Gao Xingjian’s Theatrical Portrayals of the Female Psyche:
A Review of City of the Dead and Song of the Night

Translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee

Reviewed by Jianmei Liu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2015)

Gao Xingjian, City of the Dead and Song of the Night. Trs. Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2015. 112 pp. ISBN: 978-962-996-650-8

Gao Xingjian, City of the Dead and Song of the Night Trs. Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2015. 112 pp. ISBN: 978-962-996-650-8

City of the Dead and Song of the Night presents two important plays by Gao Xingjian 高行健, translated, respectively, by Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee, two prominent experts on and translators of Gao’s works. Mabel Lee’s introduction offers an insightful and in-depth study of Gao’s fascination with exploring female thinking and the psychological processes in his plays such as City of the Dead (冥城, 1988), Escape (逃亡, 1990), Between Life and Death (生死界, 1992), Dialogue and Rebuttal (對話與反詰, 1993), Snow in August (八月雪, 2000), and Song of the Night (夜間行歌, 2010). This is a truly exceptional book that challenges the notion of Gao Xingjian’s perceived misogyny and provides alternative perspectives on his multilayered theatrical depictions of the female psyche.

Some of the existing scholarly work on Gao Xingjian’s approach to gender has been inclined to define his portrayal of women as “misogynistic.” For instance, in his review of Soul Mountain, Kam Louie asserts that Gao Xingjian’s “misogynist fantasies are resonant with traditional prejudices that saw young women as only one step from being swept away by the flood of sexual desire.”[1] In his discussion of One Man’s Bible, Carlos Rojas aligns Gao’s rejection of feminism with his rejection of political and cultural discourse and points out that “the novel’s narrator appears blinded to the degree to which his own sociopolitical stance involves a degree of systematic misogyny.”[2] Although less explicitly critical than these assessments, many other scholars still echo the opinion that Gao’s representation of women is problematic because he focuses more on his own social and cultural identity than on sympathizing with women’s problems and fates. In contrast to the labeling of Gao as “misogynist,” which to a certain extent may ignore the complexity and dynamics of his depiction of gender problems, Mary Mazzilli argues that “Between Life and Death is one of the best examples of his complex approach to gender issues, as it features a woman and focuses on the female condition.”[3] Among those scholars who affirm Gao’s sympathetic attitude to women, Mabel Lee is the pioneer who has carefully examined a range of his plays and positively responded to his interest in exploring women’s thoughts and inner worlds.

Translated by Gilbert Fong, City of the Dead was first written in 1987 and finally completed in 1990, after Gao Xingjian settled in Paris. As the first of his plays to fully focus on the complicated relationship between men and women, it conspicuously shows the author’s sympathetic attitude toward women’s inferior position in Chinese patriarchal society. This play belongs to the genre of “old stories retold.” The original story, entitled “Zhuangzi Stops Drumming a Pot and Achieves the Great Way” (莊子休鼓盆成大道), was compiled by Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 in Stories to Warn Men (警世通言) during the Ming dynasty. It was later adapted into a famous Beijing opera, Testing a Wife and Smashing a Coffin (試妻大劈棺). Both Feng Menglong’s fictional version and the Beijing opera version contain elements of vilification and mockery toward Zhuangzi’s wife, who fails to stay faithful to her husband in widowhood. As a stereotypical embodiment of women’s licentious desire, Zhuangzi’s wife becomes a medium for this famous Daoist philosopher to transcend all the secular encumbrances, such as love and sex, embedded in the marital relationship and eventually achieve the great way he strenuously pursues. Contrary to the male-centered approach in the previous versions of the story, Gao Xingjian in City of the Dead not only ridicules Zhuangzi’s comprehension of the Way by depicting him as someone still deeply entangled in worldly matters, such as his wife’s chastity, but also seeks to understand women’s immense torment and suffering caused by the patriarchal ethical system. Gao’s rewriting of the traditional version follows Zhuangzi’s wife into the city of the dead, where she is deprived of her individual voice and has no way to escape the suffering stipulated by the traditional patriarchal system. In Mabel Lee’s words, “Her tormentors in Hell are presented as tyrannical, cruel, bullying, mendacious, foolish, ridiculous and knavish males, and they can also be seen as theatrical exaggerations of male behavior towards females in real life.”[4]

Song of the Night is a unique and outstanding play imbued with a lyrical and poetic tone, delving into women’s complicated inner world; more important, it offers us a philosophical contemplation of women’s problems as well as gender issues. Mabel Lee’s translation is based on the 2009 version included in his poetry collection Wandering Spirit and Metaphysical Thought (遊神與玄思, 2014). Similar to Between Life and Death, the play can be viewed as an unconscious as well as metaphysical journey of the character “She,” who is played by one female actor simultaneously addressing the audience and performing the role. This female actor and two background female dancers—one melancholy, the other vivacious—comprise the floating and multiple subjectivities of “She.” In addition, the three fluid pronouns “you,” “I”, and “she” all refer to the female protagonist, presenting her self-searching and her Chan meditation on women’s role and human existence. It is a very ambitious play focused on woman’s discourse: her body, her right to sexual fulfillment, her will to take control of her fate, her proclivity toward living in the present and returning to life itself, and her biological differences from men all lead to completely different ways of feeling and thinking. Instead of getting involved in women’s holy war against men—a battle forever confined by an arbitrary dichotomy of “either/or”—Gao endeavors to call for a genuine understanding of the female psyche and female thought, a perspective that would help unveil what has been put into oblivion in the grand history created by men. Just as Zhuangzi in “On the Equality of Things” (齊物論) advocates the all-encompassing Way (道) as a means to contain and understand opposites, Gao Xingjian aims to question any fixed opinion and position in male-female sexual relationships. His representation of women in this play not only pays attention to women’s unconscious and their thoughts but also grasps the essence of female subjectivity that goes beyond the given social roles of mother, wife, mistress, and daughter. A utopian female world is, in his eyes, far more peaceful and harmonious than that of men:

In a country established by women
Flowers in the heart blossom fully
Making gentleness transcend violence
Making seduction replace invasion
And the world much more beautiful[5]

After all, “She” is the symbol of life itself, creating rather than destroying, living in the present rather than fabricating false utopias. Gao Xingjian discovers women’s biological differences from men do not make females inferior; on the contrary, they can construct a more balanced world that is far from extremes.

In general, the translations of City of the Dead and Song of the Night are deeply satisfying, mainly because the translators understand Gao Xingjian’s theatrical representation and his sympathy toward women very well. Any scholar interested in understanding the complexity of Gao Xingjian’s theatrical world will find this book intriguing and thought-provoking. It adds a welcome and invaluable gender perspective to the fields of modern Chinese literature studies and drama studies.

Liu Jianmei
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

[1] Kam Louie, “Review: in Search of the Chinese Soul in the Mountains of the South.” The China Journal 45 (2001): 145-49.

[2] Carlos Rojas, “Without [Femin]ism: Femininity as Axis of Alterity and Desire in Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible.Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 14, no. 2 (2002): 163-206.

[3] Mary Mazzilli, “Gender in Gao Xingjian’s Between Life and Death: The Notion of Originary Self and the Use of Tripartition.” Frontiers of Literary Studies in China 9, 3 (2015): 369-394.

[4] Gao Xingjian, City of the Dead and Song of the Night, translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2015): xv.

[5] Ibid., 78.