The International Literary Quarterly

August 2008


Daniel Albright
Meena Alexander
David Dabydeen
Alice Fulton
Richard McKane
Jonathan Morley
Michael Schmidt
Tuğrul Tanyol
Alan Wall
Marina Warner
Edwin Williamson
Xu Xi
Gao Xingjian

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 4 Guest Artist: Arturo Di Stefano

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Interview Transcript: Gao Xingjian in conversation with David Dabydeen and Jonathan Morley  

University of Warwick
Wed. 14 May 2008
(Simultaneous translation by Red Chan.)

DD/JM: Mr Gao, we wanted to start off by asking about the relationship between your paintings, your prose, and your theatre work. How do they interact?

GX: They are actually three separate things. I do them individually, and independently. Sometimes I paint, sometimes I write, sometimes I do plays, and they are separate. I can’t do them all together at the same time.

DD/JM: But is there an underlying philosophy to all three?

GX: As for research and analysis, you might be able to discover some underlying themes or communality. However, as their creator, as the one who creates those works, I actually would like to explore their individual, distinctive characters and their different aspects for my expression. For example when I paint, I would not read, I don’t read. I don’t listen to broadcasts, I only listen to music. Because painting is something that language cannot achieve. And so when I paint, I just want to explore that visual aspect and not deal with language.

DD/JM: Is there a priority in your creative life in terms of painting first, writing prose second, and drama third or is it all…

GX: Actually I don’t see them in hierarchy, in order of importance. My mother was an actress so from the age of five I had already gone on stage with her. Then from the age of eight I picked up a pen, I started writing my diary. Since that big mistake I’ve not stopped. And as a child I always enjoyed painting and drawing. At the age of ten I wrote my first story and then I drew my own illustrations

DD/JM:  You have said elsewhere that ancient Chinese art and modern European art have been two major influences in your work. Can you elaborate? 

GX: When I started learning painting, it was Western style, so I did watercolours, I did sketches, I also did oil painting from the age of twelve. So I have done all kinds of Western-style paintings. Actually I have never been trained professionally in Chinese art.

DD/JM: Any particular European artist that you feel close to?

GX: In 1978 when I first came to Europe I went to France and Italy, and then I saw all those original works of oil paintings. Then I decided I did not want to do oil painting any more. I also saw Picasso’s Chinese style painting when he used Chinese ink to do his painting; he was using Chinese ink to express himself, to express his narrative. So I think his use of Chinese ink in those kinds of simple ways, direct ways, is very much how I try to use oil to do Western style painting.  So I think we kind of both don’t really know the profundity of those media.

DD/JM: But why did you, when you first went to Italy and France, decide not to do oil paintings?

GX: I saw that there was no way I could surpass those European masters, there was no way I could do better than they did. I wanted to search for a new direction in which I could achieve something. So I brought back to China after my trip many books on painting, Western painting, both classical – traditional - and modern. What I realised then was that every ten years there would be a major shift, major change, in modern art, in modern painting. So whichever path I took, following those examples, it would be old fashioned, it would be gone, it would be long gone so I would just be following what had been superseded. I realised too that between abstraction and figurative painting, in the middle, there is a huge area which has not been fully explored. That’s how I could become a painter.

DD/JM: You have been trying to resurrect in your writings and in your art, ancient Chinese myths, beliefs, spiritual systems…

GX: Indeed, that might be actually seen, in comparison, as the opposite direction: going against modern art, because modern art is very much about denying, rejecting the traditional. Behind modern art there is a set of thinking, of philosophy, Hegelian dialectics. That is the philosophical thinking behind it. So my approach is to return to the traditional, but not a simple return, it is about rediscovering, rethinking the traditional, and to explore what has not been fully explored before.

DD/JM: So what you are saying is that contemporary Chinese art subverts those traditions, and you want to rediscover them in new ways?

GX: I want to take out the word “China” from this way of thinking. I think whether we are talking about Chinese art or Western modern art, modern art tends to subvert traditional art, and that applies to both. I am not making anti-art or anti-theatre, I am not anti-art or anti-theatre. I want to rediscover art. But that rediscovery is a methodology, how to rediscover; that process of rediscovery is what I want to focus on.

