Analysis of Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore

Gao Xingjian’s plays are characterized by originality, in no way diminished by the fact that he has been influenced both by modern Western and traditional Chinese currents. His greatness as a dramatist lies in the manner in which he has succeeded in enriching these fundamentally different elements and making them coalesce to something entirely new.

—Göran Malmqvist, Presentation Speech for the 2000 Nobel Prize in literature

Gao Xingjian, the first Chinese writer to have received the Nobel Prize in literature, was a controversial choice by the Swedish Academy. As a playwright, critic, and novelist Gao is a prominent leader of the avant-garde movement in fiction and drama that emerged in China following the Cultural Revolution. Although called in 2000 by critic Howard Goldblatt, “a major figure in world drama, and the most innovative, if not the most famous playwright China has produced in this century,” Gao was at the time largely unknown both in the West and in China, where his work had been banned. Reaction from China to the Nobel announcement was vituperative. “This shows that the Nobel Prize for Literature has virtually been used for political purposes and thus has lost its authority,” the director of the Chinese Writers Association declared. “China boasts many world-famous literary works and writers, about which the Nobel Committee knows little.” China’s Foreign Ministry called the award a political maneuver and not an occasion for national pride. However, with the award more of Gao’s works became available, justifying his recognition as a writer of great distinction. His novel Lingshan (Soul Mountain) has been praised as one of the singular achievements in modern Chinese fiction, while his plays have opened up new territory and techniques for Chinese drama. Bi’an (The Other Shore) provides the best example of Gao’s unique combination of European modernist and traditional Chinese dramatic elements.

Classical Chinese drama that took shape following the Mongols’ conquest of China in the 13th century had largely become an operatic form by the 17th century, evolving into the Beijing opera that became dominant by the 19th century. Primarily a theatrical rather than a literary form, Beijing opera privileged performance over a play’s text, with story little more than a vehicle for the performer to demonstrate rigidly controlled conventions of acting, dancing, and singing. Western-style “spoken” or “new” drama entered China after the demise of the Chinese empire in 1912. Beginning as translations and adaptations of foreign plays by William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, and others, drama in this new style eventually was created by native playwrights incorporating Chinese subjects and themes. The best known of these playwrights is probably Cao Yu, who, in plays such as Thunderstorm (1933), Sunrise (1935), and The Bridge (1945), dealt with con-temporary social problems. After the Communists assumed control in 1949, both Beijing opera and the spoken drama were retooled to conform to party doctrine and to extol the virtues of the revolution. New works were mainly ideological melodramas showing the triumph of party principles over the enemies of the revolution. During the Cultural Revolution traditional Chinese drama was suppressed, and professional theater in China largely ceased to exist except for the production of a few “model” plays. Not until the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 was greater freedom of theatrical subjects and conventions again permitted.


Gao Xingjian’s life and artistic development fully reflects the political and cultural shifts that has affected modern Chinese literary and dramatic expression. Born in 1940 in Ganzhou in eastern China, Gao, during his childhood, contended with both the Japanese invasion and the civil war won by the Communists in 1949. Gao’s father was a banker; his mother was an amateur actress. His family kept a sizable library of Chinese and Western literature, and Gao was early on introduced both to traditional Chinese literature and performing arts and European works. He attended the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute from 1957 to 1962 where he studied French language and literature, absorbing the ideas of French existentialist thinkers and the dramatic works of such figures as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Antonin Artaud, whom he would later translate into Chinese. After graduation Gao worked as a translator and editor of the French edition of the magazine China Reconstructs and began secretly writing plays, stories, and essays to avoid sanctions against any writing that did not serve the state. His wife eventually denounced him to government officials, and Gao was sent to rural China for six years of “reeducation” as a farm laborer and teacher. He eventually returned to Beijing in 1975 and went to work for the Chinese Writers Association. In the more moderate atmosphere following the Cultural Revolution he began to publish his work regularly. His first four books were A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction (1981), A Pigeon Called Red Beak (1985), Collected Plays (1985), and In Search of a Modern Form of Dramatic Representation (1987). In 1981 he was assigned to work as a writer for the Beijing People’s Art Theater, and his first play, Juedui xinhao (Absolute Signal), about a failed train robbery, was produced in 1982. It employs an innovative multiple perspective technique and flashbacks to explore its characters. His next play, Chezhan (Bus Stop), followed in 1983. Drawing upon Beckett and the techniques of the theater of the absurd, the play deals with several characters representing a cross-section of Chinese society who wait for a bus that never stops. Government officials declared the play subversive, and Gao left Beijing to avoid a prison sentence. Misdiagnosed with terminal cancer he embarked on a 10-month walking tour across rural China. His experiences would form the basis for his acclaimed novel Soul Mountain (1989). Gao’s next play, Yeren (Wilderness), depicts a journalist who travels into the wilds of China in search of a legendary creature who is part-man, part-monkey. Its episodic, elliptical structure is interspersed with traditional Chinese song, dance, and music. The Other Shore was the final work Gao wrote in China before his political exile. Traveling to Paris on an artistic fellowship, Gao sought political asylum in France after denouncing the suppression of the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Gao’s play about the massacre, Taowang (Fleeing), appeared in 1992 and caused Chinese officials to ban all his works. He became a naturalized French citizen in 1998. Continuing to write in both French and Chinese, Gao has stated: “I don’t consider myself to have cut myself off from my roots. But China remains an authoritarian state, and I don’t plan on returning while I’m alive.”

