The Language of Exile
Gao xingjian & Yang lian

Selected part of What We Gained from Exile, a dialogue between Gao Xingjian and Yang Lian

Exile forces a writer to mature, to be more exacting with language. Being separated from your readership means your work loses all practical significance: there is no connection between writing and making a living. If you still want to write, it has to be purely for yourself and you must make greater demands on your language.’

Gao Xingjian’s work focuses on the painful transition of ancient, traditional China into the modern world. The effect of this on Chinese history and culture has never been explored in any depth since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 recognised Gao’s role in demonstrating that Chinese literary culture is still alive and capable of renewal, despite the depredations of the Cultural Revolution and the extremes of social realism demanded by the Party in the interests of revolutionary propaganda.

Gao was able to publish a considerable body of work in China in the 1980s – novellas, short stories, plays, critical essays and four books – though not without problems. In 1982, his play Absolute Signal played to packed audiences at the Beijing People’s Arts Theatre; but in the following year the performance of Bus Stop was banned and described by a senior Party member as ‘the most pernicious work since the establishment of the People’s Republic’.

In 1987, when Gao left to take up a fellowship in Germany, he took with him the manuscript of Lingshan. Known in the West under the title Soul Mountain, it was completed in 1989 in exile in Paris, where he now lives. Essentially, it is the story of one man’s search for inner peace and tranquillity; for the recovery and expression of the self of the individual, all but annihilated in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Writers and artists for whom their work was a matter of self-expression were ruthlessly and brutally silenced at that time. When, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it became too dangerous even to hide them, Gao burned all the several hundred works he had written during the 1960s and 1970s.

From exile in Paris, Gao continues to write, constantly experimenting with language, bringing together an awareness of the importance of the image and the renewal of language in today’s visually oriented world. He is well known throughout Europe and the USA for his large-scale black-and-white Chinese ink paintings with which he largely supports himself.

In the course of his own exile – first in Australia and now in the UK – the poet Yang Lian has met Gao several times. Here we print excerpts from their ongoing conversations on language, literature, the pursuit of the self and the joys, as well as the pains, of the writer in exile.
Judith Vidal-Hall

YANG LIAN The term ‘mother tongue’ is loaded with significance: ‘mother’s language’, ‘mother’s land’ both suggest an inheritance. In the past, language was determined by the great group concepts of ‘mother’ – the motherland, society and the family. Even to say ‘intellectual’, for instance, in Chinese – literally, ‘knowledgeable social element’ – emphasises the ‘social element’ in knowledge. So today, doesn’t everyone – especially Chinese writers in the diaspora – have an inescapable duty to take language and turn it upon the self, the individual; to use it to interrogate the self? To put it another way, we do not ‘exist’ within language, language ‘exists’ within us.

GAO XINGJIAN What I tried to do in Soul Mountain was to express in Chinese the many coexistent levels of experience in modern life, and to present it as a ‘stream of language’. Can Chinese do that? After reading Proust, Joyce and Virginia Woolf, I felt that western languages were equipped to write about psychology with such subtlety, but Chinese provides only a structure; the complex psychology exists between the lines, in what we call ‘the winsome smile’ of the language: in what isn’t said. It doesn’t trace or describe the inner layers and processes. If I were to try something new with the Chinese language, I’d expend a lot of effort reconsidering its grammatical structure. If the Chinese language expressed the behaviour of consciousness, it would be freer than western languages, more flexible, fuller. But it’s much stronger than western languages at expressing strict logical analyses, so, on an analogy with the western ‘stream of consciousness’, I’d suggest the concept of a ‘stream of language’ for Chinese writing.
Because a person’s consciousness is illogical and so dynamic, so volatile, it can’t tolerate the strict tenses and subject-predicates of western languages. But Chinese possesses exactly the characteristics of the behaviour of consciousness. The reason I suggest ‘stream of language’ is because I think a ‘stream of consciousness’ is actually unattainable. All that can really be attained is a ‘stream of language’ and nothing more.

