In the first 98 years after the prestigious Nobel Prize for literature was established, the honor was rarely given to playwrights, and never to a Chinese writer. This year's recipient, Gao Xingjian (also spelled Xingjiang; pronounced "Gow Seen-gen"), is both.
Born in China in 1940, Gao was forced to destroy a trunkful of his manuscripts, including more than a dozen plays, during the Cultural Revolution. Even after destroying his entire literary output to that point, he was nevertheless imprisoned in a "re-education camp" from 1966 to 1976. Ten years later he fled China for France, where he was made a "Chevalier de l'Ordere des Artes et des Lettres."
Although Gao writes both fiction and non-fiction, he is best known for his many plays, including "Bus Stop," an absurdist drama that shows eight archetypal characters waiting for a bus that, after 10 years (the duration of the Cultural Revolution), does not arrive. Although "Bus Stop" has been translated into numerous languages and performed on every continent except South America and Antarctica, it (like the rest of Gao's output) is banned in China.
"It's a great thing he won," Carla Kirkwood, an American who translated "Bus Stop" into English, told Back Stage. "It couldn't have happened to a finer mind." She compared Gao to the playwright-president of Czechoslovakia, saying the new Nobel Prize winner "is more than a Vaclav Havel for China; he's also a terrific individual.
"He's banned in his own country, but admired by a lot of us who know Chinese theatre."
In naming Gao as this year's winner, the Nobel committee said in a statement Thurs., Oct. 12, "Gao Xingjian points out himself the significance for his plays of the non-naturalistic trends in Western drama, naming Artaud, Brecht, Beckett, and Kantor. However, it has been equally important for him to 'open the flow of sources from popular drama.' When he created a Chinese oral theatre, he adopted elements from ancient masked drama, shadow plays, and the dancing, singing, and drumming traditions. He has embraced the possibility of moving freely in time and space on the stage with the help of one single gesture or word—as in Chinese opera. The uninhibited mutations and grotesque symbolic language of dreams interrupt the distinct images of contemporary humanity. Erotic themes give his texts feverish excitement, and many of them have the choreography of seduction as their basic pattern. In this way he is one of the few male writers who gives the same weight to the truth of women as to his own."
The Chinese government, far from happy over Gao's selection, released a statement saying it "shows again the Nobel Literature Prize has been used for ulterior political motives, and it is not worth commenting on."
Kirkwood, a professor at Southwestern College in California, disagrees. "It's important in that it says China is not just a traditional culture," she said. "It contradicts the perception that China is something that happened 100 years ago and stopped." That said, Kirkwood is also impressed by the way Gao's play "Wild Man" straddles the old and new. The concept of all-spoken drama has, until recently, been virtually unknown in China, and by using "very little text and lots of movement," Gao uses ancient forms to spin a story of modern culture.
Gao's other plays include "Fugitives," "Between Life and Death," "Absconding," "Nocturnal Spirits," "Weekend Quartet," "Dialogue and Counter Dialogue," "Alarm Signal," "Soliloquy," "The Other Shore," and "Modern Folding Play." His novels include "Soul Mountain" and "One Man's Bible," and his non-fiction includes "Preliminary Exploration Into the Techniques of Modern Fiction," which was the first of his works to create an uproar when it was released in China.