Plays 1986–1990: Portraying the Individual
Plays 1986–1990: Portraying the Individual
Abstract and Keywords
From 1986 onward, Gao Xingjian's plays displayed an increasingly distinctive emphasis on the split between the individual self and the collective. The concern for the well-being of the individual turns into fierce criticism and interrogation of the Communist ideology of collectivism and the more traditional Chinese practice of demanding the individual's conformity to community ethical codes. However, this does not yet describe the full picture of Gao's individualism since in his plays written after 1986, the liberal humanist individualism is engaged in all kinds of interplay with a host of other sentiments and ideologies including nationalism, nihilism, and even Buddhist philosophy. The subjectivities of the individuals portrayed in those plays are therefore also inscribed with the traces of conflicting and varying cultural and ideological influences. This chapter examines the portrayal of the individuals in this group of plays.
It is open to debate whether Soul Mountain is an utter failure in translating the Postmodernist writing paradigm, or an ingenious construction of the subjectivity of a “translated man”. But an eclectic subjectivity is indeed a good reflection of the increasingly complicated life of the Chinese urbanites. The unhappy memory of many people caused by the bad experience and personal suffering inflicted on them in the name of the people during the Cultural Revolution was met with the post-Cultural Revolution open-door policy, which triggered on the unstoppable influx of ideologies embedded and implied in the material commodities imported into the Chinese mainland. The more simplistic patriotism and loyalty to the Party, which had by the early 1980s lost its credibility with the people, was confronted with new challenges from a growing spirit of individualism. The latter promoted the goal of accumulating wealth on a personal basis in a social system increasingly approximating to capitalist consumerism.
Certainly from 1986 onward, Gao Xingjian's plays displayed an increasingly distinctive emphasis on the split between the individual self and the collective, and this marks a strong shift from his early plays in which stress is put on the individual as a component in the overall composition of the masses. In his later works, the wish to fit into the collective and to contribute to the collective welfare is replaced by a confrontational relationship between the individual and the collective. The concern for the well-being of the individual turns into fierce criticism and interrogation of the Communist ideology of collectivism and the more traditional Chinese practice of demanding the individual's conformity to community ethical codes. In Gao's own essay entitled “Geren de shengyin” (1993; translated into English as “The Voice of the Individual” by Lena Aspfors and (p.102) Torbjorn Lodén, 1995; and also as “The Voice of the Individual” by Mabel Lee, 20071) he observed two new trends in the construction of identity for the Chinese intellectual individual in the post-Cultural Revolution era. One of these projects the image of the “victim of history” rather than the “national hero”. The other aspires with great intensity to assert the right to individual freedom of way of life and thought. This latter trend necessarily entails liberation of the individual from state control and, thus could be interpreted as a kind of politics. But the important thing is that “this line of thought no longer sees the freedom of the individual as intimately linked up with the fate of the state and the nation” (Gao 1993a: 117 / Aspfors and Lodén 1995: 77). Obviously this post-Cultural Revolution demand for personal freedom is different from the May Fourth discourse of personal emancipation in which individual liberation and national liberation, both from traditional “feudalism” [fengjian zhuyi] and material backwardness, are seen as one and the same thing. The corollary of Gao's observation is an intrinsic individuality: the demand for personal freedom and the individual's quality of life is no longer justified by its intimate link with the fate of the nation, but is valued entirely for its own worth. This is very much in tune with the individualism of the Western liberal humanist tradition. But this does not yet describe the full picture of Gao's individualism since in his plays written after 1986, the liberal humanist individualism is engaged in all kinds of interplay with a host of other sentiments and ideologies including nationalism, nihilism and even Buddhist philosophy. The subjectivities of the individuals portrayed in those plays are therefore also inscribed with the traces of conflicting and varying cultural and ideological influences. The following sections in this chapter examine the portrayal of the individuals in this group of plays.
The Individual as a Loner
Bi'an (1986b; translated as The Other Side by Jo Riley, 1997; and as The Other Shore by Gilbert Fong, 1999) is a play about the relationship between the individual and the collective. Although there is no division into acts and scenes, as the almost empty stage and the minimal use of props makes it technically unnecessary, the play actually consists of two parts. There is an introductory section on human relationships in general that acts as an exposition to introduce the theme and to facilitate the reception of the audience to the play's mode of expression, which is a less linguistic and more visually expressionistic form; and this is followed by a story about an individual negotiating his relationship with the collective. At the beginning of the play, that is, in the introductory section, the abstract notion of human relationships is translated into visible signs by the use of a piece of rope, (p.103) which is manipulated by the actors who hold both ends and pull it into different shapes and degrees of tautness to represent different kinds of relationships. For instance, a forceful pulling on one side signifies dominance of one party in the relationship. Then the pulling develops into a competition of force, in which a winner and a loser are involved.
The use of a piece of rope is economical, visually expressive and highly symbolic. It also highlights the distance between the two ends of it. A Self and an Other are presented as the necessary elements for the existence of a relationship:
“You” and “I” are put in distinctive positions as two absolute entities. The existence of the Self and the Other is assumed to precede the existence of a relationship. Both Self and Other are taken to be stable and the dichotomy natural. However, this is not necessarily the only way to perceive identity. In marked contrast to this is Bakhtin's idea of the dialogic definition of the Self and the Other, in which the consciousness of the Self is constituted by its relationship towards “a thou”: “I must find myself in another by finding another in myself” (Bakhtin 1963 / Emerson 1985: 287). This Self and the Other are formative of one another during their interaction. The Self is defined in the exchange of his “own speech” and the “alien” speech of the other (Bakhtin 1963 / Emerson 1985: 287). In the process of reacting to the other, a boundary for the “I” is defined. In Bahktin's model, relationship is a pre-requisite for the existence of the Self and the Other. What this comparison highlights is the assumption in The Other Shore of an unconditional essential presence of a Self which is differentiated by a boundary from all other people. This assumption sustains the binary opposition of a Self and an Other. Interestingly enough, the avowed intention of Gao's later writing is to eliminate this Self.