DD/JM:  Can you elaborate upon your criticisms of Hegel in relation to the making of art?

GX: First of all the Hegelian interpretation of dialectics is the foundation of Marxist ideology. If we claim that Marxism has very much shaped 20th century history, then we can even go one step further: that it is Hegelian philosophy or dialectics which have changed 20th century history. In the arena of art, dialectics is applied. New art emerges as the antithesis of other art. I believe there are other ways to look at the world. For example, this idea of relearning, in terms of epistemology, to think how we have earned our knowledge, to think: how did we develop our knowledge? And think whether we left out something in the process of developing our knowledge. So that is what I call rediscovery of the past.

Every form of knowledge is based on a methodology, is based on a system of epistemology, of learning, of commission, so every time, every form of knowledge, has a methodology that comes with it..

So what we are doing now is not to reverse or subvert previous knowledge, but to put a question to it, to ask: how did we develop that knowledge? That is how we establish knowledge. That will help us establish a new kind of knowledge, and it is infinite, boundless, every generation of humanity could develop new knowledge, it goes on and on. The Hegelian interpretation of life sees that there is an ending, a closure, a point. But my interpretation, my approach sees no end, leaves it open. Hegel had this sense of absolute quality or absolute value. He claimed there is an end to history and I don’t see it that way.

DD/JM: Can we ask two personal questions: first of all, going back to your youth, to your family…

GX: But to finish, if we say that Marxism has given impetus to 20th century history, I will say that Hegelian dialectics is even more profound in not only shaping political history but also in art and culture. All the way down to even today, this present day, the 21st century. So I think art and literature have to come out of the shell of Hegel, have to find something new.

DD/JM: It is said that great artists like yourself spend their lives inspired by childhood memories, childhood experiences. What aspects of childhood  influenced you as a writer, a painter?

GX: Many people would remember their childhood as a painful, suffering memory. I am extremely lucky in comparison. My mother was educated in an American missionary school so she was very open-minded, and my father had been very much influenced by Western thoughts and ideals. At the same time he was learned in classical Chinese culture. In my family there was no sense of hierarchy, there was no patriarchal control of any kind. I was totally free, I could do whatever I liked, and I was also good at my studies so my parents did not try to influence me whatsoever, in any way. I was completely myself. The first ever sense of control or manipulation or power put upon me was when I first went to University; it was 1957. We had the anti-writers movements, a political campaign against writers and artists. That was the very first time I experienced opposition or some form of control over me.

Since my university years, I have been subject to all kind of politics, all kinds of political control and manipulation, and I very much want to separate myself from that, and I am now advocating or promoting art and literature which is apolitical, which is not used as a tool in politics, it actually transcends and goes beyond and is above politics, it has nothing to do with politics. That is the kind of art and literature I want to promote. So all those political discourses and political language, they are public, they are there to command. Political discourse is the discourse of power, and it is also a public discourse, it doesn’t represent an individual.

Therefore it does not allow a genuine view into individual thinking. This kind of truly independent and individual voice can only be found in literature.

DD/JM: Do you mean that art should not deal with political themes?

GX: If art could have some sort of reference to politics, that art is a kind of criticism, that art is establishing a relationship with a political condition or situation and that kind of relationship will always be troubled because it will be tied up with the situation, it is not independent, it won’t last; real lasting art goes beyond that, because it doesn’t limit itself to current situations or politics.

DD/JM: But the individual artist is sometimes called upon to defend human rights, animal rights, the causes of liberty etc. So don't you think the individual artist should get involved? Or should he be like V.S. Naipaul who said once that he subscribes to no cause, signs no petitions…?

GX: Yes, of course, the artist lives in the reality of the world and the artist would have some kind of political stance, that of course is understandable. But if that political stance is translated into the art of that artist then it becomes problematic and short- lived.

DD/JM: Derek Walcott, on a previous visit to Warwick, spoke of his friend and fellow poet, Joseph Brodsky, exiled from Russia. Walcott talked about the loneliness of Joseph Brodsky in relation to his forced divorce from the Russian language. Do you experience a certain loneliness as an exile in France?

