Lost in the Woods: Nature in Soul Mountain

By Thomas Moran

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 14, no. 2, pp.207-236

The first half of this article argues that Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain can be read, in part, as nature-oriented literature or environmental literature. Soul Mountain uses a degree of taxonomic detail beyond that in most other contemporary Chinese literature. This is a discursive reordering of textually inscribed nature and a significant contribution to contemporary Chinese nature writing. Ultimately, the novel suggests that no register of language can bring nature fully within human comprehension. The second half of the essay looks more closely at the meaning of nature in Soul Mountain and focuses on forests. The travels of the I-narrator of roughly half the novel are motivated by his search for primeval forest (yuanshi senlin). Forest functions in Soul Mountain in three ways: it signifies the degraded state of nature as a whole; it carries the novel’s national allegory (to use the term loosely); and most importantly it is the setting for a crucial moment in the narrator’s linked explorations of the self, of death, and of the expressive limits of language, all of which are themes of Gao’s work in general and Soul Mountain in particular.