In The Other Shore, the Other is the masses. The “thou” takes a plural form. As soon as a Self and an Other are fixed on to the two ends of a relationship, the Other is immediately qualified as all other people beside the singular Self. This is achieved by increasing the number of actors and the number of imaginary ropes amongst all of them. It results in everyone being linked to more than one person directly (holding on to the same rope) or indirectly (holding on to the same rope with someone who is also holding on to another person's rope). A web-like complex is formed in which each actor's position is related to all other actors. To each member, the “you” is a plural one. The Other is the whole collective. This is a web in which any intersecting point, representing an individual, can be a starting point in tracing the linkage. So every individual becomes the centre of his own world while all other individuals are taken as the collective Other:
(p.104) For example, you circle around me, taking me as your axis. Now you are my satellite. If you won't want to revolve around me, I can turn on the spot and make believe that everyone is really turning around me. Is it you or are you revolving around me? Or are we both turning on the spot, or…(Gao 1986b: 239 / Riley 1997: 154)
This binarism between the individual and the collective becomes the starting point of the play's theme. When the story in the play begins, a group of people cross a river to the opposite shore where life is supposed to begin again. There is no sense of individuals until Woman teaches them the words “I” and “you”. At this point the individual Man becomes conscious of himself being an individual self, separated from the rest of the masses. Epistemological acts here are represented as a series of introductions to vocabulary. The female figure Woman who teaches them about life is indicative of the primitive female figure Nüwa, the mother of mankind in Chinese mythology. However, in the play she has not given birth to them, but has turned them from innocence to knowledge, through the process of teaching them the use of language for naming and thus defining their experience. How the world is viewed is thus governed by the definition and logic available in language, in other words, the lexis and grammar. This reminds one of Cassirer's view that men are “imprisoned” in language, their own creation (Cassirer 1923 / Manheim 1961: I: 113), a philosophy that has been taken up also in Soul Mountain. Then among the crowd, the language that has been learnt gradually becomes used for the expression of malicious thoughts. Rumours and curses are created, leading to the eventual killing of Woman. Language here is given the power to replace and take over experience and decide the crowd's action. Again, it is redolent of the inaccuracy of language in representing truth already explored by Gao in his previous fictions, and elaborated later in Soul Mountain. This idea is highlighted in the performance of the play by the explicit attempt to play up extra-linguistic elements as an alternative to linguistic communication.2
One of these extra-linguistic elements is the elaborate use of mime-like gestures and movements to convey situations and scenarios. The audience is being sensitised to non-verbal means of communication, which helps to alienate them from their habitual logic dominated by syntactical structure in the language system. Instead, the actors attempt to engage the visual and aural senses of the audience, in order to appeal to their immediate sensory responses. It is stressed in the playwright's note that this play requires the actors to give up the kind of acting that is built on linguistic dialectics and logical thinking. Instead, they should be sensual and spontaneous (Gao 1986b: 251 / Riley 1997: 153). The actors’ presence and the variation in their physical attributes are taken to be their main acting tools. Such emphasis on the actors’ bodies is further enhanced by the minimal use of props, costumes and other stage properties. Their bodies (p.105) remain the only instrument for communication with the audience. The acting itself is the centre of attention. The actors’ body language, as opposed to their speeches, has to assume responsibility for the expression and the aesthetics, in order to combat the inaccuracy of linguistic communication suggested by the playwright. Most critics note this minimalism in Gao's plays of this period as heavily influenced by the Western minimalist theatre of dramatists such as Peter Brook. Indeed the playwright himself also acknowledges such influence. But there is another aspect of this minimalism that is pertinent to the present discussion of the portrayal of the individual in this group of works: to strip the actor of any props and tools is to decontextualise him and alienate him from all possible acting conventions that such props might be associated with. This nakedness foregrounds the physical state of the actor as he is. The actor aspires to be a detached individual, one that is in tune with the idea of the post-Cultural Revolution intellectual later portrayed in the playwright's 1993 essay quoted at the beginning of this chapter.
The split between the individual and the collective in this play first takes place after the murder of Woman. His disapproval of the murder and condemnation of the masses as being ungrateful together function to highlight his own virtue. Such a difference is further cultivated in subsequent episodes, the most elaborate of which is the scene with Card-player. It constructs an even more negative image of the masses. Black and white cards are flashed in front of the group. These cards are bold symbols for true and false, right and wrong. When a card is flashed, they cannot, or do not, say what it is. Their opinions are subordinated to the authority of Card-player who perverts black and white. Those who lose the game are stuck with awkward looking pieces of paper on their faces. But collective pressure, like authority, dominates their judgment. As more and more people lose their game, the disgrace of having pieces of paper stuck on faces becomes not only acceptable, but so much the norm that no one wants to be “excluded”, and thus inclusion becomes the main goal. The crowd is represented as a group without free will, a group that submits to authority. The individual Man is again put at the other end of the scale. His original insistence on what he sees on the card regardless of the collective's consensus, his reluctance to assume the responsibility they have imposed on him to lead the way later in the story, and at the same time his strong desire for Girl (which is represented as his alternative interest against the above-mentioned responsibility for the collective, in other words, the personal domain opposite to the public one) all combine to suggest his yearning for individual autonomy.
As the play proceeds, the lines uttered by the characters become increasingly incoherent, both within the same speech, and in terms of the logical connection among different characters’ speeches. The failure of linguistic communication (p.106) further isolates Man from the collective. He is trapped within his own “truths” which are not shared by others. These truths include the murder of the innocent Woman and his knowledge that the whole pack of cards does not contain a single black one. His concept of truth cannot prevail against the opinions expressed by others. The individual becomes an absolute loner who is facing a world defined, and from his point of view, perverted, by words. The collective and the individual are not only put into binary opposition as drastically different, they are also depicted as being threatening to each other. In fact, one of the play's strongest indictments of collective pressure is its power to repress individuality in order to preserve the status quo. Man is persecuted for holding different opinions. He cannot even leave the scene maintaining his own point of view. There is no other alternative for him but to submit to the collective. At the end he collapses with the crowd abandoning him and dancing in a grotesque manner around Cardplayer, the new authority. Another character described as Mad Woman is also outcast from the collective. This character functions as a foil to Man. Her alleged promiscuity threatens the collective with its suggestion of non-conformity. As a result she is punished and labelled “mad”.
