Gao Xingjian (born January 4, 1940) is a Chineseémigré novelist, playwright, and critic who in 2000 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity." He is also a noted translator (particularly of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco), screenwriter, stage director, and a celebrated painter. In 1998, Gao was granted French citizenship.
Gao's drama is considered to be fundamentally absurdist in nature and avant-garde in his native China. His prose works tend to be less celebrated in China but are highly regarded elsewhere in Europe and the West.
In 1962 Gao graduated from the Department of French, BFSU, and then he worked for the Chinese International Bookstore (中國國際書店). During the 1970s, because of the Down to the Countryside Movement, he went to and stayed in the countryside and did farm labour in Anhui Province. He taught as a Chinese teacher in Gangkou Middle School, Ningguo county, Anhui Province for a short time. In 1975, he was allowed to go back to Beijing and became the group leader of French translation for the magazine China Reconstructs (《中國建設》).
In 1977 Gao worked for the Committee of Foreign Relationship, Chinese Association of Writers. In May 1979, he visited Paris with a group of Chinese writers including Ba Jin. In 1980, Gao became a screenwriter and playwright for the Beijing People's Art Theatre.
Gao is known as a pioneer of absurdist drama in China, where Signal Alarm (《絕對信號》, 1982) and Bus Stop (《車站》, 1983) were produced during his term as resident playwright at the Beijing People's Art Theatre from 1981 to 1987. Influenced by European theatrical models, it gained him a reputation as an avant-garde writer. His other plays, The Primitive (1985) and The Other Shore (《彼岸》, 1986), all openly criticised the government's state policies.
In 1986 Gao was misdiagnosed with lung cancer, and he began a 10-month trek along the Yangtze, which resulted in his novel Soul Mountain (《靈山》). The part-memoir, part-novel, first published in Taipei in 1990 and in English in 2000 by HarperCollins Australia, mixes literary genres and utilizes shifting narrative voices. It has been specially cited by the Swedish Nobel committee as "one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves." The book details his travels from Sichuan province to the coast, and life among Chinese minorities such as the Qiang, Miao, and Yi peoples on the fringes of Han Chinese civilization.
Years in Europe and Paris
By the late 1980s, Gao had shifted to Bagnolet, a city adjacent to Paris, France. The political drama Fugitives (1989), which makes reference to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, resulted in all his works being banned from performance in China.
While being forced to work as a peasant – a form of 'education' under the Cultural Revolution – in the 1970s, Gao Xingjian produced many plays, short stories, poems and critical pieces that he had to eventually burn to avoid the consequences of his dissident literature being discovered. Of the work he produced subsequently, he published no collections of poetry, being known more widely for his drama, fiction and essays. However, one short poem exists that represents a distinctively modern style akin to his other writings:
The Premier Zhu Rongji delivered a congratulatory message to Gao when interviewed by the Hong Kong newspaper East Daily (《东方日报》):
Q.: What's your comment on Gao's winning Nobel Prize ?
A.: I am very happy that works written in Chinese can win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Chinese characters have a history of several thousand years, and Chinese language has an infinite charm, (I) believe that there will be Chinese works winning Nobel Prizes again in the future. Although it's a pity that the winner this time is a French citizen instead of a Chinese citizen, I still would like to send my congratulations both to the winner and the French Department of Culture. (Original words: 我很高兴用汉语写作的文学作品获诺贝尔文学奖。汉字有几千年的历史，汉语有无穷的魅力，相信今后还会有汉语或华语作品获奖。很遗憾这次获奖的是法国人不是中国人，但我还是要向获奖者和法国文化部表示祝贺。)
Comments from Chinese writers
Gao's work has led to fierce discussion among Chinese writers, both positive and negative.
In his article on Gao in the June 2008 issue of Muse, a now-defunct Hong Kong magazine, Leo Ou-fan Lee praises the use of Chinese language in Soul Mountain: 'Whether it works or not, it is a rich fictional language filled with vernacular speeches and elegant 文言 (classical) formulations as well as dialects, thus constituting a "heteroglossic" tapestry of sounds and rhythms that can indeed be read aloud (as Gao himself has done in his public readings).'
Before 2000, a dozen Chinese writers and scholars already predicted Gao's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, including Hu Yaoheng (Chinese: 胡耀恒) Pan Jun (潘军) as early as 1999.
Gao Xingjian's Swedish translator Göran Malmqvist, is a member of the Swedish Academy and was responsible for the translation to Swedish for Nobel Prize consideration. Ten days before the award decision was made public, Gao Xingjian changed his Swedish publisher (from Forum to Atlantis), but Göran Malmqvist has denied leaking information about the award.
Gao is the second of the three laureates to give Nobel lecture in Chinese (the other two are Samuel C. C. Ting in 1976 and Mo Yan in 2012).
^"The Nobel Prize for Literature 2000". Nobelprize.org. The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2000 goes to the Chinese writer Gao Xingjian "for an œuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama".
^Lee, Gregory Barry (1993). Lee, Gregory (ed.). Chinese Writing in Exile. Chicago: Center for East Asian Studies, The University of Chicago.
The Voice of One in the Wilderness critical essay on the works of Gao Xingjian by Olivier Burckhardt, PN Review #137, 27:3 (Jan–Feb 2001) 28–32, shorter version also published in Quadrant. 44:4 (2000) 54–57, and anthologized in Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 167, ed. Jeff Hunter, Gale Publishing, (2003) 200–204