more about your experiments with the Chinese language? As you mentioned just now, you believe that language must serve as the vehicle through which you can inquire into various aspects of traditional Chinese cultural and historical
legacies, and you also express your skepticism by this reworking of language. In particular, you have invented a term, “stream of language,” as a way of summarizing your intent. So could I ask you to tell us a little more about some specific experiments you carried out in this novel? For example, your use of the pronouns
, and so forth.
I was also investigating questions I had about language and about what constituted a novel and what purpose the novel served. For me, it was not particularly interesting simply to use language to describe characters, a plot or circumstances. I decided that the calling of names, at its most basic level—that is, pronouns—was in itself a subject worthy of investigation. Pronouns therefore became the plot. But I also realized that in trying to narrate something about pronouns, that is, the plot, it had to be done through language. But as soon as language is used, you come to the question of who is speaking and who is narrating. I realized that this had brought me back to the starting point of characterization and plot, and I thought that using pronouns instead of names for characters was a way of leading readers into the story.
So all three pronouns (you, me, he or she) could be used to refer to the one person. If I used the first person (I or me) then it was obvious who was being referred to. But by using “he” or “she,” then a certain distance was created. By creating some distance, it gave a different perspective and allowed me to create an artifice. It was an artifice for me, a different perspective for looking at myself.
This was not merely playing games with language. Each of these pronouns provided three different levels and three different starting points through which to enter the work. When describing a realistic setting and talking about myself, “I,” then it was clear that I was describing myself, or if I used the third person and was narrating circumstances, it was also quite clear that there was a narration in process. But as soon as “you,” the second person, is introduced, a dialogue
takes place, and there is an exchange of thoughts between people. Whereas the use of “you” was to create a dialogue, the use of the third person was to create distance.
I am now switching gears to the next topic, another huge novel of yours, published in 1999,
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—[why do you] again . . . use women, and particularly sexual encounters with women, as a way to redeem lost memories, to recollect all those lost experiences?
This question is refreshing and surprising, and I would have to say that it is, of course, the bible of one man. Yet, it is not limited to being the bible of one man. It is also about an individual, about people in general, and it is about how people survive crises and survive disasters and atrocities. What is more interesting for me is that they are not heroes, as such. The question is how does a person who is not a hero make it through disasters and crises? Investigating this is one way of revealing weaknesses inherent in human beings. If everyone is a hero, then disasters and atrocities lose their meaning. It is only when certain people are heroes and others are not that the tragedies and disasters that mankind faces take on meaning.
So on one hand I was narrating, describing, political crises and political situations, and I wanted to describe these in detail and carefully. On the other hand, I was also describing characteristics and weaknesses in individuals, and I also wanted to capture these in detail. And then there was the question of what standards were to be applied in judging these people, what moral or ethical standards would be used to judge them. For me, the ultimate criterion was whether or not the portrayals were truthful, whether or not they were authentic. That was the actual standard.
I was also describing the superstitions people had, or the utopias that people try to create. Man has a tendency to think that he is the Creator, that he is 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 the state of being man—back to being a normal person.
The following are audience questions selected by Torrey L. Whitman, President of the China Institute.
What does it mean to be a writer either in exile or as part of a diaspora?
At one level, I think that in the twentieth century the problem of exile or alienation is particularly pronounced for writers and artists. At another level, a more spiritual level, that exile also means overcoming ideologies and overcoming prevalent attitudes and trends, and so exile has also been a way of pursuing “no -isms” or overcoming ideologies. At a third level 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 are in the center of society, you will be receiving inputs and pressures from too many different areas, and that is not the kind of environment that an artist needs to cultivate his own creativity and his own thinking.
Who are your favorite Chinese and foreign authors of the twentieth century? When you read foreign authors, do you read them in French . . . 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, I was reading real literature. Before the Cultural Revolution, I had read many of the classics from the Western
and Chinese canons. By studying French, new horizons were opened for me because I had access to foreign literature in the original. At the time, many French authors in China were still not yet banned, so it was not difficult to read certain French authors. And I read a great, great, number of books. While at university I would sometimes read fifty or more plays in one week.
To give you one example of my reading, I read Goethe’s
, which had been translated into Chinese in three volumes. It was not easy to borrow the volumes from the library, and I had to wait for my turn before I could take them out. I took the first volume out but had to wait a long time for it, as many people were in line to borrow it. When I took the second book out, I also had to wait for that, but only about ten people had borrowed that volume. 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 experimentation in such a novel as
, and do you have any regrets?