The Journey of Gao XingJian

“Buying A Fishing Rod for my Grandfather” – stories by Gao XingJian (2004) – 125 pages – Translated by Mabel Lee

    “A fragile man who has managed not to be crushed by authority and to speak to the world in his own voice.” – Gao XingJian’s description of himself

It would have been nice if the stories in “Buying A Fishing Rod for my Grandfather” were easily accessible and in their own way likeable, so then I could wrap this book and Gao XingJian up in a nice little package and move on.  However the fiction and the world of Gao XingJian are by no means that simple.  Gao XingJian’s primary influences as a writer are the absurdists like Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, and Eugene Ionesco.  I’ve read a fair amount of Samuel Beckett, enough to know that he is or was one of the world’s great fiction writers, but I still don’t really understand him. 

The same is true of Gao XingJian who spent much of his life writing absurdist dramas on the order of Beckett.  XingJian’s play “Bus Stop” is about a group of people waiting for a bus for over ten years.  This play was condemned by Communist party officials who called it “the most pernicious work since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China”.  High praise indeed.

Even though I’ve read this entire book and have even read a couple of the stories twice, I still don’t feel that I have a grasp of the writing style to do Gao XingJian justice.  This is the first book that I’ve read that describes everyday life in Red China.  One quality that so far has stood out for me in his writing is that he writes of humans as another part of nature like the animals and birds are.   In western literature humans are usually given a place above nature, but in Gao XingJian’s writing humans are just as subject to the laws of nature as any other animal is.

At this point some of the dialogue in his stories seems enigmatic to me.  Take the following example from the story “In the Park”.

    “She’s waiting for someone.”

    “Waiting for someone is awful. Nowadays it’s the young men who don’t show up for dates.”

    “Are there too many young women in the city?”

    “There’s no shortage of young men, it’s just that there are too few decent young men.”

    “But this young woman is very good looking.”

    “If the woman falls in love first, it’s always unlucky.”

    “Will he turn up?”

    “Who knows? Having to wait really makes a person go crazy.”

Instead of a fuller analysis of XingJian’s writing style, I would like to give you a picture of his amazing life.  Gao XingJian lived in China from 1940 to 1986, and for his entire writing career, he was persecuted as an intellectual and embroiled in controversy.  In 1967 during ‘the Great Leap Forward’ political movement, his first wife reported on him to the authorities, and he felt compelled to burn everything he had written up to this point.  The authorities still sent him to a rural re-education camp for six years of hard labor.      

    “It was only during this period, when literature became utterly impossible, that I came to comprehend why it was so essential.”

 Even in the post-Mao period, Gao XingJian got in trouble with the authorities, and in 1986 he emigrated to Paris, France.  When he criticized the Chinese authorities in regard to the Tiananmen Square protests, his Chinese citizenship was taken from him.  In the 1990’s, he wrote the two novels “Soul Mountain” and “One Man’s Bible”.

    “It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.”

 In the year 2000, XingJian was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.   He is also an artist, and he makes enough from his paintings to support his fiction writing habit.  He designs the cover art for all his books.  Although I did not fully understand all of these stories, “Soul Mountain” is still on my list of books to be read.  As with Samuel Beckett, I will keep trying to master his work.

    “Everyone has to have either this or that problem; if he can’t find any problem, he loses all reason for living.”

9 responses to this post.

  1. You know, I abandoned Soul Mountain years ago. I think I made my way through a quarter of the book, but I didn’t understand much of it and gave up. Another of my friends, who doesn’t abandon books easily, did the same. I am now waiting to see what you do. 🙂


  2. […] The Journey of Gao Jing – a review by Tony’s Book World of Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather […]


  3. Hi Soul Muser,
    There have been some ‘iffy’ Nobel prize winners such as Daniel Fo. After he won the prize, I read one book by Daniel Fo, and I’m quite sure I won’t be reading any more of his work. Probably the reason I’m remaining open to XingJian’s work is because the authorities condemned it, and any work the authorities condemn can’t be all bad. A work would need to be powerful to get the authorities to condemn it.
    I’ll be sure to let you know if I abandon ‘Soul Mountain’ before completing it. I abandon a fair number of books without writing reviews for them, but will make sure you find out if I abandon this one. The last book I abandoned was Joyce Carol Oates who usually I like, but this one hit me the wrong way.


    • It might be worth seeing Dario Fo performed on the stage before you write him off. I read the script for Accidental Death of an Anarchist years ago, before he won the Nobel, and thought nothing of it; then I saw the play performed and it was terrific. I was glad when he won, but I know that if I hadn’t actually witnessed the play then the judges’ decision would have puzzled me.

      I’ve seen more Fo since then. I’ve never read another one of his scripts.

      As for XingJian, after reading three of his books I began to wonder if he wasn’t at his best when he was at his most enigmatic and surprising, as he is in Soul Mountain. A strange book, it worked best when it was meandering, and worked worst whenever it tried to do the things that novelists do to keep the readers on the page, like “create believable and sympathetic characters” or “have a point.”


      • Hi DKS,
        You’re right the goal of a play is completely different than the goal of books that are meant to be read. Some playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Hendrik Ibsen and August Strindberg are excellent both in the theatre and the written page, but others not so much. Daniel Fo seems to get picked on whenever anyone wants to complain about the Nobels.
        That is an compelling theory on Gao XingJian, that he deals better with the absurd and the enigmatic than he does with the everyday realistic parts of novel writing. I can see that there is real value in his writing, but can’t always recognize it.


  4. I actually… I don’t know, I kind of like that dialogue. Granted, I often feel like some of the more “normal” Nobel winners are out of my league. What, I wonder, will feel regarding an author that most seem to find inaccessible?

    I suspect that’s the main reason the authorities would ban the book and other readers wouldn’t understand it. Readers around the world look at literature and writing very differently. It’d be interesting to read a book that sees the world from a very different side, though I doubt I’d be able to understand it…


  5. Hi Biblibio,
    I agree, that the dialogue is extremely good. My point was not on the limitations of the author, but the limitation of me as a reader. There have been a few writers I have difficulty with where I suspect it is not due to their inadequacies as writers. Some authors ooze likeability; “The Imperfectionists” is a good example of that. Other writers you need to work to appreceiate, and Gao XingJian seems to be that kind of writer. I am very impressed with his comments on writing and still much interested in reading “Soul Mountain”.


  6. Posted by kimbofo on February 14, 2011 at 9:07 PM

    Thanks for this review, Tony. As you know I’ve been on a quest to read as much Chinese fiction as I can in recent months, so I’ve added this one to the wishlist.

    Sadly XingJian’s life story, as you’ve described here, is not out of the ordinary for that time period. So many intellectuals, artists and writers were condemned to the labour camps during the Cultural Revolution.


  7. Hi Kimbofo,
    I read your article on ‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian and am thinking that might also be a good place to start with Red China fiction. I can see how writers from a country as isolated from the rest of the world as Red China might not have developed modern attitudes that we take for granted.
    It’s too bad that Red China kept such a tight clamp on the fiction that was written, because we will never know what life was like there.


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