Gao Xingjian and Transmedia Aesthetics

Edited by Mabel Lee and Liu Jianmei

Reviewed by Michael Ka-chi Cheuk

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2019)

Gao Xingjian and Transmedia Aesthetics Edited by Mabel Lee and Liu Jianmei. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2018. x + 349 pp. ISBN: 9781604979466.

Since Gao Xingjian became the first Chinese-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (2000), the field of Gao Xingjian studies has grown into a formidable industry. Yet, Liu Zaifu, arguably the most prolific and respected scholar in the field, remarks that critics have only scratched the surface of Gao’s artistic career: “Though there are certainly numerous critiques of his works, strictly speaking the academic study of Gao Xingjian has not yet begun” (Liu/Poon 2016: 132; translation my own). One should not take Liu’s words as discrediting the value of insightful studies like Tam Kwok-kan’s edited collection Soul of Chaos (2001), Quah Sy Ren’s Gao Xingjian and Chinese Transcultural Theatre (2004), or even Liu Zaifu’s own Chinese-language study On Gao Xingjian (Liu 2004). While these studies have laid the foundation for understanding Gao’s artistic vision and his works, Liu Zaifu calls for more attention to what makes Gao Xingjian an original artist. For Liu, Gao Xingjian’s contributions are groundbreaking and wide-ranging, including novels, plays, paintings, and films. As such, he asks: “What are their a priori sources?”; “How are they realized?”; “What has Gao Xingjian inherited and rejected from Chinese and Western literary traditions?” (2016: 132; translation my own).

Gao Xingjian and Transmedia Aesthetics attempts to utilize the term “transmedia aesthetics” to systematically respond to the types of questions raised by Liu Zaifu and others. “Transmedia” is a concept that was first conceived in the early 1990s by media scholars to describe works that functioned like entertainment franchises, where characters would appear in different media platforms (Philips 2012: 14). In his discussion of “transmedia storytelling,” Henry Jenkins (2007) refers to a story or a vision that unfolds across multiple media platforms for a “unified and coordinated entertainment experience,” with each new text making a distinctive and unique contribution to the whole. Audiences are encouraged to proactively assemble bits and pieces like a detective, which results in an immersion into a fictional, transmedia universe. As such, transmedia is most commonly associated with entertainment forms, like the blockbuster Hollywood franchise The Matrix, which uses films, video games, and graphic novels to present a seemingly fragmented but essentially coordinated narrative.

In contrast to Jenkins’ more commercialized, mass-oriented usage of “transmedia,” the editors Mabel Lee and Jianmei Liu portray Gao’s transmedia aesthetics as an introspective and personal experience between Gao and his audiences across numerous creative media. As Lee and Liu state:

Our objective in this volume is to showcase how such a panoramic artist or a polymath has successfully personified a present-day renaissance by persistently projecting the struggles and agonies of the individual’s inner landscape into vivid images on stage, in films, in black-and-white paintings, in multilayered narrative expressions of fiction and poetry, and even in dance and music: his creations evoke a penetrating sense of sincerity and truth in audiences and readers. (11)

By contextualizing Gao Xingjian’s novels, plays, paintings, films, and literary criticism in a transmedia framework, Lee and Liu consider Gao’s works in different media as one unified experience. Indeed, Gao’s artistic vision of “without isms” (or “I am without isms” [我]沒有主義,), which I understand as an emphasis on individualistic expression over precepts or doctrines, is a recurring theme throughout the four sections of this edited collection of essays.

The chapters in Gao Xingjian and Transmedia Aesthetics manage to build a convincing case that Gao is an original artist with an original take on all of the creative forms he utilizes. For example, Mary Mazzilli finds Gao’s libretto Song of the Night  (2007) contributing what she describes as “scenic pictorial dramaturgy” and “cinematic hallucination;” Megan Evans observes how Gao’s film After the Flood (2008) incorporates his theatre techniques of suppositionality, spontaneity, and polyphony to “activat[e] viewer imagination in the co-creation of the film’s eco-ethical stance” (185); Tam Kwok-kan examines how Gao’s ink paintings are both an experimentation with painting perspectives and a portrayal of Gao’s psyche, or what Tam refers to as “The Mind’s Eye”; Jean-Pierre Zarader remarks that Gao’s artistic vision of “without isms” is not a rejection of philosophy like Kant’s notion of aesthetics, but of dogmatism, “and it is indeed dogmatism, whether ideological, philosophical, or artistic, that Gao rejects, though without lapsing into either skepticism or nihilism” (32). Zarader’s chapter is particularly crucial to understanding Gao Xingjian from a transmedia perspective. Gao’s artistic vision is a rejection of dogmatism, or constructed boundaries and categories, including formal ones. Likewise, the source of Gao’s innovation lies in his ability to transcend the boundaries of various forms, as well as various disciplines, for the purpose of upholding the arts as a means of independent expression. As the epilogue of the book, written by Liu Zaifu, observes: “[Gao] is undoubtedly a thinker, but he takes a position that is clearly located outside the discipline of philosophy” (306).

However, the concept of Gao’s transmedia aesthetics, foregrounded in the book’s title and the editors’ introduction, remains underdeveloped in the book. Transmediality emphasizes the inseparability of media, where different medial forms are viewed as a network (Rippl 2015: 1). Granted, Lee and Liu have collected essays addressing Gao’s engagements with different media, but more discussion about the relationship between these engagements is needed: Why does Gao engage in various media? How do his works transgress their own medial boundaries? How does the transmedial nature of Gao’s artistic vision change from the early 1980s, when he obtained initial fame in China, to the digital age of the twenty-first century, when he won the Nobel Prize? More generally speaking, how does a transmedial perspective, which highlights constellations of medial forms, generate new meanings and interpretations of Gao’s works and artistic vision?

Overall, Gao Xingjian and Transmedia Aesthetics partially answers these and related questions (e.g., those raised by Liu Zaifu, mentioned above). Although Gao’s originality in literature, theatre, painting, film, and philosophy is meticulously elucidated, his originality as a transmedial artist is not thoroughly delved into in this volume. Perhaps the absence of in-depth discussions about transmediality is deliberate, and this important edited collection may be a tantilizing invitation for future scholars to more deeply probe the constellation of media aesthetics in Gao’s works.

Michael Ka-chi Cheuk
The Open University of Hong Kong


Jenkins, Henry. 2007. “Transmedia Story-Telling 101” (March 22). URL:

Liu Zaifu 劉再復. Gao Xingjian lun 高行健論 (On Gao Xingjian). Taipei: Linking.

Liu Zaifu and Poon Yiu Ming 潘耀明. 2016. “Gao Xingjian yanjiu congshu zongxu” 高行健研究叢書總序 (Gao Xingjian studies series preface). In Zailun Gao Xingjian 再論高行健 (Revisiting Gao Xingjian). Taipei: Linking, 131-132.

Phillips, Andrea. 2012. A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Rippl, Gabriele, ed. 2015. Handbook of Intermediality: Literature – Image – Sound – Music. Berlin: De Gruyter.