Unlike many works of Socialist literature approved by the doctrines of the Chinese Communist Party, in which the hero belongs to, or lives for, and sometimes even dies for, the masses, Man's relationship with the collective is far from an amicable one. The following speech is very telling of this antagonism:
Why are you pestering me? I need peace and quiet, I need to be alone, I don't want a crowd of people staring at me, I don't need you and you don't need me. What you need is a leader to show you the way, but as soon as you have found a way, or think you have, you run away like frightened rabbits, and desert him without so much as another look. Like throwing off a pair of worn-out shoes. (Gao 1986b: 243 / Riley 1997: 164)
The negative image of the masses and the positive heroic yet tragic one of the individual (tragic since he cannot exercise his individual autonomy) becomes a recurrent motif in Gao's plays written after The Other Shore. One might conclude that the hero's situation among the masses, which exercise strict political control over him, is highly allegorical of the situation of individual autonomy in Communist China, in which the ideological preference for the collective has justified the sacrifice of individual autonomy. But it is worth noting that in the model constructed in this play, the duality is established between the individual and the masses, instead of between the individual and the state authority. Such a construct is even more obvious in the play Shanhaijing zhuan [Stories in the Books of Mountains and Seas] and assumes justification in ancient Chinese mythology.
The material of Gao's 1993 play Shanhaijing zhuan [Stories in the Books of Mountains and Seas] is taken from the ancient Shanhaijing (c. 475 B.C.- 24 A.D.; translated into English as The Classic of Mountains and Seas by Anne Birrell, 2000). The ancient text is a compilation of stories and myths of heroes and rulers, and descriptions of geographical and agricultural details. Scholars of different periods have regarded it variously as a book of mythology, geology, or fiction. The modern scholar Yuan Ke in his various studies concludes that it is a record of history, geography, politics and religions, written according to the primitive people's understanding of these matters (Yuan 1982, 1988, 1996). Therefore, it is a book of tremendous anthropological value; and this is a view widely accepted among scholars in the field.
Gao's play Stories seems to have adopted Yuan Ke's understanding of the books. It traces a narrative line out of the various events in the original books and constructs these events as an epic account of politics among various tribes in primitive times. It starts with the myth of Nüwa creating human beings at the very beginning of the world. This is followed by tribal events. The mythic figures are organised as four political parties, led by Di Jun in the east, Yan Di in the south, Xiwangmu in the west, and Huang Di in the north. Act 1 deals with the internal affairs in Di Jun's court. Acts 2 and 3 tell the story of the warfare between Huang Di and Yan Di's armies. This war finally brings about the establishment and dominance of Huang Di's regime in what becomes China. His race is believed to be the ancestors of the Han race. This chronological arrangement gives the play and the mythical events a sense of historical continuity. It betrays a strong desire to narrate a primitive history for the Chinese nation. It is without doubt a play about the beginning of China, a story about the ancient ancestors. Among them are the ancestors of the Han race and other minority races. On the surface this seems to have put the Han race on an equal level with warlords of other tribes, which is a highly popular position since the enthusiastic promotion of minority cultures by writers of literature in search of cultural roots in the mid 1980s. However, the play finishes with a court scene, after Huang Di has assumed the power to rule heaven and earth, where he assigns ruling power on different matters and territories to his own warriors and descendents. This politically stabilising process being used as a conclusion to the play centralises the position of the Han regime and marginalises other ethnic groups. The ideology revealed conforms to the political, cultural and economic hierarchy maintained by the Han race in modern China. The representation of a stabilised and unified territory under Huang Di's rule satisfies the ideological desire for a sense of national integrity in the play's modern audience. One might argue that the play's negative portrayal of the tribal leaders including Huang Di attempts to ironise the national unity at (p.108) the end of the play, but any ironic effect is ultimately overwhelmed by the neat nationalist conclusion. If indeed an ironic effect is intended, it is too feeble and has failed to make a sufficiently strong impact.
There is a potentially subversive line in the plot. The current of national events is underlined by another current of an individual's fate. The main plot focussing on political affairs intertwines with the story of Hou Yi throughout the play. Di Jun's ten suns (sons) appear all together in the sky. They are casting too much heat on Earth. The people living on Earth plead with Hou Yi, one of the minor gods, to help them before they all die of the heat and drought. He takes pity on them and with his divine skill in archery, he shoots down nine suns. But for that, he is rejected by the heavens and loses his immortality. Yet he finds mortal existence not good enough for his august person and cannot settle on Earth. He is finally killed by the masses for whom he has sacrificed his immortality Thus two groups of activities are established in the plot. The manoeuvres and wars of the gods and the final victory of Huang Di belong to the realm of the power game. Hou Yi's actions and his subsequent experience in the mortal world belong to the domain of the common people's life. But this domain is represented in the play as completely irrelevant to the politicking among the powerful. Politics is therefore a cynical struggle of power without any genuine ideological and humanist substance.
Equally cynical is the relationship of the hero with the collective. It is not only inharmonious, but also one of exploitation and betrayal. The plot of a hero who cares for the people and has made a great contribution to their welfare being deserted and purged by them in return has a very familiar ring to readers of scar literature. The lone hero Man in The Other Shore demonstrates a love-hate complex for the collective as he builds a forest of human figures around himself that eventually wears him out. Similarly, Hou Yi desires recognition from the masses. He mourns his lost immortality but is still content with his heroic deed of shooting down the suns for the people. It is only when he is confronted with his murderers that he realises that they have not been grateful for the sacrifice he has made for them. Unlike Man's tragedy which is predicated on the impossibility of individual autonomy, Hou Yi's tragedy, like the heroic victims of the Cultural Revolution as represented in scar literature, is his lack of recognition by the masses. The rounded characterisation and positive image of Hou Yi as compared with the negative image of the authorities (the cunning Huang Di, the farcical Di Jun, the ruthless Xiwangmu and the frail Yan Di) privilege the unrecognised yet heroic figure over those with authority. However, the desire of the hero to be embraced by the masses leads to the impression that his latter rejection of them is motivated by resentment.
