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This article is taken from PN Review 137, Volume 27 Number 3, January - February 2001.

Gao Xingjian: The Voice of One in the Wilderness Olivier Burckhardt

Occasionally there appears an individual who has the courage not to represent, or to identify with, any group whatsoever. Gao Xingjian has been described as the leading dramatist of avant-garde Chinese theatre, an author who has forged new paths in Chinese prose writing; and a painter of international repute; yet, although such descriptions aim to portray his activities in complimentary terms, they fail to capture the individual. The paradox of course is with the nature of language whose primary function is to categorise: once we have categorised we stop considering the individual as individual. But language is a supple medium, often a great deal more supple than our own thinking.

A writer-artist living in Paris since 1987, Gao Xingjian was born in China in 1940, although his earliest recollections are of fleeing the invading Japanese forces, his upbringing was exceptionally liberal. The son of an amateur actress and a bank employee, he was encouraged to paint, write and play the violin from an early age. At seventeen he went to the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute, majoring in French language and literature, while developing his interest in traditional Chinese theatre alongside Western modern theatre; he read Stanislavsky, Chekov and Brecht and continued to paint and study modern Western art. At the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Gao Xingjian had to destroy all his early writing, a trunkful of manuscripts which included several novels, articles on aesthetics and some fifteen plays. Sent to the countryside for 'rehabilitation' ...

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