Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, first got into trouble with the Chinese authorities in 1981, when he published A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction. He was put under surveillance, and the process began which was to end in the banning of his work and his exile from China. The offensive thing about Gao’s book was that he advocated the influence of modernist techniques on contemporary fiction. Chinese writing under communism has, by decree, had a heavily social-realist and propagandistic bias; modernist ideas were until very recently seen as decadent, corrupt, and inherently capitalistic.
The Western novelist, secure in what Jonathan Franzen got in trouble for calling “the high art tradition,” can feel a twinge of envy on hearing about the condition of the novel in Chinese—not about the state persecution, and certainly not about the fact that the state so readily bans books, but about the sense of precariousness and energizing danger surrounding the whole question of fictional aesthetics. Over here, the only precarious and energizing issues seem to be the size of the advance, the details of the launch, and occasionally the author photo. But where we in the West may think of the modern literary novel as a sedate form, prone to self-regard, in China it is an edgy young genre, riding the cusp of sociocultural change and on the look-out for trouble.
As for the precise nature of the trouble, well—it varies. For some months now, the hot topic in Chinese literary circles has been the rumpus around K, the eleventh book by the youngish (b. 1962) writer Hong Ying, whose earlier works include the novel Summer of Betrayal and the memoir Daughter of the River. The impact of her new book began with its title, which is the same in Chinese as it is in English; that is to say, the title in Chinese is the English letter K. Since Chinese has no equivalent for English letters, this title has the impact not just of being in a foreign language, but of being unpronounceable and incomprehensible—as strange to the mind and eye as it would be to publish an American novel with a Chinese character as its title. When we add to this the novel’s explicit and lengthy descriptions of sex, which by Chinese standards are super-lengthy and super-explicit, and the fact that the novel is based on real people, it is clear that we have here a kind of avant-garde trifecta, combining experimental gestures, sex, and the glamour of fact.
K takes place in China in 1935–1936. The novel tells the story of a love affair between Julian Bell (Virginia Woolf’s nephew, formerly Anthony Blunt’s lover, a teacher at Wuhan University, and subsequently a heroic casualty of the Spanish Civil War) and a Chinese woman writer called Cheng Lin. The title comes from Bell’s real-life habit of referring to his girlfriends by letters of the alphabet; K is K because she was his eleventh lover. In the novel, Cheng Lin, “K,” is the wife of Bell’s boss in the Wuhan English department, Professor Cheng; she is editor of the Wuhan Daily Literary Supplement; and she is, thanks to her studies of a secret manuscript belonging to her father, an adept in the lost, legendary, astonishing mysteries of the Daoist Art of Love—a sort of Chinese Kama Sutra, only more so. Her husband is impotent, so when she and Bell fall for each other, she sets out to give him and the Art a thorough workout.
This is all described at length, with pauses while we are filled in on how Julian’s lectures are progressing (“He invoked the new critical concept ‘stream of consciousness,’ but this only had the effect of confusing them further”), with many a sideways nod toward Bloomsbury and English literary culture. (“He did not want to hang around the hotel any longer, and remembered that friends in London had suggested he go and see Sir Harold Acton, who was teaching at Beijing University. So, armed with Acton’s address he set forth.”) Bell pays a visit to the front lines of the Chinese Civil War, posing as a war correspondent, and contemplates writing a novel with the “self-mocking title” Hamlet in China; the affair drifts toward disaster, as we know it must.
Hong Ying has written a lively, light book, not without its moments of inadvertent comedy but nonetheless interesting in its portrayal of liberal Chinese intellectual life before the multiple catastrophes of war with Japan, civil war, Communist revolution, and Cultural Revolution. None of this sounds too shocking—but the book has been in big trouble, caused by that combination of sex and the label “based on a true story.” K was first published in Taipei in 2001. It was eagerly latched onto in China, both in pirated editions and in the form of extracts in Writer magazine and Sichuan Youth Daily. Last year, however, Chen Xiaoying, a Chinese woman resident in London, launched a lawsuit against Hong Ying, who also lives in London, claiming that the “unbearably pornographic” book had caused her “spiritual damage” by libeling her late parents, the Kuomintang cultural official Chen Xiying and the poet Ling Shuhua—the models, she said, for Professor and Mrs. Cheng. The lawsuit was brought in China because it is only there that the dead can be libeled: the legal protection lasts for three generations after death and according to Hong Ying, “everybody in China understands that it is designed to protect the reputation of the leading figures of the Chinese Revolution.”