Both Man and Hou Yi embody virtues. Man is appreciative of the good deeds Woman has done to him and other people. Hou Yi is willing to sacrifice his (p.109) immortality to secure the welfare of other people. Man is honest and righteous; Hou Yi is brave and chivalrous. These virtues stand in contrast to the many vices attributed to the crowd. The upright image of the heroes and the negative one of the crowd are put in sharp contrast. Our identification with moral supremacy immediately causes us to reject such crowds. When Man collapses with the crowd abandoning him and dancing in a grotesque manner around Card-player, our habitual identification again is for the individual who appears noble and our instinct is to reject the crowd. The divergence in the moral standard between this individual hero and the crowd puts the two in irreconcilable binary opposition. The crowd is represented as the mob. Again, this is not the only possible view on the masses, and again, for example, a very different approach is adopted by Bakhtin. Speaking of the crowd in a carnival, Bakhtin regards it as a new life force that provides an opportunity for change in the existing social and communal order. For him, the carnival of Corpus Christi celebrates death and revival. It is the “breaking point in the cycle of nature or in the life of the society of man” (Bakhtin 1965 / Iswolsky 1984: 9). The grotesque body of the crowd, for example as shown in paintings of Carnivals such as Bruegel's Carnival and Lent (1559) in which the artist seems to be celebrating the lame, the deformed and the ugly by bringing them to occupy a large area in the foreground, is to Bakhtin an alternative order as opposed to the bourgeois social hierarchy dominated by nobles and aristocracy who value the beautiful, the “good”, the neat, and of course, the ordered. The significance of such a crowd is its potential for political power to subvert the status quo with the alternative order in which the people manifest themselves. The carnivalesque crowd in the market place is empowered by their collectivity as the people as a whole “organised in their own way, the way of the people”, “outside and contrary to all existing forms of the coercive socio-economic and political organisation” (Bakhtin, 1965 / Iswolsky 1984: 255). It is subversive in nature. It is a form of power resisting the social order as organised by the authority.
The crowd in both The Other Shore and Stories in the Books of Mountains and Seas, although represented as grotesque, and more importantly, possessive of political force, is conservative and conforms to the established order. In fact they even eradicate any threat to the status quo. Neither do the individual heroes display any incentive to upset the ruling authorities, being more interested in protecting personal space in The Other Shore, and most preoccupied with his own immortality in Stories. Therefore, the conflicts between the individuals and the collective are not a function of their different political or ideological stances. The heroes are privileged over the masses, because the former possess virtues and honour, while the latter lack them. The superiority of the individual heroes over the masses is a priori. He is simply superior. The line between Man and the rest of the people is drawn when he denounces the ungrateful murder of Woman, not because of his distaste for the idea of collectivity. The hero's moral superiority is even more (p.110) obvious in Hou Yi's relationship with the people. Hou Yi's characterisation is a celebration of the classic Chinese virtues of benevolence [ ren ] and bravery [yong]. The desire for individual autonomy can also be interpreted as a desire to act as Kongzi [Confucius] teaches a gentleman should act: “When right principles of government prevail in the empire, he will show himself; when they are prostrated, he will keep concealed” [tian xia you dao ze jian, wu dao ze yin] (Lunyu, 8:13 / Legge 1893/1991: 131). The mentality assigned to the character Hou Yi is consistently supported by classic Confucian morality. Whether consciously deployed in the play or not, it is revealed in its attachment to traditional Chinese philosophy and codes of behaviour. The tragedies of both Man and Hou Yi are not the result of a lack of individual autonomy, but of the heroes remaining unrecognised and abandoned. What is challenged in the play is not the idea of collectivity, but a collectivity not arranged in the hierarchical order of virtues.
In the playwright's endnotes on the production of Stories, it is recommended that forms of folk entertainments including masks, dance, puppets, acrobatics and magic be used to create an atmosphere similar to that of a temple fair in religious festivals (Gao 1993b: 106–107). Such a folk culture is the legacy of two earlier practices. First, the emphasis on the inclusion in the play's overall structure of a variety of entertainment forms to create the atmosphere of fun-fair should be attributed to the inspiration of “a hundred entertainments” [baixi], a mixture of athletics, tricks, dance, music and drama, a practice that was already recorded in the Han Dynasty. According to the poem Xijing fu (107 A.D.; translated into English as “Western Metropolis Rhapsody” by David R. Knechtegs, 1982) by Zhang Heng of the Han Dynasty, a “hundred entertainments” includes dragon dance, chorus singing, wrestling, a story plot, somersaults, juggling swords, highwire-walking and other tricks (Zhang 107 / Knechtegs 1982: 227–235). Secondly, the characterisation of the mythical figures through the use of masks, costumes and stylised movements is influenced by nuo religious drama, a combination of rituals and drama performed by priests among early settlers scattered mainly in villages in south-western China. The earliest record of descriptions of nuo performance is found in the book Zhou li: Xia guan: Fangxiangshi (Zhou Rites: Summer Officials: Fangxiangshi c. 475 B.C.- 221 B.C.). It is about a priest having his:
- head covered with bear skin,
- face bearing a copper mask with four eyes,
- body wearing a black top and red lower garment.
- hands holding a shield and a spear. (Zhou li, c. 475 B.C.- 221 B.C./1987: 2493)
These theatrical devices are popular with Modernist dramatists who seek to establish an alienating effect opposing the Naturalistic illusionism that imitates the appearance of real life. The promotion of traditional Asian theatre by European (p.111) dramatists such as Brecht and Artaud also links the use of Asian ancient dramatic devices with the avant-garde and the esoteric. But in this case, telling ancient stories through theatrical forms related to folk cultures is an act of uncovering tradition and showing pride in historical Chinese popular culture. It is also an act of celebrating the historical presence of the Chinese people as a collective. The text's intention might have been prioritising popular culture (of the people) over official culture (approved by the court and the learned). Such a positive perspective on the people, however, contradicts the depiction of the crowd as mob in The Other Shore. In the play Stories itself, there is minimal focus on the people. Their existence depends on their being beneficiaries of Hou Yi's heroic deeds and sacrifice. Toward the end of the play, it is a mortal man who kills him (playwright's) when he regrets having done what he has, but there is no reason given for this murder. Stories is essentially a play about gods, kings and nobles. It is not about the masses. Their presence simply facilitates the story of the nobles, but if the playwright's dramas are to be viewed as a body of work, one would expect some kind of consistency in regard to major issues, including the texts’ stance towards the collective and the masses. The celebration of the carnivalesque temple fair indeed contradicts the representation of the people as mob not only in Stories, but also in The Other Shore and a number of subsequent plays. It creates an internal inconsistency within the text itself, and also within Gao's repertoire. Moreover, to place the story of Hou Yi, the story of a lone individual's inharmonious relationship with the collective, within this framework of Chinese history and culture enhances the nationalist dimension of the theme. Unlike many of his early fictions that are about momentary episodes based on daily trifles, this play departs from the personal domain, which occupies a marginal situation in post Mao Chinese literature, and approaches closer to the mainstream narrative. It stresses individuality in relation to the political aspects of life, as shown in the prolific scar literature, literature of cultural reflection and literature in search of cultural roots. Although each text grouped under these categories and Gao's play Stories might be differently inflected, they all come under the grand banner of nationalist literature.