YANG LIAN When I read Soul Mountain, I felt it was the only Chinese novel I’d ever read that from beginning to end maintained a distinct awareness of the act of writing itself. Sometimes the writer becomes so involved in the things he’s writing about that he forgets these things only exist because of writing. As a result, thinking about ‘how to write’ and ‘what to write’ become the same thing, and writing itself becomes the content, intimately linked with the characters’ psychology. Compared to this, ‘things’ become secondary. My long poem Yi [the character for Yi is an invented composite made up of the characters for person and sun, corresponding to the philosophical concept that heaven and man are one – tian ren he yi], which I wrote in China, I set out using the form and structure of Chinese characters, extending the concept of ‘space’. Poetry is a space constructed with language and, as with In Symmetry with Death, Chinese myths, legends, history and even the ‘I’ are all merely words which when thrown into confusion gather and merge together. Because tenses don’t change in Chinese, words are rewritten as ‘another renewed history’ – my own, individual fabricated history. The Chinese language can enable history to exist in the present tense.

GAO XINGJIAN Yi is a good, thorough experiment with the Chinese language. It not only seeks a literary form, it also creates a complex language structure. Such experiments themselves embody the efforts to create a modern Chinese language, transforming it into something entirely new, something your own.

YANG LIAN Some writers lay down their pens, others continue to write and others again merely ‘borrow’ the consciousness, sentence structures, vocabulary and ‘flavours’ from traditional vignettes, novels and the ancient plays of the Yuan and Song dynasties, just adding a little modern ‘spice’ and going through the motions of writing. Isn’t this because after the individual replaced the group [after the Cultural Revolution], the responsibility on the individual writer to develop language – the pressure of language on the individual – was too great? As a result, while the writer lives, the work collapses.

GAO XINGJIAN Being overseas isn’t only non-restricting, it’s actually stimulating. Maybe stimulation comes from restrictions. It’s possible. When I look back now on the pieces I wrote in China, I find so much that could be changed, such as an impure use of language, or an awareness of language that just isn’t strong enough. Conversely, my language now is much cleaner. And, apart from that, my sense of responsibility towards language is much clearer now; it’s a creative approach. If we are going to play with language we must play extremely well. There’s no urgency now for any current works to be published and no urgency to let other people read them. To put it another way, writing is for the self and for one’s own pleasure. I regard writing as the winning of a kind of freedom, a kind of luxury, and so I’m even more aware of the approach to language.

YANG LIAN In China, social and ideological pressures blur or obscure a writer’s attention to language. Originally, a writer’s most fundamental contradiction was that between the desire to create and the limitations of language. But inside China this is often ‘externalised’ and becomes a different contradiction: such things as politics, the struggle for rights and social problems are externalised and create a sense of terror of external dangers. And in a collectivised social environment, this then hinders and even destroys the internal connections between the ‘self’, that sense of terror, and any ‘introspection’. As a result, there’s no politics and there’s no writing. The environment after leaving China resolved both the original suppression and a writer’s basic nature, and made the conflict between people and language far more evident.

GAO XINGJIAN When other factors no longer exist, you’re left facing only your language. I’d say a writer has a responsibility only to his language; he is not responsible for the ‘motherland’, or the ‘people’. A writer not only becomes removed from the social environment of his original language, he is also removed from his readers and essentially ends up in a state of ‘absolute separation’. When you’re only responsible for language, your demands on language are far more rigorous. When creating, you have to consider whether or not you’re conforming to the characteristics and norms of the Chinese language – and this is manifested in the way you deal with the manuscript. In the past, I used to write all night and hand in a manuscript in the morning. Now, I can leave it to one side as I please and take it out and rework it as I please until I myself feel it’s extremely clean; then it’s OK. As to the levels of purity in language and experiments with language, I always hope to achieve perfection. If I’m asked what benefit to my writing there is from exile, it is that there is greater peace for a writer, and if my work is read three or five years later, I don’t feel there’s a problem.

For example, when I received the first year’s royalties for a book I’d published in Taiwan, only 90 or so copies had been sold, and only 60 in the second year. In the third year, I went to Taiwan and it rose to some 200 copies, but the publishers had printed 2,000 copies. They were going to take ages to sell. So I wrote an essay called ‘Cold Literature’. But exile compels the writer to become ‘hot’. Leaving a society and readers makes writing lose all its practical significance. If you still want to write, it has to be purely for yourself. It’s extremely valuable to maintain that pleasure and luxury for yourself, and that, naturally, places great importance on it. So your approach towards language becomes an ever more onerous burden. That’s the positive side of ‘exile’; I’d even say it doesn’t have much of a negative side.

