Chinese dramatist, novelist, and critic Gao Xingjian was born on January 4, 1940, in Ganzhou (Jiangxi province) in eastern China. His father was a bank official and his mother an amateur actress who encouraged Gao’s interest in the theatre, as well as art and music. Educated in the schools of the People’s Republic, Gao grew up under the Communist regime that took over China in 1949. He attended the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute from 1957 to 1962there he became a member of the drama society and earned a degree in French language and literature. After graduation, he worked as a French translator for the foreign language journal China Reconstructs.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Gao was persecuted as an intellectual, and fearing for his safety, burned a suitcase full of manuscripts, including novels, plays, and essays. This sacrifice, however, did not save him, and he was sent to a re-education camp where he endured nearly six years of hard labor in the fields. Years later, he would say, “During the years when Mao Zedong implemented total dictatorship even fleeing [China] was not an option. The monasteries on far away mountains that provided refuge for scholars in feudal times were totally ravaged and to write even in secret was to risk one’s life. To maintain one’s intellectual autonomy one could only talk to oneself, and it had to be in utmost secrecy. I should mention that it was only in this period when it was utterly impossible for literature that I came to comprehend why it was so essential: literature allows a person to preserve a human consciousness.”
Gao continued to write in secret, for his own sanity, never expecting that he would one day become published. To avoid detection, he went so far as to wrap his manuscripts in plastic sheets and bury them in the ground. After his “re-education” was complete, he was assigned by the government to work as a translator at the Foreign Languages Press, but was still not allowed to publish his own works or travel abroad. Finally, in 1980, the muzzle was removed and Gao was permitted to publish his first piece of writing, a novella entitled Stars on a Cold Night (Hanye zhong de xingchen). During the period that followed, he published short stories, essays and dramas. But in 1981, shortly after becoming a resident playwright with the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, the publication of A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction (Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan) led to a heated controversy about “spiritual pollution” and Gao was put under surveillance by the government. Two years later, his play Bus Stop premiered. Gao’s experimental playsinspired by the likes of Brecht, Artaud and Becketthave sometimes been described as a Chinese Theatre of the Absurd. Written in the spirit of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Bus Stop portrays a group of people who have been waiting almost ten years for their bus. Too radical for those in power, the play was forced to close after only thirteen performances and was openly condemned by Communist Party officials as being anti-socialist and imparting a strong feeling of “doubt and negativity” against the existing way of life. One official called it “the most pernicious work since the establishment of the People’s Republic.” Learning that, as a result of this production, he was to be sent once again to a labor camp to “receive training,” Gao went into self-imposed exile in the mountain regions of Sichuan Province, undertaking a ten-month pilgrimage in which he followed (by foot) the course of the Yangzi river from its source to the coast. In 1986, after rehearsals for his newest play, The Other Shore (Bi’an) were shut down by the authorities, Gao finally decided to relocate, convinced that his plays would never again be performed in China.
In 1987, Gao settled in France as a political refugee and subsequently obtained French citizenship. After the Tiananmen Square protest of June 4, 1989, in which the Chinese government brutally suppressed a student demonstration and left as many as 2600 civilians dead, he published a play entitled Fugitives (Taowang) which takes place against the background of the massacre. In response to the play, the Chinese government declared Gao persona non grata and officially banned all of his works. But while his plays have been condemned and banned in China, they have been heaped with honors and awards throughout the rest of the world.
In 2000, Gao Xingjian was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. China’s Foreign Ministry called the award a “political maneuver” that the nation took no pride in and questioned whether the dramatist was Nobel material. The Yangcheng Evening News, a state-run newspaper, called him an “awful writer,” and insisted that the idea of him winning a Nobel Prize was “ludicrous.”
In his Nobel Lecture (Dec. 7, 2000), Gao responded by saying: “Literature can only be the voice of the individual and this has always been so. Once literature is contrived as the hymn of the nation, the flag of the race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or a group, it can be employed as a mighty and all-engulfing tool of propaganda. However, such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to be literature, and becomes a substitute for power and profit.”
Gao is also a respected artist and provides the cover art for his own books. Other play by Gao include Absolute Signal (1982), Wilderness Man (1984), Between Life and Death (1991), Dialogue and Rebuttal (1992), Nocturnal Wanderer (1993), and Weekend Quartet (1995).