The Individual as Woman
The motif of the confrontation between the individual and the collective occurs again in Mingcheng [Nether City] (19893). The play was commissioned for a dance drama production in Hong Kong and published in a Taiwan woman's magazine Nüxingren [Female people]. It tells the story of a woman driven to her death as a result of her husband's whimsical test of fidelity. She is denied the chance to plead her own cause and is finally condemned eternally under the (p.112) systems of both the mortals and immortals. What makes this play particularly worth noting is the manifestation of the loner motif in the person of a woman.
The story about Zhuangzi's test on his wife in Nether City goes back a long way. The character of jealous husband assumes the identity of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (c. 369 B.C.-286 B.C.), but this is no more than a simplistic and crude fantasy on the part of the ancient populace on the possibility of Zhuangzi transforming himself into other identities, and such imagination is inspired by one of the philosopher's own fables of turning into a butterfly in a dream.4 The story of Zhuangzi tesing his wife was first collected in the anthology of Jingu qiguan [Marvelous stories of ancient and modern times] edited by Baoweng Laoren (c.1544–1644). It is said that on his way home, Zhuangzi sees a woman fanning the mud on her husband's grave, because according to customs, a woman is allowed to remarry once her deceased husband's grave is dry. Wanting to find out whether his own wife, Tian, is more chaste than this woman, Zhuangzi fakes death, then transforms himself into the Prince of Chu and tries to seduce his widowed wife at his own funeral. She falls into the trap and on their wedding, “the Prince of Chu” falls very ill. He tells her that only eating the brains of a family member could cure him. In her panic she decides to get the brains of her newly-deceased husband which she thinks should not have dried up yet. She hacks the coffin open and Zhuangzi jumps out from the coffin to reveal her lack of chastity. At the same time he also appears as “the Prince of Chu” to prove her guilt. As a result she kills herself out of shame.
The most famous stage dramatisation of this story is the kunqu [Kunqu opera] Hudie meng [The butterfly dream]. The tragedy of Tian is presented almost as a comedy. After her suicide, Zhuangzi expresses neither regret nor sorrow. The tone in which he speaks about her death is judgmental and completely lacking in sympathy. Both the story in Marvelous Stories and the kunqu piece take Zhuangzi's point of view, in terms of both narrative flow and moral stance. This is in fact not surprising in classical Chinese literature, since the majority of works were written by male literati who benefited from the male-centred morality of the period.
Nether City is by no means the first play in which this male point of view appears to be challenged. Early in the Yuan Dynasty, Shi Junbao (1279–1368) already represented such a test of female chastity as selfish and inconsiderate in his xiqu, Qiu Hu Xiqi [translated into English as Qiu Hu Tries to Seduce His Own Wife by William Dolby, 1978], also known as Sangyuan hui [Meeting in the mulberry field]. The original story in Liu Xiang's Lie'nii zhuan (c. 78 B.C.; translated as The Traditions of Exemplary Women by Anna Behnke Kinney, 2002] is about Qiu Hu seducing a woman, who turns out to be his wife, in the mulberry field on his way home after twenty years’ absence. The chaste woman refuses him and commits suicide when his identity is revealed, because she cannot bear the idea of her husband's breaking the accepted boundary of decent behaviour by seducing (p.113) a stranger in a field. This story bears a striking similarity to Zhuangzi's test on his wife. Although the two women react differently to seduction, they both meet tragic ends. It seems to be an invidious situation for women. In the first case, she has to die for her own loss of honour; in the second, she has to die for her husband's loss of honour. The latter appears to be condemning Qiu Hu's behaviour and praising her chastity. But the price is paid by her with her life. An act of utter self-destruction of the female character is necessary for the male character to learn a lesson. The female narrative point of view does not bring about a reverse of the tale's ideology. In fact, the story centering on her has confirmed a male-centred morality, since her conviction and action reinforce it.
But in Shi Junbao's adaptation of the story, he has Qiu Hu vaguely recognising his wife but seducing her to test her chastity. When his identity is revealed, she angrily blames him for risking her reputation and life (since she would have to kill herself had she proved herself unfaithful). The play ends with Qiu Hu acknowledging his inconsiderate behaviour and being forgiven by his wife. Compared with the other works of the same theme, Shi's version is no doubt less straightforward in its masculine orientation. However, Qui Hu's wife has only acquired her right to live and a right to speak up against her husband's trickery because she has refused his courtship in the mulberry field. She has proved herself to have adhered to the female code of behaviour required by the male-dominated ruling class.
In Gao Xingjian's adaptation of the story about Zhuangzi's wife into Nether City, there is also a shift of the narrative point of view from the position of Zhuangzi to that of Tian. Tian is of course depicted as the victim of Zhuangzi's selfish game, or the play would not have been published in a woman's magazine. Unlike the earlier versions, the play does not end with Tian's death. It continues beyond her death, and extends the plot to the underworld, where she is put on trial by the ultimate authority of the nether court, and this part of the story is in fact the most significant part of the play, as indicated by the choice of its title. There is still no sympathy for her in the underworld. Scenes of her being kicked off a bridge by the nether guards to join other wandering souls, of her being insulted in the corrupt court of the underworld, and of her being tortured follow in quick succession. Her oppressive forces are identified as the collectively acknowledged authority, the male and corrupt officials.
When Tian tries to defend herself in the nether court, the judge issues the order to cut off her tongue. She is deprived of her right to speak and is silenced forever. In fact, silence is the most important element in Tian's characterisation. Apart from the few speeches she speaks at her first appearances, she basically has no other speeches, except a few exclamations of “bu”, meaning “no”. The image is constructed of a repressed female in a patriarchal society who has no voice for self-expression. It is also a comment on the original story in Marvelous Stories (p.114) and the famous kunqu version, in which Tian's subjectivity is completely neglected. To compensate for the deliberate lack of verbal expression by Tian, there is ample scope in the script for a more expressionistic nonverbal communication. Emotions of all kinds are conveyed through the dancer's movements. Since this play is tailor-made for the American Chinese choreographer Jiang Qing, choreography has replaced verbal language and is used as the main communicative device for the character. This accords very well with the tendency elsewhere in Gao's repertoire to reject spoken language and rational logic regulated by the rules of language.