GX: I have an article, “The Necessary Solitude”. It is only when one is in real solitude that one can think. A person who wants to be mature, to reach true maturity, this person must endure solitude, because only through solitude can maturity be accomplished through thinking. So what you think, which is when you reflect, and when you do it all by yourself, individually, independently, if you go through that process of reflection and thinking, that is real reflection and real thinking and you can really become mature. Nowadays people talk about consensus, or recognition, identification, that we want to agree with each other on the same kinds of things. I think that is very dangerous, if you seek identification, if you seek acknowledgement, that’s very dangerous. All real thinking, when real thoughts come out, are the result of being against identification, against recognition. It is only when you do that, when you are not trying to identify and seek identification that you can get something real, which is an idea. This is the difference between the poet and the popular singer!

DD/JM: So exile has created the space for contemplation – if you had stayed in China would you have had that space to contemplate?
GX: I’ve been through the Cultural Revolution, a period when nobody could speak the truth, in public or even among family. There was no chance for anyone to express themselves. I’ve been through that. And if in that sort of period you still wanted to talk, to express truth, you would have done what I did. I wrote, and either I burnt it afterwards or I buried it deep under the ground. That’s the only way we could seek truth.

DD : Coming back to the personal, as a boy I remember trying to hook a fish and at last catching a fish or flying a kite for the first time, and these are examples of moments that have always stayed with me. What are those lovely moments for you, as a child, that you remember?

GX: My childhood is like a paradise lost. I could never find it, ever since.

DD/JM: Is there any particular beautiful moment you remember?

GX: I think it is a very sad thing to have to remember one’s childhood. It has disappeared and will never come back. And reality is so cruel, it does not allow the presence of such beauty. If we want to seek paradise, I think we can only find it in our artistic creation. That is why writing becomes a need.

JM: To return to the idea of solitude,  when you produce a play, you’re very much in the world, working with all the other actors, promoting the play, marketing the play; it seems a very worldly art form, whereas painting or poetry are more private. Where is the solitude in dramatic work?

GX: Painting, like writing, implies solitude because it can only be achieved by the person, inside. Theatre is exactly the opposite, it requires interaction, it requires exchange between people. The birth of theatre, the birth of drama doesn’t happen when it is staged, it happens when it is rehearsed. It happens when the director, the playwright, and the actors and performers interact, exchange, are in conflict with each other. That is the birth of drama. So that kind of interaction is not an interaction in a worldly, realistic sense, but an interaction of creativity. The attraction and charm of the theatre is that it allows those creative spirits to come together and interact with each other, without concern, without consideration of real life relationships or social relationships. All this is irrelevant. What matters is their creativity coming together. So it’s a very profound way of connection.

That is why I do not want to promote realistic thinking, realistic drama, because in real life it has already been suffocated, it is narrow and confined, there is not much space to explore. If we were to really express ourselves freely, if we really want to open up the space of self-expression, and narrative of the self, discourse of the self, we must do that through the theatre, that is the medium, because it breaks away from real life confinements and controls of all sorts. And also on top of that we must give theatre an aesthetics, we must give some pleasures, joy. That is what makes it meaningful.

DD/JM: Is the joy the pushing back of despair and nihilism that you get in Kafka, and the “Theatre of the Absurd”?

GX: Talking about absurdity or the absurd, the first one to introduce the idea to art and literature was before Beckett, it was Kafka. That knowledge or that way of thinking, that recognition was completely different, it was unprecedented. I think it is a very viable reflection of the real situation of the individual in modern society. It is a real reflection of that real condition. In Beckettian theatre, that reflection becomes philosophical. That is why his theatre, Beckettian theatre, is anti-theatre, anti-drama. It is just about language.

So in terms of understanding I’m very similar to Beckett. But in terms of expressing that, in terms of artistic form that we use to express that understanding, I am different from him. Beckett has this philosophical understanding of the absurd. He is using the process of thinking, reflection, to exploit, to express that absurdity. But behind that thinking, there is something else, there is rationality, there is judgement. For me, even that rationality can be questioned, because I think that the human condition, the condition itself, is the judge. There is no rationale. There is no way we can change it. It has been repeating itself, until now, it is still going on. So if we only want to express that absurdity, Beckett has already done it. I don’t really seek, through language, to express absurdity, I am not anti-drama. What I want to do is bring in more movement, more action. In that action on the stage you see absurdity, it is absurdity.

