Xingjian, Gao 1940–

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Xingjian, Gao 1940–

(Gao Xingjian)

PERSONAL: Born January 4, 1940, in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, China; immigrated to France, 1987; naturalized French citizen; son of a bank official and an actress. Education: Attended Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, 1957–62.

ADDRESSES: Home—Paris, France. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Éditions de l'Aube, 13 pl Andre Masson, 84240 La Tour-d'Aigues, France.

CAREER: Writer. Beijing People's Art Theatre, resident playwright, 1981–87; China Reconstructs and Chinese Writers Association, translator; worked as a farm laborer and teacher.

AWARDS, HONORS: Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Letters, Government of France, 1992; Nobel Prize for literature, Swedish Academy, 2000; honorary literary doctorate from Chinese University in Hong Kong, 2001.



Ink Paintings, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 1995.

The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian (includes The Other Shore, Between Life and Death, Dialogue and Rebuttal, Nocturnal Wanderer, and Weekend

Quartet; also see below), translated by Gilbert C.F. Fong, Chinese University Press (Hong Kong, China), 1999.

Soul Mountain (novel), translated by Mabel Lee, HarperCollins (Australia), 1999, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.

One Man's Bible (novel), translated by Mabel Lee, published in Taiwan, 1999, published as Le Livre d'un homme seul, Éditions de l'Aube (La Tour d'Aigues, France), 2000, published by HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.

Return to Painting, translated by Nadia Benabid, Perennial (New York, NY), 2002.

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather (stories), translated by Mabel Lee, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.


Juedui zinghao (play; title means "The Alarm Signal"), 1982.

Chezhan (play; title means "Bus Stop"), 1983.

Ye ren (play; title means "Wild Man"), 1985.

Dialoguer-interloquer (two-act play; title means "Dialogue and Rebuttal"), M.E.E.T. (Saint-Nazaire, France), 1992.

Le Somnambule (title means "The Sleepwalker"), Editions Lansman (Carnières-Morlanwelz, France), 1994.

La Montagne de l'âme, Éditions de l'Aube (La Tour d'Aigues, France), 1995.

Au plus près du reel: Dialogues sur l'écriture (1994–1997), Éditions de l'Aube (La Tour d'Aigues, France), 1997.

Une canne à pèche pour mon grand-père, Éditions de l'Aube (La Tour d'Aigues, France), 1997.

Also author of You zhi ge zi jiao hong chun er, Xian dai xiao shuo ji qiao chu tan and You zhi ge zi jiao hong chun er, all c. 2003.

SIDELIGHTS: Gao Xingjian is a Chinese writer who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. Olivier Burckhardt, writing in Quadrant, affirmed that Gao "has been described as the leading dramatist of avant-garde Chinese theatre; an author who has forged new paths in Chinese prose writing; and a painter of international repute." Phillip Adams acknowledged Gao, in Late Night Live, as "one of China's best known dissidents" and a figure who is "regarded as being at the fore of avant garde Chinese/French literature." Sarah Lyall, meanwhile, wrote in the New York Times that Gao "is best known for daring plays that combine a modernist sensibility with traditional elements from Chinese drama."

Gao was born in 1940, a time of turbulence in China, and spent his childhood evading the Japanese forces that had invaded his homeland. During this period, as Bruno Roubicek related in Asian Theatre Journal, Gao "came into intimate contact with the cultures and performing arts of remote regions of China." Following the withdrawal of Japanese troops, Gao entered a Chinese university and began studying the works of European playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht. He then found work as a translator with both China Reconstructs, a journal, and the Chinese Writers Association.

During this period Gao began producing a sizeable body of literary work, but fear of government authorities compelled him to destroy these writings. In the repressive Cultural Revolution that ensued, Gao worked on farms and served as a teacher in some of China's less developed regions. While laboring in these rural areas he persevered as a writer, but was forced to destroy these writings as well. Marilyn August, in the Bergen Record, disclosed that Gao "burned his early writings to save himself from communist zealots."

In 1981 Gao obtained an appointment to the Beijing People's Art Theatre; and, during the next few years, he proved an accomplished, if controversial, playwright. Among his works from this period are Juedui zinghao, which Roubicek described in Asian Theatre Journal as a play about "the psychology of a youth who turns to crime," and Chezhan, in which citizens consider their plight as they await a bus. Among the characters in Chezhan is Glasses, described by Kevin Hodgson, writing in Road to East Asia, as "a short-sighted pseudo intellectual who recognizes his plight but has no vision and consequently no incentive to emancipate himself from oppression." Another critic, Jessica Martin, wrote in the same journal that "Glasses presents himself as an intellectual with a vast expanse of knowledge at his disposal," but added that "it is questionable whether or not he knows what he is talking about." William Tay, writing in Worlds Apart: Recent Chinese Writing and Its Audiences, acknowledged Chezhan for its "aspects of inarticulation, incomprehensibility, and non sequitur" and added that such elements render the characters "comical."

Chezhan drew recognition as a pioneering work in Chinese theatre, but it also proved troubling to authorities. Gao continued to divide audiences with Ye ren, in which an ecologist attempts to promote forest conservation to peasants. As with Chezhan, the use of both European avant-garde techniques and traditional Chinese elements in Ye ren impressed some theatergoers, while its thematic obscurity and lack of closure outraged others. Xiaomei Chen noted in a Comparative Literary Studies essay that Gao considered Ye ren "an attempt to realize his ideal of establishing a 'modern theater' by drawing on traditional Chinese operas."

