The Plays of Gao Xingjian

City of the Dead and Song of the Night

The Plays of Gao Xingjian

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a brief look at the plays of Gao Xingjian, a writer who has worked in multiple genres—short stories, essays, novels—but is best known as a playwright. Sixteen years ago Gao became the first writer in Chinese to win the Nobel prize for literature, since then The Chinese University Press has been steadily publishing translations of his work into English.

City of the Dead and Song of the Night is his most recent collection of plays. In City of the Dead Gao updates the ancient morality tale “Zhuangzi Tests His Wife,” a cautionary tale against infidelity, to confront the traditional patriarchal system. Song of the Night, considered one of his most ambitious plays, theatrically portrays the female psyche. MCLC has called the book “intriguing and thought-provoking.” For a more detailed explanation of these two plays, you can read “Gao Xingjian: Autobiography and the Portrayal of the Female Psyche,” the volume’s introduction by Mabel Lee, one of his translators and an expert on his work.

Of Mountains and Seas is based on the ancient text The Classic of Mountains and Seas. This play reenacts the classical world of Chinese mythology, traversing the creation of humans to the beginning of Chinese dynastic history.

Escape and The Man Who Questions Death. Written in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, Escape follows three characters who seek refuge in a warehouse from a military crackdown. The Man Who Questions Death is a condemnation the commercialization of modern art, which ponders on life and the inevitability of death.

Snow in August blends Eastern and Western theatrical traditions to tell the story of the enlightenment of Huineng (AD 633-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism in Tang Dynasty China.

The Other Shore collects five of Gao’s plays, including Between Life and Death, which recounts one woman’s recollections at the end of her life and Nocturnal Wanderer, which explores human existence through the subconscious of a sleepwalker.

Known as a pioneer of experimental and absurdist drama in China, the Nobel committee praised Gao’s work for its “bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity.” Nonetheless, he has faced persecution for his writing. He is famously said to have burned a suitcase full of manuscripts during the Cultural Revolution. Several of his works have been banned (like The Bus Stop), he has been blacklisted, had faced travel restrictions. Born in Ganzhou, China, Gao traveled to Paris as an artist in 1987, where he sought asylum as a political refugee. To find out more about Gao Xingjiang check out this BBC interview.

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