I must emphasise that expression, that outburst or exposition of absurdity, happens in the theatre, on that stage, and there must be an audience, it happens in front of the audience, in front of their faces on the stage. Therefore it requires the kind of actors who do not just speak words. Rather it requires that the performers exhibit that absurdity in front of the audience: “Look, that’s how we are, that’s our state of existence, absurd.” That is the interaction.

DD/JM: That’s even bleaker than Beckett. At least with Beckett there’s the possibility of reason.

GX: What use is rationality?

DD/JM: Rationality is only of use if you hope there is God.

GX: I’m not anti-God. But I don’t worship God. God can be questioned too. God may exist or may not exist. Why? Because we human beings are so insignificant. It is impossible for us to know anything. We human beings are also so weak, we are full of flaws. As to Nietzsche, his suggestion of the superhuman. I don’t think we can replace God with a superhuman. I don’t think we should need to replace him; when weak humans face this big unknown, this huge uncertainty, whether you call it God, fate, destiny, whatever… I don’t think we need to use that sense of rationality because it is unknowable, and we should recognise that as itself, as “it”. It is not a bleak sense of a lack of rationality, it is … “it”.

DD/JM: “It” is what “it” is, “it” is unknowable.

GX: Whether it is art or literature or theatre, drama, “it” is really what we want to do. “It” is to co-appoint consciousness, to raise the awareness of that, to know to be aware, to be conscious that “it” is unknowable. That is why we want to break open consciousness, we want to become consciousness. Only then can there be human beings, a human being can be like a human being.

DD/JM: At the same time there is the constant, eternal question as to when we die – does art alone survive or is there an individual survival? You can’t avoid that question.

GX: The meaning of literature? What is the meaning of literature? It is that when the person has died, we are left this trace of humanity, these footsteps of human activities.

DD/JM: What about the artist as an individual being, or an individual being irrespective of art?

GX: Well, we are just insignificant. We should never want that. That is why I don’t agree with Nietzsche’s ideas about the superhuman, because if you do have a superhuman, or people want to become superhuman, they become monsters, they become terrible beings. We should not be inspired to become superhuman.

DD/JM: Not to survive our deaths…

GX: That is why when artists die what is left behind, literature, is the history of human beings, is the interaction between the individual and the condition of history, that trace of history left behind, that is literature. It is the witness, it is the evidence of the individual’s interaction, connection, with history, and that is the trace, that is much more important and significant than the official discourse, the official history.

DD/JM: And that is more important than the survival of the individual?

GX: Well, I think individual survival is very important because we only have one life.

DD/JM: We mean after our deaths…

GX: That is the meaning of literature, the meaning of the writer. That is, the writer, in spite of his or her insignificance, has left that trace that reflects the relationship between the individual and the condition of being alive. That trace itself is timeless, that is the meaning of literature. And that is far more important than the official history of political discourse. That is the real meaning of literature. Now we come to the issue of measuring our standards. How do we judge what literature is timeless? What makes a great piece of literature? There is a standard, there is a measure.

That is about how truthfully or how honestly it reflects the human condition or existence, how realistically or truthfully or accurately, sincerely reflecting that condition: that is the measure.

So at the end, at the bottom of all this, even though literature is fictional, literature is creative, literature is artifice, it does not lie.

Actually, to come back to your earlier concern, I wrote a play, it is called “The Man who Questions Death” and it has been translated into English. That play answers your question.

DD/JM: Your ideas on art and death are reminiscent of aspects of Buddhism, which you have acknowledged in your art…

GX: Do you know the person who started the Zen branch of Buddhism? The Zen philosophy or the Zen strand of Buddhism was founded by Huineng and I have another play “Snow in August” and that is based on the life and thinking of Huineng, the founder of Zen Buddhism. It has been translated into English. For me, Huineng was not only a reformer of religion; he was more a thinker. He was not talking about worship of a God or a sacred Other. He has such a profound, incredible understanding of life, and that is we live in the present, we live now. I think this is the most profound aspect of existence, and I wrote that play because I would like a Western audience to know about this man and his thoughts.