What relates this play closely to the others discussed in this chapter is the depiction of Tian as a loner. Similar to Man and Hou Yi, she is a social outcast, one who is rejected by the masses. This rejection has drawn a boundary between the masses and Tian, making them the Other for one another. But the female identity prompts this loner figure to be depicted differently from the others — she is silent and passive. This arbitrary connection between the woman and the silent and passive prompts two questions. First, are women seen to be essentially silent and passive? If so, this would be a very conservative and dated understanding of the feminist position. Such essentialisation disregards the complexity and divergence of women's situations. It neither clarifies nor helps with the subject matter of the play. Second, if the play is not specifically feminist, what is it about? Where is its relevance? One reading is that the silent and passive woman symbolises all individuals who are suffering in silence.
In her study of the representation of women in modern Chinese fiction, Yue Ming-bao adopts Roxane Witke's position, namely that the prolific works of the May Fourth period about the inequalities to which women are subjected, in fact, indicates something more general than women's liberation. The interest in women's issues is used to raise a banner for progressive thinking against the conservative power which has played such a strong part in the implementation and practice of social inequalities. The issue of “woman” is raised not for the sake of women. Instead, women become a metaphor for the oppressed. Yue concludes that women's issues are used “as a political stratagem for advancing China's nation-building program” (Yue 1993: 51). China in the 1980s saw a similar interest in women's issues, also utilised as a political stratagem. There are numerous works that try to defend women who are condemned as “sluts” in classical literature or in the folk tradition. The most popular one was Pan Jinlian, a blend of chuanju [Sichuan opera] and modern drama written by the chuanju playwright Wei Minglun in 1986. The licentious woman Pan Jinlian who conspires with her lover to murder her husband is depicted as a victim of arranged marriage under the slave system and a courageous woman who sacrifices everything for love. Appearing with Pan on stage are a divorced woman of the 1980s, the first Chinese empress Wu Zetian, Jia Baoyu of Hongloumeng [ca. 1754; translated into English as The Story of the (p.115) Stone by David Hawkes and John Minford, 1973; as A Dream of Red Mansion by Xianyi and Gladys Yang, 1978] and Anna Karenina, together discussing the inequalities and discrimination women have experienced and witnessed, and expressing a sense of empathy with Pan. An extensive attack is launched on the old morality by analysing these historical and fictional cases. These characters become a joint force for a powerful attack on conservatism. The play became a big hit in the 1980s. Moreover, its innovative form also frees the play and the artistic representation of the character Pan Jinlian from the strict operatic convention. These factors work together and foreground it ahead of other works of the same women-oriented genre.
Like the May Fourth writers who use the concern over women's issues to position themselves in opposition to conservative power, there was also a trend among many writers in the 1980s to write works similar to Pan Jinlian. They sought to express sympathy for the traditionally condemned woman as a gesture firstly to rethink traditional morality, and secondly as a symbol for appeal on behalf of the persecuted, and by extension of those victims of previous political persecutions. In the case of Nether City, the inequalities confronted by Tian in a world dominated by men is used as a metonymic trope for the inequalities generally faced by powerless individuals who do not conform to social codes and values but who are suppressed by the state authority. But this kind of utilisation of women's issues is problematic. The first thing to be called into question in this play is the metonym of women and the mute oppressed. This metonym is built on the identification of the powerless with femininity. In other words, what is free and potent is natural, and belongs to the masculine domain; while what is restricted and helpless is perverted, and belongs to the feminine domain. This perversion is measured against the “natural”. In de Beauvoir's words:
She is defined and differentiated with reference to men and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other. (De Beauvoir 1947 / Parshley 1987: 21)
Instead of protesting against women being pushed into a marginal position, the metonym of women for the Other confirms the position of women as the Other. The marginal position in which women are put is taken as a natural given and as the basis for the metonym. Women are summarised as a concept of the unfavourable Other, seen through the eyes of the Absolute, the male. As Judith Butler points out, such a construction summarises “woman” as the oppressed in a heterosexual society, and in turn enhances these features as the qualifying factor to be “woman”. This is an approach contradictory to the principles of feminism, and causing a crisis for feminism. She asks:
(p.116) Perhaps the problem is more serious. Is the construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations? And is not such a reification precisely contrary to feminist aims? (Butler 1990: 5)
The narrative of Nether City conforms to the male-centred construction of the “natural” male and the “perverted” female. Although on one level, it carries a general humanist intent of revealing the suffering of the mute, on another level, the seemingly subversive play only serves to reinscribe and reinforce the hierarchy of the male over the female. One can only conclude that either such a metonym works against its purpose, or that it reveals a lazy conformity to a basically misogynist trope for the sake of convenience.
The Individual as Elite
In all these three plays, the image of the individual self is constructed against a collective other. But there are three fundamental problems with this binary opposition. First, the constructed binary opposition between the individual and the masses is purely arbitrary. There is no reason to justify such an absolute antagonism between the two, except perhaps in terms of a sense of paranoia. Secondly, in these plays the masses are depicted as a unity, a collective within which there is no individual consciousness. The fact that individuals constitute the masses, which means that there is the potential for considerable differences among the masses, is totally neglected. The form of crowd in these plays is like the chorus in Greek tragedy. A unity of voice is assumed to represent social convention, and also communal morality, or the lack of it. Such an assumption is lacking in justification and is a gross over-simplification of reality. Thirdly and related to the previous point, the image of the virtuous individual and the malicious crowd is not a non-judgmental binary opposition. It is a hierarchy composed of an intelligent individual endowed with the capacity for free-thought at the top and the unworthy subjugated crowd beneath him. On the surface the plays seem to be upholding individual autonomy, but this autonomy of the “chosen” individual is at the expense of all other people who are represented as a unified collective with no recognition of their own rights to be identified as individuals. Therefore, to valorise the lone hero's individual autonomy, that of each member in the masses is suppressed. Obviously what the plays advance is not everybody's individual autonomy, but only that of the elite loner at the top of the hierarchy constructed in the plays. If the struggle for an individual's autonomy has to be (p.117) achieved through the suppression of that of the rest of his fellows, the principle governing such autonomy is ideologically suspect and elitist by its very nature. What is represented is hardly the desire for individual autonomy, but merely a power struggle, for dominance, of a particular individual in his community.