Encapsulating many of the themes and techniques of his works, The Other Shore began as an exercise for actors in “pure drama” to test their versatility in assuming multiple roles in several situations, unassisted by costume or stage scenery. The one-act play breaks dramatic conventions by presenting a series of isolated episodes without a clear plot of dramatic complications and resolutions or apparent character development. Thematic links provide the play’s coherence. The play begins with a small group of actors asked to play a game with ropes. Each holds onto an end of a rope and then is instructed by the Lead Actor to give an end to him. “This way you’ll be able to establish all kinds of relationships with me,” he tells the group, “some tense, some lax, some distant, and some close, and soon your individual attitudes will have a strong impact on me. Society is complex and ever-changing, we’re constantly pulling and being pulled.” The exercise establishes the play’s major themes of the relationship between the individual and the collective and the amount of freedom and autonomy that is possible in the social and human condition. While The Other Shore is not overtly political, it certainly can be read as a commentary on life under the Communist Party in China, symbolized as a web in which each individual is bound collectively, and each movement affects all. After a time the Lead Actor instructs them to let down the ropes and imagine a river in front of them. Invoking the Buddhist concept that enlightenment, or nirvana, is reachable on the other shore after crossing the river of life, the actors enact this journey. Expressing both anxiety and exhilaration during the crossing, when they arrive they experience, not enlightenment on the other shore, “only oblivion.” Replacing Buddhist beliefs with a more existential philosophy the play suggests that the search for enlightenment leads not to perfect fulfillment but continual struggle. On “the other shore” an archetypal battle between the individual and the collective ensues.

The actors become members of a Crowd who have lost their language and their memories. A Woman emerges from the oblivion and walks among them, teaching the Crowd words and helping them to learn how to differentiate themselves from one another. As the Crowd grows confident in its use of language and power it turns on the Woman and threatens her. A Man intervenes but fails to prevent them from strangling her. With the emergence of the Man in conflict with the Crowd the dramatic focus of the play—the relationship between the individual and the mass—is fully engaged. Invited by the Crowd to lead them the Man refuses. When they meet a Card Player he realizes that the game is rigged, but when he tries to help the Crowd realize the truth they abuse and humiliate him. Briefly transformed into his younger self, he meets his mother, his young girlfriend, and his father. They supply neither answers for the Man nor provide any relief. Taunted relentlessly by the Crowd and others who accuse him of being a troublemaker, he asserts: “I’m going my way! I’m not bothering anybody, and nobody’s bothering me, okay?” Blocked by a man named Stable Keeper, the Man is invited to crawl through his crotch. Doing so, he picks up a key that he uses to unlock an imaginary door. Inside mannequins are brought to life under his control, forming “a gigantic collective pattern. . . . As they move about the pattern keeps changing slowly yet unstoppably.” After a process of “constant discovery, renewal, rediscovery, and further renewal” the mannequins cease to respond to his commands, and he gradually becomes weaker, crawling out of the room “like a worm, utterly exhausted.” Shadow, the representation of the Man’s inner life, takes up the narration of the man’s increasingly debilitating journey: “You have long lost your faith in people, your heart has grown old and it will not love again. Your only wish is to go walking among the trees in the forest until you are totally exhausted. Then you will collapse somewhere, hoping never to be found.” Accused of self-pity by his Shadow the Man cannot escape the Crowd that has materialized from the trees in the forest, and they accompany him offstage along with his “drooping, blind, and deaf heart.”

The actors reappear onstage as themselves, commenting on the play they have just enacted, about dinner plans, someone’s kitten, and other fragments of trivial conversation. The sounds of a baby crying and a car engine starting are heard, and one of the actors says:

How are you going to get back?
It’s so bad, what kind of stupid play is this anyway?
Are you doing anything tomorrow?
Shall we have dinner together?

Bicycle bells, running water, the car running, and an ambulance’s siren close the play. Having begun with an exercise to stress the forces restraining and controlling each individual, followed by a series of symbolic encounters that underscore the struggles of the individual to achieve autonomy and fulfillment, the play closes with fragmented images from actuality, suggesting that the journey and its lessons persist.

Working on multiple levels The Other Shore can be described as an experimental theater class, a political allegory, and, in the words of critic Rob Kendt, a “series of individuation psychodramas.” Despite its radical style that subverts conventional dramatic expectations the play achieves a suggestive power by harnessing elements of Chinese and existential philosophy and fusing the stylized, nonrepresentational aspects of traditional Chinese drama with aspects of the theater of the absurd. Rejecting the Buddhist promise of nirvana for the righteous, Gao stages an alternative view of man’s fate as a continual struggle between self and other. A series of ostensibly disjointed encounters, absurd dialogue, and nightmarish imagery express humans’ inner torment and social discontents. Man, exhausted under the weight of anxiety, outside threat, and despairing loneliness, muddles on, tethered by a web of relationships that he cannot evade. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, The Other Shore makes clear both that “Hell is other people” and that the testing is the one constant of human existence. There is no escape from the suffering of this world, no other shore of blissful respite or consoling illumination. By fusing Chinese and Western ontological concepts, political commentary, and methods derived from the theater of the absurd The Other Shore becomes a powerful and provoking modern existential fable.

Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time

Categories: Chinese Literature, Drama Criticism, Literature

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