Gao Xingjian in the “Chinese” Perspective
of Qu Yuan and Shen Congwen

By Jeffrey C. Kinkley

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 14, no. 2, pp.130-162

Gao Xingjian’s exile and his commitment to aesthetic modernism have caused some critics to question Gao’s “Chineseness.” Without intending to validate any “purity of Chineseness” discourse that may underlie such questions, this essay finds that Gao Xingjian’s masterpiece, Soul Mountain, even when its technique and subject matter seem least “Chinese” (modernist, non-mainstream, and concerned with the non-Han), is embedded in Chinese cultural traditions. There are specific precedents for Soul Mountain’s creativity in China’s modern literary tradition as exemplified by Shen Congwen, and even in the farther tradition of the Songs of the South (Chu ci) anthology of Qu Yuan and his school.

Commonalities of the three great writers include not only their attraction to nature, travel, and pilgrimage, but also their interest in multi-ethnic southern Chinese culture, in the primitive, and in folk stories, songs, and shamanistic religion. The writers’ styles of symbolism, themes of erotic attraction, antipathy to Confucian piety, and skeptical spirit—paradoxically combined with a foundational belief in the world’s divinity—invite comparison, as do their eclecticism and inventiveness in genre and voice; in Soul Mountain, as in Qu Yuan’s “Li Sao,” the seductive and autobiographical voice switches gender in mid-narrative. Gao and Shen, the modern writers, share a commitment to experimental modernism, psychological and narratological dissection of the ego, and within the ego, the soul. Yet, future readers may well remember all three writers as much for their exiles—indeed, double exiles—as for their works. In each case, the second exile (or suicide, attempted suicide, or withdrawal from the literary scene) was more or less chosen by the writer, to the approval or dismay of opposing latter-day schools of critics.