All the years I was writing in China, I never planned to publish. That includes Soul Mountain. When I started writing it in 1982 I had only one idea and that was to write a book. Perhaps it was a book that couldn’t be published in my lifetime – I wasn’t counting on that at the time. It was only after I came to the West that it became completely clear. Going back to the nature of literature, what I call ‘cold literature’: whatever’s said about Cao Xueqin [Dream of the Red Bed Chamber] and Shi Naiyan [Journey to the West], they never thought about being published when they were writing. One, they didn’t depend upon it to eat, and two, they weren’t looking for readers, it was only for a few close friends and associates, even just for themselves – purely for pleasure. I think this is fundamental to the nature of literature. So many other things are appended on to the body of literature that it becomes pressurised to such a degree it can’t breathe.

YANG LIAN Whether in or out of China, I often feel people have a kind of misconception that sees literature as a ‘necessary’ thing, something ‘needed’ by society or by reality. I see those writers as needing society as a kind of ‘intravenous drip’, where the conflicts and aims in their work are all placed outside and they collude with society in an ‘external circulation’. As soon as the ‘drip’ is removed, the writer’s death is proclaimed. As far as we’re concerned, perhaps the earlier the drip is removed the better. The earlier it’s taken away, the better the opportunity to adjust the relationship between creative impressions of existence and language, thereby forming an ‘internal circulation’. When I was writing poetry in China, I’d always consciously create a distance between language and the superficialities of life in society. I always wrote as though every piece was the last I’d write and, since these were to be my last words, I had no alternative but to ‘vomit’ everything out from its deepest place, and to present it all in language. You don’t take into account whether people will understand or accept it, you care only about whether poetry can allow you to ‘exist’. After leaving China, even though there was a language barrier to face, experiences were never interrupted and the process of feeling every kind of emotion was never disturbed. The connections between people and language became ever more balanced, subjective and clear, and that’s what I base my writing on.

GAO XINGJIAN Because of that, we don’t have to worry about the critics, it doesn’t matter if there is or isn’t criticism, if there is or isn’t a readership. There are just a few good friends reading my books, but luckily a few other people show an interest. It’s a conversation with no response. Something is dropped into the ocean and it creates no ripples, so why do you want to write? It can be understood only in terms of the satisfaction you yourself gain. I sometimes sit in front of my desk and just write what I want to write, and that’s enough. As a result, the purpose of writing is very pure. Writing that has no readers and has no audience is not necessarily a bad thing. But when I write plays, I still consider the audience. Why? Because it’s fundamental to the dramatic form itself. It requires an awareness of the audience, otherwise it cannot be drama. A good play demands a relationship between the audience, performers and roles. If I want to use this form, I need an abstract audience, though it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Chinese audience, a French audience or an audience from wherever.

YANG LIAN I already had an awareness of language when I was in China, but thoroughly cutting myself off from the group as an exercise in thinking, and to posit my own writing as an antithesis to myself – as an exercise in thinking – is something to be done outside China. This ‘individualisation’, this ‘subjectification’ is an enormous gain from a life of exile. I’m even prepared to tell friends that it’s an essential process that takes away the necessities of social superficialities and replaces them with the individual’s own internal necessities.

GAO XINGJIAN The ultimate reason for the existence of serious literature, non-commercial literature, is within the literature itself and not in its market value or the reactions of readers and society. I feel this gives rise to a certain human pride – that people live in the world but only want to express themselves. So-called writing is nothing but the individual’s small posturing challenge to the world in which he exists. Whether people pay attention or not should be of no consequence whatsoever. To put it another way: to write is to complete the self. With writings outside China, it’s not only the language that changes but objectives also change, even the way material is handled. After Soul Mountain was finished in September 1989, I felt as though I’d got over a ‘China complex’. The background to Soul Mountain was all in China, and completing it was like coming to a full stop: it ended my nostalgia for China. It was actually just for myself – a way that prevented me from turning into a loner far from home. Everything was inside me. This ‘self-completion’ was extremely fulfilling. After I had experienced it, I can honestly say that I hardly ever dreamed about China again, whereas previously, in my dreams, there was so much ‘China’ in the background and in my subconscious. Now, it’s of immense benefit to my psychology, an exiled writer not belonging to any ‘country’ and roaming the world. What’s so bad about that?

