Authors: Gao Xingjian
Tags: #Drama, #Asian, #General, #Literary Criticism, #Chinese
The Other Shore
Plays by Gao Xingjian
Translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong
The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian
Translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
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Title of Book: The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian
Author: Gao Xingjian
Translator: Gilbert C. F. Fong
Date Last Updated: Day (10) Month (05) Year (2012)
Info Rainbow Limited has owned this book’s copyright granted by The Chinese University Press to publish worldwide exclusively in electronic version, with technical support provided by Ez4phone. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted without the owner’s permission in writing. All rights reserved.
This book only represents the author’s standpoint and has nothing to do with Info Rainbow Limited.
The translator would like to thank the playwright Gao Xingjian for his patience, and Professor David Pollard and Professor Peter Crisp, who went over the translations and offered valuable comments. My thanks are also extended to Ms. Natalia Fong and Ms. Shing Sze-wai, whose assistance was invaluable in preparing the manuscript. I would also like to acknowledge Professor Jo Riley’s translations of three of the plays in this collection. I have read her manuscripts, but all the translations are my own.
You’re a stranger, destined to be a stranger for ever, you have no hometown, no country, no attachments, no family, and no burdens except paying your taxes
There is a government in every city, there are officers in every customs station to check passports, and man and wife in every home, but you only prowl from city to city, from country to country and from woman to woman
You no longer need to take on any town as your hometown, nor any country as your country, nor any woman as your wife
You have no enemies, and if people want to take you for an enemy to raise their spirits, it’s purely their own business. Your only opponent—yourself—has been killed many times; there’s no need to look for enemies, to commit suicide, or to do battle in a duel
You have lost all memories, the past has been cut off once and for all
You have no ideals, you’ve left them behind for other people to think about
: Weekend Quartet
Gao Xingjian has been hailed as the first Chinese playwright to enter world theatre. His plays in fact have been performed more often outside China than inside it, in France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the U.S., and in overseas Chinese communitie s such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. While his plays have been condemned and subsequently banned in China, they have been heaped with kudos and honours in Europe. Individually, they have been applauded as “archetypal” and “extremely modern and poetic,” as creating “a new and delicate language for the stage,” and above all, as constituting a
“théâtre de l’asurde à la zen.”
In 1992, he was awarded the
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
in France, where he now resides. This can be seen as pointing to the fundamental differences in the idea of theatre and the arts in China and the West, the former rigidly subscribing to a set of utilitarian and political rules on what is legitimate and permissible—exactly the kind of constraints on artistic freedom that Gao Xingjian finds disconcerting. In fact, living in exile seems to have shaped and strengthened Gao Xingjian’s convictions, and provided the impetus for the development of his ideas about the theatre. The questions may be asked: is there an essential “Chineseness” in his works? Does he, like many contemporary Chinese writers living overseas, still look to Chinese artistic and cultural traditions for inspiration? And in what manner has his exile and living as a marginalized member of society influenced his thinking and the creation of a “self-conscious” theatre?
Born in 1940 at the height of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) in Ganzhou 贛州 in the Province of Jiangxi 江西, Gao Xingjian spent his youth growing up under the Communist regime that took over China in 1949. His mother, an amateur actress, introduced her young child to the art of traditional Chinese theatre. She also urged him to write, telling him to keep a diary of the happenings of his young life. At ten, he had already finished his first story and drawn some cartoons as illustrations. “I locked myself in my own little room, feeling happy about myself and my work.”
(Gao Xingjian is proud of his accomplishment as a painter. Exhibitions of his paintings have been held regularly around Europe, in the United States, and in Taiwan and Hong Kong.)
Gao Xingjian went to the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute at seventeen as a French language and literature major. When in college, he became a member of the drama society and acquainted himself with the works of European dramatists such as Stanislavsky, Brecht and Meyerhold. He also developed into an avid reader of literature, saying that it was there that he could “discover the meaning of life.” After his graduation in 1962, he worked as a French translator for the foreign language journal China Reconstructs. During the Cultural Revolution (1967–1977), he was at one time the leader of a Red Guard brigade, but was later banished to the countryside to work alongside the peasants and the masses.
For Gao Xingjian, the sufferings he witnessed during the Cultural Revolution were exactly like those he had read about in the great books of literature. Driven by a desire to “decipher the meaning of the cruel reality around him,” he kept writing in secret and, to avoid detection, he wrapped his manuscripts in plastic sheets and buried them in the ground.
(It has also been reported that he had to burn a dozen or so of his playscripts and short stories to escape punishment.) Instead of serving the Party and the masses, for him writing was to be the means to self-knowledge and understanding of the value of human existence. This individualistic stance was of course anathema to the official dogma of socialist realism. With aspirations to become a published writer, he tried to avoid officially tabooed topics, even though he felt himself hemmed in by the restrictions imposed on him and his fellow writers. This dilemma apparently tormented the fledgling writer who, working under constant surveillance by officials and fear of censure, found himself in a constant state of siege mentality. He could only find comfort in the rationalization that perhaps his manuscripts would be allowed to be published posthumously. After the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to southwestern China as a schoolteacher for six years. It was in 1980 that he was able to publish his first piece of writing, a novella entitled
Hanye zhong de xingchen
《寒夜中的星辰》(Stars on a Cold Night). At that time he was already 38.
