Academic journal article China Perspectives

GAO Xingjian: Fiction and Forbidden Memory

Academic journal article China Perspectives

GAO Xingjian: Fiction and Forbidden Memory

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

In Gao Xingjian's novel Soul Mountain, written between 1982 and 1989, there is a long description of an ancient mask. It is an anthropozoomorphic mask sculpted out of wood, no doubt dating back to the last Imperial Dynasty, and which survived the destruction of the anti-superstition campaigns and of the Cultural Revolution. The narrator found it in the storage rooms of a museum in the southern province of Guizhou, a region inhabited by ethnic minorities, where it was still used for the Nuo or Wunuo ritual theatre (not to be confused with the Japanese Nob theatre) of the shamanistic tradition. The object excavated has fairly realistic features, with a pair of horns on the top of its head, two sharp fangs pointing up towards its nose, and two eyes with holes in them, giving it a threatening and surprised expression. In all likelihood, it represents the god "who opens the mountain" (Kaishan) or the god "who opens the road" at the beginning of the ritual (Kailu).(2) This episode gives pride of place to these divinities, taking up all of Chapter 24 and echoing the theme of the mountain in the novel. To the description the narrator adds a rather psychological interpretation of the mask: "This face also accurately expresses the animal nature in human beings and the fear of this animal nature within themselves." This shocked reaction expresses the growing, sometimes painful awareness of man in self-contemplation, as an "understanding of nature and the self is fully encompassed in the round black holes of the eye sockets."(3) These annotations thus show an attention that transcends the simple ethnological dimension of discovery, making a metaphorical use of it that connects with social relations and the examination of identity.

The mask thus described and decoded may serve as the starting point for the present discussion. Inscribed as a gesture against oblivion, its revelation denounces the violence of history, while also revealing an ambivalent fictional approach. Gao Xingjian superimposes fiction on eyewitness accounts, a viewpoint that is both critical and self-reflective, pondering both orchestrated amnesia and personal forgetfulness. The author's ethnological propensity, as shown in Soul Mountain, thus anticipates the lucidity that characterises One Man's Bible(4) by means of a work of memory that proves transgressive in several ways: defending buried minority cultures, which are the casualties of the ravages of dominant culture, protecting individual memory from established historiography, and finally, examining the dark areas of one's personal past in order to become reconciled with oneself. This threefold cultural, political, and personal aspect allows us to compare Gao Xingjian's commemorative writing with a certain exorcist ritual, which makes it possible for him to defy prohibitions while casting out internal demons. Gao Xingjian's two novels, while apparently different on a diegetic level, resemble each other in a common thematic preoccupation with the relationship between fiction and forbidden memory, which the following paragraphs will seek to clarify by means of a contrastive textual study.

Soul Mountain is a fictionalised account of an ethnological research project. Its approach is undeniably original in the context of the 1980s: in contrast with the "cultural fever" (wenhua re)(5) that was taking over intellectual circles, Gao Xingjian took a personal approach, far from the fads of the day and official supervision. By trying to revive the buried memory of peripheral cultures eclipsed by the vagaries of history and politics, he immediately put himself in opposition to the central government, where the followers of "culture" enter into more or less voluntary connivance with the dominant ideology. Gao Xingjian's fundamentally ethnological approach thus differs from the philosophers and historians who assign a consensual rather than a critical significance to cultural debates. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.