Posted in Books, China, Gao Xingjian

Gao Xingjian

[An article I wrote, published in today’s [23 August] Garhwal Post]

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“In the snow outside my window I see a small green frog, one eye blinking and the other wide open, unmoving, looking at me. I know this is God.” It’s a sentence typical of Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. Soul Mountain, Gao’s prize-winning book, was first published in Chinese in 1989, with the title Lingshan. His other novel has been translated into English as One Man’s Bible. He has also written a number of plays, including Absolute Signal (1982), Bus Stop (1983), Wild Man(1985), Absconding (1989), a novella, A Pigeon Called Red Beak, (all originally in Chinese) a play in French, Le Somnambule, as well as essays and literary criticism. His plays and novels explore political and personal themes, attempting to understand life against the background of his experiences in China.
Soul Mountain is a journey into China’s past. Escaping from Beijing at a time of political turmoil, Gao decides to visit Lingshan, a remote and small place. He goes to Lingshan, that means ‘Soul Mountain’, only because he heard about it from a fellow traveller in a train. He doesn’t even know if the place exists, it is not listed in travel guides, but somehow, he reaches there. He had been wrongly diagnosed with cancer, and now he feels a need to move out of his book-filled rooms. He knew, he says that literature should be faithful to life, yet he had turned his back on real life. As he travels through China, he records all he sees and learns, as well as his thoughts. The Cultural Revolution has ended, and the old China is beginning to re-emerge, a China steeped in customs and traditions, too strong to be destroyed by the overlay of communism. Its varied nature, the different languages and people he encounters, and the tragedies and absurdities of the past and the present, remind one at times of India. There are passages of beautiful writing, but Soul Mountain is not a novel with a single story, rather a collection of stories, narratives and dialogues with the author’s different selves, forming a base for Gao’s own emerging personal philosophy.
One Man’s Bible is a far more coherent work. Setting aside the distant past, here Gao reminiscences about the Cultural Revolution. Memory is too painful, and so a philosophy develops, of living in the present. To have meaning, life has to bring happiness and a sense of freedom – a freedom which comes from awareness, from the ability to observe, even in the midst of suffering and grief.
The first writer of Chinese origin to win the Nobel prize for literature, Gao’s works are steeped in China’s history and culture. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) he was not able to publish anything, and finally destroyed all that he wrote at that time, for fear of being labelled a dissident. In the 80s his work began to be published in China, but still lacking total freedom there, he moved to France and is now a French citizen. Gao continues to write mainly in Chinese, though he has begun to write in French as well. In One Man’s Bible, he explains what China means to him today. Referring to himself as ‘you’, he says: “You will not go back. Not even in future? Someone asks. No, it is not your country. It exists in your memory only, as a hidden spring gushing forth feelings that are hard to articulate. This China is possessed by you alone, and has nothing to do with the country.”
Though Gao no longer lives in China, his work is appreciated there. It is his intensity of feeling, along with his brilliant prose, and his detached observations, that particularly make his books worth reading. His sensitivity also expresses itself through art and over thirty exhibitions of his ink paintings have been held. His works have been translated into several languages.
[by Roshen Dalal]

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Posted in Books, China

Smoke and Mirrors: An experience of China (A Book review)

I had read this  book by Pallavi Aiyar, some time ago. It is based on her experiences in China, where she lived and travelled between 2002 and 2007. With this is an introduction  to China after 2000, I will subsequently add more about books on China or by Chinese authors, and also write something about my  research  on Post-Mao China.
This particular book consists of a series of essays on Pallavi’s experiences in China, seen from an Indian perspective. Smoke and Mirrors thus provides a first-hand account of the new China, where change and development is constant, and money and material wealth the apparent focus.
The essays are diverse, both amusing and insightful. One learns how Chinese students give themselves Western names when attending classes in English, names chosen by themselves, that include Byron, or the more descriptive Better or Fat (because I am fat, the student explains). The makeover for the Olympics, the SARS crisis, industrial zones, rich villages, religion, strange food habits (from an Indian point of view!), and finally Tibet, are some of the essay topics. The author constantly compares India with China, and contrasts the dignity of labour and welfare for the poor in China, with democracy, the caste system, and the different approach in India. However, sometimes one feels she is less in touch with India than with China, and her comparisons are with an India of twenty years ago. For instance she feels that owning a TV, DVD and motorbike in India would classify one as middle class, which is certainly not the case today. At other times, the comparisons reflect a desire to whitewash India’s problems, as when she compares India’s north-east policy with China’s Tibet policy, but totally ignores insurgency in the north-east, instead stating: ‘The North-East might not have figured prominently in the national imagination or policy priority list, but the local governments that ruled these states were genuinely representative.’ There are also too many generalisations, both on China and India. Are the Chinese really as non-intellectual, uncritical and materially oriented as she portrays? Or do they refrain from revealing what they think to a foreign visitor?  These are some of the questions that come to mind while reading the book, but on the whole it presents a fascinating and incredible picture of China as a country on the move.

There are certainly great and intellectual books by numerous Chinese writers, and I plan to look at some of these.