As a writer who has endured China's spasms of oppression, it's a lesson Gao has learned through bitter experience. When Chinese authorities tried to squelch his voice in the early 1980s, he fled his home in Beijing, first into the rural wilds of China, later to exile in France, penning a sprawling novel, Soul Mountain, partially about his flight. In 2000, it helped him win an utterly unexpected Nobel Prize in Literature, the first by a Chinese author. To many writers, the Nobel has proved a curse, triggering furious envy from rivals, and intensifying crippling perfor-mance anxiety. And some critics carped that Gao was an undeserving mediocrity, hinting that he won only because of his relationship with Goran Malmqvist, his Swedish translator and the sole Chinese-speaking member of the Nobel-awarding Swedish Academy—a charge Malmqvist denies. For Gao, it has been a trying experience. "The prize has brought me a lot of trouble," he admits. A year of book tours and interviews left the normally solitary writer battling high blood pressure and exhaustion.
With its complex blend of genres, the play is risky. But Gao's equanimity runs deep. Friends speak of his Zen-like detachment, what his French translator Noel Dutrait calls his "unshakable faith" in himself. "He can be in the center, yet not of the center," observes one of his English translators, Prof. Gilbert Fong. "This is what he tries to capture in his writing." For Gao, detachment is just another word for freedom, the freedom to live and to write what he described in his Nobel acceptance speech as "cold literature," art that "refuses to be strangled by society."
Coming of age in post-revolutionary China, that threat of cultural asphyxiation was ever present. "In college I dated girls, but a lot of them would report to the higher-ranking officials and tell them exactly what I was thinking," he recalls. "And I had funny thoughts." Later, during the Cultural Revolution, he was even denounced as a counterrevolutionary by his first wife. As a young man, Gao wrote down his funny thoughts in fistfuls of plays and novels, but with the Red Guards attacking the least twitch of non-conformity, he burned all of his early writing as a precaution. This sacrifice didn't save him from being exiled to the countryside for "reeducation." Despite the hardship and the risk, he kept writing in secret, burying his manuscripts in jars of potter's clay each night. He did it because he had no other choice. "Writing was the only way to relieve my loneliness."
Gao's experience during the Cultural Revolution, which he details in his second and most recent novel One Man's Bible, was not unique; it was merely horrible. "His language was raped," says Malmqvist. "For Gao Xingjian, to have his language raped is to be raped himself." He vowed that it would never happen again. When Chinese authorities threatened him for writing non-conformist literature in 1983, Gao was forced to choose between self-censorship and exile. "Exile meant survival to me," he says, "physical survival as well as maintaining spiritual independence, by gaining freedom of expression."
Today Gao is adjusting to what he calls his "second exile," his escape from Nobel celebrity. After Taipei, he will retool Snow in August for a production in Marseilles, where 2003 has been declared the Year of Gao Xingjian. Regardless of plaudits, prizes and criticism, Gao will no doubt continue along his solitary, unflinching path. "I think he has an interior mission," says translator Dutrait. "He's determined to go all the way to the end, the end of his dreams of total art, of cinema, painting, novels, theater, everything. And he must go faster. He sees the time passing—and he is no longer 30 years old." For Gao, it's even simpler: "There's nothing more important than to be myself and live for myself."