What is revealed is, again, a sense of paranoia, of not being recognised as the elite member of society, of the morbid fear of submersion in the crowd. If a biographical approach is adopted, one might conclude that the author's own experience in the 1970s and the first half of 1980s may well be the source of such a feeling. The purges and persecution to which he was subjected in the various political campaigns, and the resultant needs of constant justification of his theoretical and creative writings have produced a strong desire to be safe from other people (the Other and the potential persecutors), and to be untouched. There is consequently a “need” to be “correct” and to be “superior”. Even if one is not able to escape persecution, the feeling of occupying the moral highground still acts as a form of consolation to the ego. If read this way, the romantic lone heroes in these plays who are intended to be represented as idealists single-mindedly fighting for individual autonomy are only victims of paranoia, in the aftermath of political attacks. This would surely arouse sympathy. But if this is the case, such a representation of the individual and the masses will only be valid to an exclusive situation, particular to a certain group of people in China at a given time. It can have no claim of universality. Unfortunately, the setting of the plays in the context of myths and legends means that they are abstracted from the particular situation that has generated the writer's particular paranoia. Of course, such a reading can only remain speculative. The correlation between biographical details and the works is something that literary studies cannot prove. One can therefore only take them on the textual level and conclude that they are informed by a blatant elitism. What surfaces in these plays is a tendentious position which constructs the elitist lone individual as the victim of a lack of autonomy and power. This series of plays thus reveals a stagnation, a self-indulgence in the self-image of being the oppressed, of being the talent unrecognised, and even of being the hero abandoned. An illusion is constructed that to merely raise a lone voice already constitutes subversion since it manifests the presence of the oppressed. However, merely to reinscribe the situation without further interrogation and to make such a reinscription as the means and the end of the text has the contrary effect of turning this reiteration into a celebration of the position of the oppressed, and creating an environment in which the condition of oppression, not the attempt to overturn oppression, infuses the text with a superficial subversiveness.
The Other Shore is the last of Gao's play written in China. It was, however, never put on stage in China because of political pressure. Nether City was commissioned by the Hong Kong Dance Company and staged in the then British colony. Gao left China in 1987, and in 1988 he was granted residence in France. But instead of displaying less relevance to China, more often than not Chinese culture occupies a central position in the works written immediately after the playwright took up abode abroad. This is true for both Nether City and Stories in the Books of Mountains and Seas. In 1989, the June Fourth Tian'anmen Massacre aroused an intense and emotional response among the Chinese. Massacre appeared as an important theme in artistic and literary creation among overseas Chinese while it became taboo on the Mainland. To refer to only a few of these works, the famous Taiwanese choreographer Lin Huaimin's epic dance on Chinese history Jiuge [Nine Songs] finishes with a scene of massacre, emotionally portrayed with loud noises of gunfire and a powerful following spotlight on the dancers on stage. Various poems appeared in the short-lived magazine published in North America Guangchang [The Square] are one of the earliest outlets for channelling the shock and anger felt by the poets. The highly acclaimed Mainland poet Zheng Min also included a series of poems titled “Xinzhong de shengyin” [Voice from the heart] in her collection Zaochen, wo zai yuli caihua [Morning, I gather flowers in the rain] published in Hong Kong. The proliferation of works dealing with the massacre in other artistic and cultural sectors such as photography, paintings, pop songs, street theatre and videos also contributed to a general atmosphere of strong nationalism and patriotism, although the object of identification is the abstract idea of “China” with a historic and cultural content, rather than the incumbent government.
It was within such a highly charged social context that Gao's play Taowang (1990, translated into English as Fugitives by Gregory B. Lee, 1993; as Escape by Gilbert Fong, 2007) was written. In this play a confrontation was constructed of individual autonomy against not only certain political ideologies but also all political affairs. The play's main theme is to draw a line between active nationalist support for the democratic movement and a total retreat from politics, and to argue about the futility of the former which in consequence justifies the latter. It attempts to uphold a position devoid of a nationalist perspective. The background of the play is the night of the June Fourth Massacre. Although it is not overtly stated, the sound of gunfire, the constant allusion to the democratic movement, killing in the “Square”, and the characters' description of the streets all point to it. There are only three characters in the play, Young Man, Middle-aged Man and Young Woman. They are all running for their lives, but they represent two different attitudes in their relationship with state politics. The background of the 1989 (p.119) democratic movement foregrounds this theme, since the movement itself epitomises nationalism. Young Man runs away from the present totalitarian authority and embraces an alternative political ideology as expressed in the collective action, organised by the masses without Party authorisation. The collective action of protests and fasting, and the extensive support the activists receive in the streets promotes their claim to be the political power that really represents the people, an entity empowered by the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Republic from the very beginning of their establishment.
But this is not what Middle-aged Man identifies himself with. For him, politics is a game played by people with power. Any civilians engaged in it are manipulated, used and played as chess pieces (an image that has already appeared in The Other Shore) by the few who monopolise and control everything in the country. He does not identify with the democratic movement. Politics are equated with the manipulation of the collective by the few political leaders in their exchange of power. The metaphor of cards being dealt by others in The Other Shore is also repeated here. In one of Middle-aged Man's lines, he talks about the student protest and the democratic movement as the “small card dealt” (Gao 1990a/1995: 29 / Lee 1993: 109) by some political faction. It is redolent of the manipulative authority figure of Card-player in The Other Shore. According to this logic, any collective actions are simply reduced to political weapons for deployment by politicians. In this case, the image of the collective is not of the ugly or the vicious, but of the powerless and the manipulated. A binary opposition is established between the individual bodies (which make up the collective) and the state body. The individual bodies are depicted as inadequate in the face of the state body, which, as constituted by the current authority, is protected by state security mechanisms to keep the masses under control. In The Other Shore, there is a simpler binary opposition between the individual and the collective. The former is the good and the latter is the evil. Individual autonomy is necessary for preserving one's own virtues and keeping away from the corruption represented by the collective. But in Fugitives collectivity is rejected because it is ineffective in organising resistance against the evil state body as it is manipulated by powerful politicians and the operation of state politics. The masses are not so much grotesque, as weak, fragile and powerless. Therefore the collective body fails to fulfil the function of a force generated by and working for the masses. These are the grounds on which the play justifies Middle-aged Man's decision to reject politics.