YANG LIAN What I find interesting is that I left China without a word of English and went through almost exactly the same psychological processes in my writing as you. In China, I started five years’ continuous work on Yi.

The first draft was finished in May 1988 and the second from last poem was called ‘Returning Home’, with the last line, ‘All non-persons when unable to return, have arrived home.’ In August, I went to Australia, and then in 1989 in New Zealand I revised Yi. I’ve been in exile ever since, and reality has confirmed the curse of poetry. That poem was just like a long-distance journey through language, and it’s only when you come back that you realise what you’ve gained from it. Not only is the complex of ‘motherland’ not necessary, even ‘mother tongue’ is simply accidental. And chiming with this approach to language is an encompassing rootless psychology, where life is like a journey in a faraway land, where everywhere is the same, including China. In reality, live anywhere for a year or more and you’re anxiously thinking about leaving or moving, afraid of once again putting down roots, once again becoming subservient to a piece of land. I can say it with two lines of poetry I wrote – one in China, ‘Stretching into the earth to touch death’ (‘In Symmetry with Death’); the other abroad, ‘The sea so sharp it snuffs you out makes you the you of this instant’ (‘Where the Sea Stands Still’).

GAO XINGJIAN You’re right. It’s just a human instinct. And what kind of instinct? One where people always want to challenge. That includes the way I’m not willing to be associated with French culture or even the French language [Gao Xingjian spoke fluent French before he left China]. Even though I write in French, I still make French ‘exceed what is proper’, and write French with a certain ‘strangeness’. If, in future, people say there was a foreigner who invented a new word that was accepted by the French audience, it’d only be the same as me toying with the Chinese language. This is a common approach to language. I think both of us share this point of view: we’re not only against ‘motherland’, but also against any other kind of nationalism. When the French right wing takes to the stage, there’s a strong flavour of nationalism. I find it repellent and really don’t want to be associated with that kind of French culture. Most of the great writers of the twentieth century had experience of exile, but not one of them was solely a patriot.

YANG LIAN Almost all foundations of philosophy and literature of the twentieth century – such as Marx, Freud, Joyce and Mann – were built on a sense of exile, and this has profoundly affected knowledge of the self and existence.

GAO XINGJIAN This has never happened to the Chinese people and is only now beginning to appear.

YANG LIAN Couldn’t it be said that today, at least for some Chinese writers, an opportunity has appeared genuinely to connect with the twentieth century’s spiritual history? Through individual consciousness and the spiritual significance of exile, as opposed to its physical or political significance, we could break out of those group structures – those anti-individual Confucian cycles – and treat the exploration of forms of literature as a part of the exploration of humanity.

GAO XINGJIAN Someone who is totally aware of themselves is always in exile. Once you peel away those layers that other people attach to you and reinforce, you gradually but firmly establish your own worth – and this includes self-doubt.

YANG LIAN You could call it ‘individualism’ or ‘selfishness’. It’s a paradox: your own return makes your writing ultimately of benefit to other people. Today, when this endless superstitious fight for a new form of literature has become meaningless, what kind of literature are we searching for?

GAO XINGJIAN It could be the old phrase: ‘Shakespeare will never fade away.’ He perfectly described the spiritual activities of people, he analysed humanity and had everything you could wish for – form, content, modernity and eternity. All discussion loses its significance when faced with his works. What we need is a kind of literature that doesn’t have any attributes: such genres as ‘pure literature’, ‘serious literature’, ‘experimental literature’, ‘modernism’ and ‘post modernism’ have no meaning. We are still going through our own existence, concentrating on doing what the first person does.

Gao Xingjian and Yang Lian met and talked on 18 September 1993 in Australia. This is an edited version of their conversation. Gao Xingjian’s latest book is Yige ren de shengjing (Taiwan 1999), to be published in English as One Man’s Bible (Harperperennial Library, September 2002). Yang Lian’s latest collections are Yi (Green Integer, Los Angeles 2002) and Notes of a Blissful Ghost (Renditions, Hong Kong 2002)

Translated by Ben Carrdus