Authors: Gao Xingjian

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Nobel Prize–winning playwright, novelist, and writer

January 4, 1940

Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, China


Gao Xingjian (gow shihng-jyahn) was the first Chinese-born writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was born in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, in eastern China, on January 4, 1940. His father was a bank official, and his mother was an actress before she became a housewife. Gao attended the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute in 1957 and graduated with a degree in French in 1962. His first job was as a translator and editor at the Foreign Languages Press. He later was forced to spend five years in a cadre school for “reeducation”—the equivalent of brainwashing and hard labor—during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).{$S[A]Xingjian Gao;Gao Xingjian}

Stimulated by his parents, Gao had cultivated interests in the theater and writing from an early age. He began his career as a writer in 1957, when he was just a freshman in college. However, he sensed that what he wrote might not be in accord with the Communist principle of literature, which requires that all literature and artwork must “serve the masses.” Therefore, during the Cultural Revolution, when almost all writers and their works were severely criticized and denounced and there seemed no way for him to publish any of them, he burned most his manuscripts.

Gao Xingjian.



By Jwh, CC BY-SA 3.0 lu (, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1978 Gao visited Paris the first time, as a translator for the Chinese Writers Delegation. Beginning in that year, he was able to publish again. Two years later he was transferred to the Beijing People’s Art Theater as a playwright. He attracted great attention in 1981 for his literary theory work Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan. In it, he introduced to the Chinese literary and academic worlds the developments that had taken place in world literary theory and practice and reassessed China’s rich literary heritage in the light of modern times. In the following years, his experimental plays, Alarm Signal and The Bus Stop, were performed in Beijing. His translations of works by Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jacques Prévert, as well as numerous introductory essays on modern Western writers, were also published. These works established Gao’s literary credentials among writers, academics, and the reading public in China.

He once again suffered from the policies of the Chinese government in 1983. This time, a campaign called “oppose spiritual pollution” censored any foreign influences in literature and the arts. His plays were banned in Beijing. In fear of potential arrest and out of a resolution he had made after a misdiagnosis of cancer the previous year, he left Beijing and traveled to the remote mountains and ancient forests in southwest China and from there back to the east coast, a journey of fifteen thousand kilometers over a period of ten months. This journey helped him rediscover himself and his fellow Chinese and helped change his worldview.

In the following years, Gao was able to continue publishing his plays (including The Other Shore) and his collection of short fiction You zhi gezi jiao hongchunr (a pigeon called red beak) and to stage his plays in foreign theaters, in Yugoslavia (The Bus Stop in 1984), Germany (Wild Man in 1988), and England (The Bus Stop in 1988). His reputation as a leading modern playwright had spread beyond the Chinese borders.

In 1985 he was invited to Germany and France to hold exhibitions of his artworks and lectures on his literary works. He was again invited to those countries to do his artwork in 1987. After the Chinese government’s crackdown on the democracy movement caused bloodshed at Tiananmen Square in 1989, he quit the Communist Party. Two years later, angered by Gao’s new play, Fugitives, the Chinese government banned all of his works, discharged him from public employment, and took away his apartment in Beijing. Gao reacted by settling in Paris as a political refugee and then acquired French citizenship in 1998. Having been married and divorced twice before he left China, Gao made his home with his girlfriend, Yang Fangfang, also a writer, in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet.

After 1989, most of Gao’s works in Chinese were published in Taiwan and Hong Kong. His masterpiece, Soul Mountain, was published in 1990 and translated into Swedish in 1992, French in 1995, and English in 2000. Based on impressions from the 1983 journey in remote southern and southwestern China, this novel explores the human soul in an unusually direct and candid way. The different traditions, histories, legends, folk songs, and landscapes and the narrator’s poignant inner journey made it a novel of immense wisdom and profound beauty. Gao’s second novel, One Man’s Bible, was published in 1999, then translated into French in 2000 and English in 2002. In writing this semiautobiographical novel, Gao subtly delineated the three different roles he played during the Cultural Revolution: that of political activist, victim, and outside observer. Before winning the Nobel Prize in 2001, he was awarded by the French Government the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1992, the Prix Communauté Française de Belgique in 1994, and the Prix du Nouvel An Chinois in 1997.

Author Works Long Fiction: Ling shan, 1990 (Soul Mountain, 2000) Yige ren de shengjing, 1999 (One Man’s Bible, 2002) Short Fiction: You zhi gezi jiao hongchunr, 1984 Gei wo laoye mai yugan, 1988 (Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather: Stories, 2004) The Temple, 2011 Drama: Juedui xinhao, pr. 1982 (Alarm Signal, 1996) Chezhan, pr. 1983 (The Bus Stop, 1996) Yeren, pr. 1985 (Wild Man, 1990) Taowang, pr. 1989 (Fugitives, 1993) La Fuite, 1992 (Escape and The Man Who Questions Death, 2007) Au bord de la vie, 1993 Le somnambule, 1994 Ming cheng, 1995 The Other Shore: Plays, pb. 1999 (includes The Other Shore, Between Life and Death, Dialogue and Rebuttal, Nocturnal Wanderer, and Weekend Quartet) Shan hai jing zhuan, 1993 (Of Mountains and Seas: A Tragicomedy of the Gods in Three Acts, 2008) Ye you shen, 1990, 2001 (Night gods) Jue dui xin hao, 2000 (Absolute Signal, 2009) Ba yue xue, 2002, (Snow in August , 2003) Ballade Nocturne, 2010 City of the Dead and Song of the Night, 2015 Nonfiction: Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan, 1981 Dui yizhong xiandai xiju de zuiqiu, 1988 Meiyou zhuyi, 1996 Pour une autre esthâetique, 2001 (Return to Painting, 2002) The Case for Literature, 2007 Lun chuang zuo, 2008 Lun xi ju, 2010 (with Fang Zixun) Gao Xingjian: Aesthetics and Creation, 2012 Zi you yu wen xue, 2014 (Freedom and literature) Bibliography “Gao Xingjian—Biographical.”, Nobel Media, 2000, A brief biography written at the time of the award, published in Les Prix Nobel, and republished in an edited form in Nobel Lectures, Literature 1995–2000, 2002. Loden, Torbjorn. “World Literature with Chinese Characteristics: On a Novel by Gao Xingjian.” The Stockholm Journal of East Asian Studies 4 (1993). The author is the chairman of the department of Chinese language and literature at Stockholm University. This is one of the most important critical articles on Soul Mountain in English. Mazzilli, Mary Gao Xingjian’s Post-Exile Plays: Transnationalism and Postdramatic Theatre. Bloomsbury, 2015. Discusses plays written just before and during his exile in France. Tam, Kwok-Kan, ed. The Soul of Chaos: Critical Perspectives on Gao Xingjian. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2001. This collection of articles provides critical readings of Gao’s major works in the context of his contribution to the rejuvenation of Chinese tradition and his significance in world literature. Includes bibliographical references and indexes. Taylor, John. “Three Chinese Francophone Writers: Francois Cheng, Dai Sijie, Gao Xingjian.” Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. XLVII, no. 2, China, 2008, Accessed 11 May. 2017. Discusses four plays that Gao has written in French. Zhao, Henry Y. H. Towards a Modern Zen Theatre: Gao Xingjian and Chinese Theatre Experimentalism. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2000. An excellent, thorough book on Gao’s works. Includes “Checklist of the Publications, Translations and Performances of Gao Xingjian’s Major Works,” “Gao Xingjian’s Books in Chinese Original,” and “Critical Works on Gao Xingjian.”

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