Parallel to the political line, there is a theme of sexuality in the play. It is used to represent an alternative to the political domain of one's life. It is on the basis of this division that Young Woman is characterised. Her political attitude is ambiguous. She takes part in the protest but is not depicted as being as enthusiastic a demonstrator as Young Man. There are speeches by her about a private life (p.120) untouched by public politics, but there are none to express sympathy with Middle-aged Man's disillusionment regarding politics. Like the female characters in Gao's early plays such as Bee in Alarm Signal, she is represented as sentimental and “feminine”. Woman is barred from the domain of politics, even when she is participating in a political movement. She is merely there to represent the non-political and private aspect of life. She is mute in the political debate between the two male characters. The play has designated differentiated domains for men and women in their concerns.
The differences in the three characters’ stances, or the three voices, make up the overall structure of the play. The individual consciousnesses of the three characters are juxtaposed in parallel during their soliloquies expressing what is in their minds in the darkness inside the old warehouse in Act 1. Except the implication in Young Woman's speech about a ruined city, symbolising life blighted by totalitarian politics, the image created in her speech is mainly full of warmth and innocence. When she speaks of a serene and beautiful vision of snow falling over the “Square”, her speech is interrupted by Young Man's narration of a visually comparable scenario with the leaflets about the curfew that are thrown from helicopters. They alternate with their speeches on walks in the snow and scenes in the “Square”. When Young Man speaks of the day of his dream when darkness is over and a grand ceremony for the nation's martyrs is held, Middle-aged Man interrupts and expresses his wish to stay away from all of this. Then the soliloquies resume and the characters continue to take turns to make their speeches.
Characterisation as shown in this episode, as well as in other scenes, is stereotypical of the age and sex groups the characters are chosen to represent. The men are rational and concerned about politics. Young Woman is sensitive and sensual and becomes the object of competition and the basis of jealousy between the two men. Middle-aged Man is calm, wise and disillusioned; while his foil character Young Man is enthusiastic and idealistic. Throughout the play, there is an inclination to privilege what Middle-aged Man represents. He wins every debate, and is also the one who stays on centre stage throughout while Young Man is absent for part of the time. Like Young Woman resembling Bee, the character of Middle-aged Man reminds readers of the train conductor in Alarm Signal. It is also worth noting that Middle-aged Man is the one, instead of Young Man, who consummates the sexual relationship with Young Woman. Just like the state of affairs in the animal world, the male who wins the war (of political position and debate in this play) gets the right to mate. The female in the play is completely reified and reduced to a mere object of male desire. The dominant voice in the play is definitely that of Middle-aged Man.
The only significance of Young Woman in the play is the part she plays in her sexual relations with the male characters. As far as individual autonomy is concerned, a split between the private and the public spheres is essential. For (p.121) most of the 1980s, sex was still treated as something of a taboo in many sectors of the Chinese society, and was excluded from the sphere of public life. To break this taboo symbolises the breaking out of the private voice, of the voice of the individual. It becomes a metaphor for the expression of the individual's autonomy. Gao Xingjian rated Lao Hong's novel Luowu dai [The generation of naked dance] highly. The novel concerns the lives of young university students in Beijing after the June Fourth Massacre. Substantial parts of the novel focus on the sexual relations between them. In the preface Gao wrote for the novel, he draws a connection between sexual liberation and social resistance:
Oppressing the demand for democracy often accelerates the eruption of sexual liberation. Sexual repression was always used by the highly centralised political powers of traditional China as a means of spiritual control. Sexual repression was always present in the form of traditional feudal morality. The young generation's rebellion is also expressed through sexual liberation. (Gao 1992b:2)
In Fugitives, there are moments, especially in Act 2, when the concern about current politics is taken over by the sexual relationship between Young Woman and the two men. If we accept sex as an expression of resistance against state repression, this scene can then be read as a space in the play reserved for the expression of the private, and thus the resistant and subversive. In breaking this social taboo, this private domain is made visible and the autonomy of the individual is given voice. This seems to work for the two male characters, but not for the female one. The representation of sex as Young Woman's only means of expression does not open up effective and significant channels of autonomous expression for her. Instead, it excludes her from other means of expression. Moreover, sex in the play does not serve her purpose, rather it is Middle-aged Man who seeks a means to valorise the private aspect of his life. She is only the accomplice, or even the instrument, for his self-expression.
If the disinclination to participate in politics, understood as public affairs, is seen as a solution to the individual and collective will being appropriated and used by the dominant authorities, it should be recalled that it is a viable strategy, if one at all, only for those whose life is not under the dominance of Chinese political forces. That means someone such as the author himself who is not living in China. In fact, such a “non-political” stance is already revealed to be impossible for people living in China, as Middle-aged Man is trapped in the warehouse, unable to escape. The play raises the question about the masses being used as instruments in the negotiation of power among dominant political parties, which is a perfectly legitimate question. But the only suggested solution it provides is to reject the power struggle, an action not everyone can afford. It is a highly personal choice, first because it only creates a distance between the question and the (p.122) individual concerned, while providing no solution to the question; secondly it only reflects a personal choice of someone who has the means to remain at a distance such as by emigrating, while such a choice is not available for most people affected by the problem. The position adopted by the play on the Democratic Movement and on politics seems highly personal and inevitably narrow in its scope. It lacks vision at a universal level and relevance to those readers who are really affected by the problem at a more local level, that is, those who are living under the oppressive and manipulative political powers. Thus its frame of reference is strictly limited. In fact, for someone who is absent to suggest to those who have to live and confront the problem that to attempt action is futile and misguided is indeed insensitive. This is another kind of cross-cultural writing. It prompts one to ask: How does a writing subject write about a culture in which that writer is no longer immersed? In other words: of what and in what manner can one speak in absentia?
(1.) The article was published later in the same year in Mingbao Monthly in Hong Kong with the new title “Guojia shenhua yu geren diankuang”, literally “The myth of the nation and insanity of the individual”.
(4.) The story of Zhuangzi testing his wife's fidelity has not made any appearance in any biography of the philosopher or in his own writing. Apparently he is used as the protagonist of this story because his writing about confusions of identity in his famous writing about “Butterfly Dream” in “Qiwu” [Unity with the Cosmos] is associated with the omnipotence of the husband in controlling life and death and in assuming a double identity to test his wife.