Gao left China in 1987. The next year, as Chinese troops crushed a student rebellion at Tiananmen Square, Gao dropped his membership in the Communist party and established residency in Paris, where he began writing in French. He also began publishing various works in English translation. These English-language volumes include The Other Shore, which contains such works as The Other Shore, Between Life and Death, Dialogue and Rebuttal, Nocturnal Wanderer, and Weekend Quartet.

Gao also published Soul Mountain, which Lyall described in the New York Times as "a long, impressionistic work that arose from a … walking tour Gao took along the Yangtze River." Lyall added that the novel constitutes "a hodgepodge of literary styles and techniques, with a variety of narrators and interwoven tales of people Gao met on his journey." Writing in the same publication, Richard Eder found Soul Mountain "often bewildering and considerably uneven," but he conceded that it provides "a fascinating account of [China]." Eder called Gao "a gifted, angry writer." After receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, Gao conceded that he would probably not return to his homeland. "I don't consider myself to have cut myself off from my roots," he told Paisley Rekdal in a New York Times Magazine interview. "But China remains an authoritarian state, and I don't plan on returning while I'm alive."

Gao's novel One Man's Bible, first published in Taiwan in 1999 and translated into English in 2003, combines a fictionalized description of Gao's life under the Chinese Communist regime with reflections on writing, living in exile, and political oppression and how the human spirit can ultimately triumph. Written in his typical stream-of-consciousnesses style, the story jumps back and forth in time as a writer living in Taiwan recalls his life under China's oppressive Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao. Shirley N. Quan, writing in Library Journal, noted that that "Gao's liberal shifting from second to third person, mixed with a sprinkling of dialog throughout, add to the novel's complexity and make it a difficult work." Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor Jason Picone felt that Gao's lack of providing an historical context for the story could leave some readers confused, especially concerning the violence and betrayals that occur in the novel. Pointing out that much of the story is told between the lovemaking sessions between the narrator and his lover, Piccone also noted, "Even though Gao's intense eroticism makes a strange bedfellow for the revelations concerning China's bitter past, this unique pairing gives the book a tenderness and desperation it might otherwise lack."

In 2004 a collection of Gao's past short stories, primarily published in Chinese between 1983 and 1991, was translated into English and published as Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather. The collection contains six short stories that Janet St. John, writing in Booklist, called "richly diverse." One of the favorite stories among book reviewers was the story titled "The Accident," about a father on a bicycle and his young son in an attached baby buggy who are hit by a bus with tragic consequences. Noting that the collection offers readers "a sample of Nobel-winner Gao's sharp, poetic early work," a Publishers Weekly contributor wrote of "The Accident" that it "explores the simultaneous enormity and anonymity of death." In the title story, the narrator recalls the destruction of his grandfather's village and the lake where they used to fish together, using both his memory and his daydreams to reveal the tale. In a review in Library Journal, Shirley N. Quan commented, "As a whole, the collection is a fast read, but the literary nature of Gao's writing makes it a challenge." St. John noted, "For variety of content, stylistic experimentation, graceful language, and poignant insight, Xingjian is a writer who does it all beautifully."

"One of the qualities that place Gao Xingjian squarely in the ranks of the most respected Nobel laureates is the universal appeal of his works, which are distinctively Chinese and yet transcend national boundaries," noted Sylvia Li-Chun Lin in World Literature Today. "Unlike so many modern and contemporary Chinese writers, who seem 'obsessed with China,' Gao, though drawing his inspiration from Chinese culture, nevertheless ponders more fundamental issues of human existence."



Goldblatt, Howard, editor, Worlds Apart: Recent Chinese Writing and Its Audience, M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1990.


Asian Theatre Journal, fall, 1990, Gao Xingjian, "Wild Man," pp. 184-239.

Bergen Record, October 13, 2000, Marilyn August, "Chinese Exile Gao Xingjian Wins Nobel Prize for Literature."

Booklist, December 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Soul Mountain, p. 762; February 1, 2004, Janet St. John, review of Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, p. 949.

Comparative Literature Studies, fall, 1992, Xiaomei Chen, "A Wildman Between Two Cultures," pp. 397-417.

Library Journal, August, 2002, Shirley N. Quan, review of One Man's Bible, p. 142; February 1, 2004, Shirley N. Quan, review of Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, p. 126.

Newsweek International, February 12, 2001, Mahlon Meyer, "Too Eager to Toe the Line?," p. 77.

New York Times, October 13, 2000, Sarah Lyall, "Exiled Chinese Writer Wins Nobel Prize in Literature"; December 18, 2000, Richard Eder, "A Dreamlike Chinese Journey Haunted by Past and Present."

Publishers Weekly, December 11, 2000, review of Soul Mountain, p. 65; January 12, 2004, review of Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, p. 36.

Quadrant, April, 2000, Olivier Burckhardt, "The Voice of One in the Wilderness."

New York Times Magazine, December 10, 2000, "Questions for Gao Xingjian," p. 51.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2003, Jason Picone, review of One Man's Bible, p. 152.

World Literature Today, Winter, 2001, Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, "Between the Individual & the Collective," p. 12.


Age, (August 8, 2001).

Late Night Live, (August 8, 2001).

Road to East Asia, (August 8, 2001).