This law, obviously, has ruinous implications for the writing of fiction and history in China; if there is one thing that Chinese intellectual life did not need, it was a new way for books to be banned. The case was heard in June last year, and the verdict was handed down on December 3: Hong Ying was found guilty of “defaming the dead,” told to pay a 124,000-yuan ($15,000) fine, and ordered to apologize in the Chinese press (at her own expense). Hong Ying’s opinion is that the ban means “a return to a chaotic, conservative, and totalitarian state.” It’s hard to disagree. A lawsuit heard in Manchuria, between two people who live in London, over a novel published in Taiwan, giving a fictionalized version of events which happened three quarters of a century ago between people all of whom are dead—welcome to the world of the twenty-first-century Chinese literary novel.
By comparison with this new form of legal suppression—effectively, a type of privatized censorship—Gao Xingjian got into difficulties with the Chinese state in the old-fashioned way, by having ideas they didn’t like. His already mentioned interest in modernism, which is what started the trouble, is one crucial source for the energies on which he draws in his two novels—his “two great novels,” according to the Swedish Academy—Soul Mountain (1990, translated into English in 2000) and One Man’s Bible (which was published in Chinese in 1999). Another reason for the force of these books is the fact that the novel is not highly regarded in the hierarchy of classical Chinese literature. The ranking genres are poetry, philosophy, history, chronicle, biography, and the world’s broadest and most inclusive tradition of belles lettres—memoir, travel writing, nature observations, general reflections. From this perspective, the novel is a younger, brasher form, with a glamorous whiff of disreputability.
The impact of Gao Xingjian’s first novel, Soul Mountain, came from the way that it took all the different kinds of writing in the Chinese tradition and fitted them into a single book. It is an autobiographical novel which describes a journey taken around South and Southwestern China (basically, around Sichuan) by a narrator who is divided up into multiple protagonists, the principal ones being “you” and “I” and “she.” The voices are all reflections of one consciousness, a self which has fragmented under the impact of loneliness—in other words, “I” makes up “you” to have someone to talk to, and then “As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation.”
This may not make the Western reader’s pulse quicken: for us, such experiments are not news. What makes Soul Mountain work, however, is that it is at least as interested in the world as it is in itself. The multiple-self experiments are subjugated to the prime concern of the book, which is to get in as much of China as it can. Gao’s travels took place over ten months, and were undertaken after he had been diagnosed as having lung cancer (the disease that killed his father) and then told that the diagnosis was a mistake. At the same time he came under ferocious attack during the campaign to “oppose spiritual pollution.” (His 1983 play Bus Stop was described as “the most pernicious work since the foundation of the People’s Republic.”) These events are barely sketched in the novel, but they give the book an impetus, an atmosphere of relief and new beginning: the narrator is glad to be alive, glad to be out of Beijing, glad to be traveling.
The novel is bursting with voices and stories and legends and information: bandits and shamans and wild men, doomed lovers, Daoist masters, Buddhist mendicants, sexual fantasies, encounters with traditional singers and village cadres, and a group of bored, listless soldiers whose job is radar-tracking giant pandas. (“There was a journalist who kept going on about the giant panda being as cute as a pet cat and got into the enclosure to have his photo taken with his arms around one they’d caught in the ranger station at the foot of the mountain. He got his genitals torn off and was immediately driven to Chengdu, fighting for his life.”) In Mabel Lee’s translation the writing is inevitably flat—literary Chinese being perhaps the hardest language in the world to render into English—but the sheer interest of the different experiences in Soul Mountain, its human fullness, gives it life.
When a book sets out to get it all in, however, we inevitably wonder what has been left out. Soul Mountain is full of rural China, myths and stories and journeying, but it leaves us wondering about urban China, about politics, about contemporary Chinese history, and about the life of the narrator himself. The answers come in One Man’s Bible, which is about all those things, and which was written after a radical change in Gao’s life: in 1987 he left China to attend a conference in West Germany, and did not return. He settled in Paris, and began supporting himself as a painter. As his work became known in the West, through exhibitions and translations and productions of his plays, Gao began to travel and to lead the life of a participant in conferences; it is this life which is the backdrop to One Man’s Bible, which he wrote in Paris between 1996 and 1998. The book’s plaintive, poignant first sentence is, “It was not that he didn’t remember he had once had another sort of life.”