A Literary Journey

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Gao Xingjian's CityUniversity of Hong Kong Lecture


(Note: This is an excerpt from a lecture delivered on 31 January, 2001 at City University of Hong Kong by Mr Gao Xingjian, Nobel Prize Winner in Literature. The sub-headings were added by the editor.)



First of all, I wish to apologize for not being well prepared for today's lecture. My life is so disrupted these days that I haven't prepared any lecture notes. I'm very sorry about this. It's fortunate, however, that the topic today is my own writing. So it will be easy to speak freely and to share my views with you. And because literature is very broad in scope--and our time is limited--I will avoid the mistake of sinking into groundless and conceptual ideas by using my novel SoulMountain to illustrate my thoughts on novels and literature in general.


The Writing of SoulMountain


The writing of SoulMountain spanned seven years. I got the idea to write the novel in 1982--a time when no publisher would accept my work. And let me get this straight: my writing has nothing to do with social or political issues--my novels are not concerned with such things. I think the reason for this misunderstanding is that many readers find it difficult to understand my work. In fact, publishers would often reject my manuscripts for similar reasons. Some said that I didn't know how to write. Some said that my character portrayals were weak. Others said my plots were unrefined, and my themes were obscure, ambiguous and difficult to read. Yes, I have piles of rejection letters--but these prompted me to think seriously about the meaning of the novel in its different forms, and the writing skills involved to create such a thing.


The Cultural Revolution had just about ended at this time, and the editor-in-chief of Huacheng Magazine in Guangzhou was very interested in my thoughts on the novel and invited me to write about them. These ideas were later published in a small book called The Exploration of Contemporary Novel Writing Skills. In this book, I did not touch on political, ideological or philosophical topics. Nor did I attempt to establish a writing theory. I just wanted to discuss different approaches to novel writing and the skills necessary for completing such a task. My objective was to study the novel from a new angle, to explore new writing skills, and to explain the sense of my novels, which most readers find meaningless or difficult to read.


My book aroused quite a big debate on Modernism versus Realism in China in the 1980s. An editor at the People's Literature Press then asked me if I would write a novel based on my ideas. He said he could pay me an advance of RMB200. I agreed on two conditions: first, that no deadline would be set for the completion of the novel--because I had no idea when the work could be finished. Second, that the novel be published in full--nothing cut, or edited. When he agreed, I began to work in earnest on a novel that would illustrate my views. That was how SoulMountain was conceived.


At that time, however, my book--The Exploration of Contemporary Novel Writing Skills--was stirring up a lot of controversy, and my play, Station, was later banned. To avoid further troubles, I left Beijing and started my journey to the South, which I planned to use as the backdrop for my novel. I was also in poor health, having been mistakenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. But all of these factors just made me more determined to go on with the long journey of writing SoulMountain.


The Immense Cultural Background


When I left Beijing I felt like a man who had been sentenced to death. I just vanished. No address and no destination. I had no idea of where exactly to go. So armed with a nothing-really-matters outlook, I began to travel.


I made three trips, by any means available, along the Yangtze River. I used public transport, hitchhiked and rented bicycles. I walked. I had no idea how far I travelled on those three trips. But I do know that one of the trips stretched 15,000 kilometres, and took five months of travelling time, passing seven nature reserves. From the upper reaches of the Yangtze River to its mouth, I saw many species of animal and visited many minority groups. I studied history seriously and read intensively Shi Ji (A Record of History) and Shui Jing Zhu (Annotations on Waters in China). I even used ancient maps to verify those places depicted in Shan Hai Jing (The Stories of Mountains and Waters). I also seriously studied the river's mythical stories.


And so I studied the origin of the Yangtze River from the perspective of ancient history and of geography. My study was based on readings of many local and county chronicles, as well as on books on Buddhism and Taoism that were banned at that time. I also visited many historic sites and interviewed close to 100 scholars and experts, including many anthropologists, archaeologists and historians. Their views confirmed my theory concerning the formation of the Yangtze River culture--which is that the vast area along the Yangtze River was already a developed cultural region in the New Stone Age.


In many historic sites along the Yangtze River, I found pottery with geometric symbols carved on their bottoms. These symbols consisted of many different shapes: circles, rectangles, squares and triangles. I believe these were the earliest signs of Chinese culture. They not only appeared in the pottery at one site, but along the entire upper, middle and lower streams of the Yangtze River. These symbols showed that people in the New Stone Age--that is about seven thousand years ago--were capable of travelling by water. This was how their large cultural region was formed. This also confirmed my belief that Shan Hai Jing originated in the Yangtze River area, and that the book's mythical stories are an ancient collection from the region. The archaeologists that I later interviewed agreed with my suggestion. They told me that they often worked on the same historical site for years, and this hindered them from making a comprehensive study like mine.


All of this is to say that there is a huge Chinese cultural background behind SoulMountain. I don't agree with those simplistic descriptions of SoulMountain as a story about finding one's roots. Rather, I would say that I have a keen interest in Chinese history. All history written up to this point consists of chronicles of emperors, or annals of powers--but nothing on the historical basis of culture. And so, to stay in China and not do any creative writing, I set a goal for myself to write a book on the history of Chinese culture.


In Search of a New Form for the Novel


Because of this, my novel grew not only out of my field trips, but also out of my keen interest in history and culture. But this created the problem of finding the right form before I started to write. I soon realized that my novel shouldn't be a historical story, and that it was completely inappropriate to develop a normal story line. But it still needed to be a novel. During my search for the appropriate form, I was pushed to think about issues such as "What is a novel?" and "What is the form of a novel?" And then a couple of deeper questions: "What is literature?" and "What should be conveyed in a novel?"


These questions buzzed around in my mind. In those days, I was often alone, and often in remote places. Sometimes, in the mountains, I would not meet anyone for days. Alone with the nature, I found myself naturally talking to myself, and becoming easily immersed in these conversations. So, throughout my journey, I was often thinking and talking to myself. And whenever I did, my consciousness was projected outward as a virtual person, and became my chatting partner. This is what inspired me to base my whole novel on the characters "you" and "I". That was how the basic structure of the novel was formed.


SoulMountain has many real characters and authentic depictions, but is, ultimately, a novel. It is about my actual journey, but it's also a spiritual journey. It is also a recording of the private dialogue between "you" and "I". In SoulMountain I realized that plot is not the only foundation for the novel. It can be other things, such as life. In this case, I used my heart and consciousness as the basis for the novel. The book is not plot-oriented, but based on the inner world of the author. Rather than plots and incidents, my heart is its basic structure. That's why it doesn't really fit into any category as a novel. In fact, there is no such novel in the history of literature.


However, I didn't want my novel to be a purely psychological depiction of myself. I also added my thoughts on Chinese culture and history, which resulted in many passages of my own critical thoughts. Therefore, the book should not simply be regarded as a story or an episode of a plot. Indeed, the book contains my thoughts on philosophy, the form of the novel, Chinese language, literature, history, and culture. I wonder if language can really express the inner perception of oneself. Language does not exist without people to express it. There must be someone who thinks and expresses. And this is "I", who may cast doubt on himself. "I" is so uncertain, so unclear and undefined that the question of "I" is not just a grammatical or linguistic issue but a philosophical one.


No Reason for Overturning Traditional Culture




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