Without [Femin]ism: Femininity as Axis of Alterity and
Desire in Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible

By Carlos Rojas

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 14, no. 2, pp.163-206

In recent years, Gao Xingjian has repeatedly used the phrase “without ‘isms” to articulate his self-conception as a diasporic Chinese writer who had severed his ties with fixed ideological systems (and particularly those associated with Mainland China). In this study, I argue that Gao’s attitudes toward women and feminism constitute an important blindspot in this attempt to position himself outside of ideology. In particular, I consider the ways in which the narrator of Gao’s quasi-autobiographical novel One Man’s Bible seeks to use his relationship with both the memory of his mother as well as his heterosexual relations with a wide variety of women, in order to buttress his own ideal of being a “free bird,” “without isms.” At the same time, however, just as this notion of being a “free bird” carries, in Chinese, explicitly phallic connotations, I similarly argue that the narrator’s attempt to assert his independence of established ideological regimes is actually grounded on a series of unexamined assumptions about maternity and heterosexual attraction.

More specifically, in One Man’s Bible, the narrator repeatedly posits the figure of the mother as the imaginary ground against which he seeks to assert his own identity; and the destruction of her memory is, similarly, one of the conditions of possibility of his current self-understanding. This figure of the mother is placed at the origin of a process of doubled displacement—whereby the erotic attraction which the narrator, as a young boy, is imagined to have originally felt for his mother, is first displaced onto other young women to whom he feels sexually attracted, with this latter erotic desire subsequently being partially sublimated into the act of writing itself. The narrator/author of One Man’s Bible, in his attempt to locate a space for himself on the margins of conventional national and ideological structures, continually returns to this imaginary maternity as a locus of self-identity—but ultimately fails to acknowledge or address the ways in which this imaginary and idealized vision of maternity, together with its various eroticized displacements, condition his gendered identity in very determinate and consequential ways.