Of all the contemporary Chinese writers, Gao Xingjian was perhaps the most outward-looking. Through his knowledge of the French language, he could gain access, if only in a limited way, to contemporary developments in literature and literary criticism in the West. After a brief stint as a schoolteacher, he was for a short time a translator and he often gave lectures on French surrealist poetry and other avant-garde writings to his colleagues. In 1981, he published a booklet entitled
Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan
《現代小說技巧初探》(Preliminary Explorations into the Techniques of Modern Fiction), which was based on ideas taken from the French structuralist school. The book was a rather crude attempt at theory, aimed at the self-enclosed circles of Chinese writers and critics who were still very much under the influence of the Maoist line of “revolutionary realism.” The book proved to be too radical for the authorities and was condemned as a serious and blatant challenge to the party line. Soon the whole country was embroiled in a controversy over the pitfalls of modernism and the book’s “bad influences” on young and old writers alike.
In June 1981, Gao Xingjian was assigned to the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, China’s foremost theatre company. At the time, the company, like all the major theatre companies in China, was still deeply committed to realism and the Stanislavskian method of acting. The first play he wrote for the Beijing People’s Art Theatre was
《車站》(Bus Stop), an absurdist play about a group of passengers waiting for a bus which never comes. The play was politely declined by the company because of its non-realistic tendencies. In 1982, Gao finished
《絕對訊號》(Absolute Signal), which was given a test run in the rehearsal room of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. The play, featuring many flashbacks, disjointed temporal sequences and the interplay of subjective and objective perspectives, is a rather didactic prodigal son story—an attempted train robbery is thwarted by one of the villains who eventually realizes his mistaken ways. During the “previews,” he and Lin Zhaohua 林兆華, China’s best known director who also shared Gao Xingjian’s views on experimental drama, decided against Stanislavskian realism and opted for a more modernist production with a minimum of props. The stage, an empty room with the audience on three sides, was equipped only with a few iron bars indicating the inside of a train coach, and the only lighting was a flashlight which the director used to shine on whichever actor was speaking at any given moment. The play had several full-house “previews” and was finally moved to the company’s auditorium for a regular run. The production was considered a breakthrough and a trend-setter in Chinese experimental theatre, but it also aroused the authorities’ suspicion and once again brought about a vehement war of words on modernism and realism.
Despite the threat of official sanctions, Gao Xingjian pressed on and continued with his efforts in experimental drama, supported by a host of famous dramatists such as Cao Yu 曹禺 and Wu Zuguang 吳祖光. In July 1983, he and Lin Zhaohua began reviving
as a “rehearsal,” which had a successful short run in the banquet hall of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. Cao Yu, then director of the theatre company, applauded the play and considered it a “wonderful” piece of work. But news of the “rehearsal” leaked out, and this time the political fallout was much more serious than with the artistic debate that followed
. It was the time of the “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Movement,” and the new production was accused of being anti-socialist and of imparting a strong feeling of “doubt and negativity” against the existing way of life.
After thirteen performances the play was forced to stop, and Gao Xingjian was subsequently barred from publication for one year. Before further punishments were announced (reportedly he was to be sent to a labour camp in qinghai to “receive training”), he went into self-exile in the mountains of southwestern China. The turn of events made him realize that exile was the only way to save himself and to preserve “one’s values, integrity and independence of spirit.”
When he returned to Beijing, he was again allowed to publish his writings. A collection of his medium-length stories came out, followed by another collection of eight of his plays that included some short experimental pieces written to train actors. In November 1984, after settling down after his “exile” in the mountains, he finished
《野人》(Wilderness Man) in ten days and nights, incorporating into the play his thoughts on ecology, the destruction of nature and the environment by civilization, and above all, a celebration of the primordial human spirit. According to Gao Xingjian,
was to be an experimental play, an “epic” describing events from “seven or eight thousand years ago to the present” and encompassing many issues such as those of “man and nature, and modern man and the history of mankind.”
The play, aimed at creating a modern Eastern drama, has more than thirty atemporal scenes; it also features a plethora of nonrealistic masked ceremonies, wedding rituals, folk songs and a dance troupe of twenty members, whose abstract movements symbolize the masses, the earth, its floods and forests, as well as a wide range of emotions.
represented the pinnacle of the development of experimental drama in China at the time. It also gave notice that drama, or any work of art, did not have to be guided by the concerns for socialist education or political usefulness, and that interpretative lacunae in any piece of work, rather than determinateness, would enhance artistic effectiveness. Here Gao Xingjian’s predilection for subjectivity gradually surfaced, and soon he would find himself increasingly uneasy, an individualist surrounded by a sea of collectivity which from time to time would threaten to overrun his personal peace and creative space in art. Regarded as politically innocuous,
was very favourably received, and the playwright and his work both managed to avoid political censure. But it was to be his last work to be publicly performed on his home soil.