Academic journal article China Perspectives

"Without Ism" an Ism for One Man

Academic journal article China Perspectives

"Without Ism" an Ism for One Man

Article excerpt

The Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Gao Xingjian, "for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama." The citation underlined the innovative nature of Gao's work, describing Soul Mountain as a "great novel" and "one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves." It went on to mention his second novel, One Man s Bible, noting that "the book involves settling the score with the terrifying insanity that is usually referred to as China's Cultural Revolution." The citation noted: "With ruthless candour the author accounts for his experiences as a political activist, victim and outside observer, one after the other. His description could have resulted in the dissident's embodiment of morality but he rejects this stance and refuses to redeem anyone else. Gao Xingjian's writing is free of any kind of complaisance, even to good will. His play Fugitives irritated the democracy movement just as much as those in power." (2) The Swedish Academy was thus highlighting Gao's dual approach of pursuing literary innovation and also of seeking not to promote a new utopian ideal through his works but to denounce the ravages wrought by ideologies, signalling a return to one's own self so as to safeguard people as individual beings, keeping collectivist dictatorship at bay.

In his Nobel Lecture, Gao quoted from an article he had written in 1990 in Paris, entitled "Cold Literature." He defined it thus: "Cold literature is literature that will flee in order to survive, it is literature that refuses to be strangled by society in its quest for spiritual salvation. If a race cannot accommodate this sort of non-utilitarian literature it is not merely a misfortune for the writer but a tragedy for the race. "(3)

In 1993, in Paris, Gao wrote an article entitled "Meiyou zhuyi," or "Without Ism."<4) This essay was inevitably reminiscent of the famous dispute between Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu and Hu Shi at the beginning of the 20th century regarding zhuyi or "isms" and wenti, or "questions," as well as of Sun Yat-sen's sanmin zhuyi, or "Three principles of the people." Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu believed that "isms" - communism, Marxism, socialism - were solutions that could "save the nation." Hu Shi on the other hand preferred to underscore "concrete problems" (wenti), which he recommended addressing one by one.(5) A few years earlier, in 1905, Sun Yat-sen had published in Tokyo his theory of "Three principles of the people:" nationalism, democracy and people's well being. Writing after the demise of ideologies in the late 1980s, Gao Xingjian clearly states in "Without ism" that he has had enough of these "principles" whose destructive effects he had personally experienced. Gao held the status of a political refugee in France from 1989 until 1998, at which date he obtained French citizenship. After settling permanently in France following the events of Tiananmen Square of June 1989, he took no part in any collective action to further China's evolution toward democracy, unlike most writers and artists who had fled China.<6) In public appearances, he has confined himself to speaking about his art, his conception of Chinese civilisation and the Chinese language, which according to him has been ruined by official jargon. Unlike many other writers facing a similar predicament, he says exile in the West has thrown up new possibilities for creativity.

However, Gao has also often stressed that while the weight of politics is lighter in Western democratic countries, the laws of capitalist profit throttle creativity. In "The Writer's Position," he says: "If a writer does not heed market pressures [...], if he ignores fashion and does not pander to readers' tastes, he will find it difficult to survive. The pressure exerted on such serious literary creation by globalization is only increasing. …

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