Analysis of Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible

The second novel of Nobel Prize–winning novelist Gao Xingjian (1940– ), first published in Taipei in 1999, One Man’s Bible is often considered as a companion to his celebrated Soul Mountain (Ling shan). As autobiographical as Soul Mountain, One Man’s Bible covers the narrator’s earlier past during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966– 76) and his more recent exiled life in the West, in between which Soul Mountain is set. It continues the metaphysical search for the meaning of existence, a pilgrimage the narrator embarks on in the previous book.

One Man’s Bible also adopts the narrative technique characteristic of Gao’s writing, which is to employ multiple pronouns to “create a sense of distance and provide a broader psychological space for the character.” The “I” in Soul Mountain is projected into “I,” “you,” “he,” and “she” to indicate the self that is fragmented and lost like the culture, history, and natural resources in southwest China. This divided and scattered identity struggles for wholeness in the pilgrimage to Soul Mountain. However, the “I” in One Man’s Bible is implied, refl ecting on “you,” “he,” and the present and the past, thus producing a sense of progression toward an exile identity.

Gao Xingjian / Carlo Chiavacci

The novel develops along two lines. The first one is the current life of “you,” the alter ego of the author, as a Chinese exile and a dramatist and novelist traveling all over the world. The second other is the past life of “he” in China during and shortly after the Cultural Revolution. “He” is created by “you” in his memories and interrogation of the past brought up by a conversation with Margarethe, a German-Jewish woman, at a hotel room in Hong Kong on the eve of that city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. While Margarethe, half Jewish and born in Italy, insists on immersing herself in her personal memories and pains as well as those of the entire Jewish people, the “you” in the novel seeks a clear break with his past and China by forgetting.

Although the past is buried it is never completely forgotten. Gradually it is laid bare, as seen in the different roles “he” plays during the Cultural Revolution. These roles include a victim, the leader of a rebel faction, and an observer withdrawn from the maddening crowd. His opera singer mother drowns as a result of the fatigue from working at a reeducation camp; his bank clerk father tries to commit suicide under political pressure; and “he” himself constantly faces the threat of being persecuted for various reasons, such as his writing and his involvement in a rebel faction. Being the leader of a rebel faction is, in fact, a strategy to protect himself and those people sought by other factions. Gradually coming to understand the frantic reality, “he” tactfully detaches himself and finally volunteers to go to the less tumultuous countryside under the pretext of following Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s call to be reeducated by peasants during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.

While individual thinking and writing is precisely what the Cultural Revolution intended to eradicate in its demand for extreme conformity to Mao’s communist policies, it is the means by which the figure in the novel, “he,” manages his precarious existence. Unlike other entities in existence, which many people are reduced to in the Cultural Revolution, the existence of one’s being, as too frequently asserted by the narrator, can be affirmed by the consciousness of the self and the preservation of an inner voice. This awareness also provides the self with the freedom that can transcend the imposed restrictions. It is this sense of being that explains the title of the book, One Man’s Bible: “you are your own God and follower.” Besides an obvious denial of Mao as once revered as God and his sayings as biblical, the title is also an erection of one’s subjectivity in defiance of any form of ideological liaison or enforcement. In other words, this presents a subjectivity “without ‘isms.’ ”

Together with Soul Mountain, One Man’s Bible is a book of “out of China.” The fleeing that takes the narrator to the remote areas of China in Soul Mountain is now thousands of miles farther. His suffocated life in China is replaced by a life floating over the world, bearing the lightness of living from one hotel room to another and belonging nowhere.

However, the narrator’s belief in freedom as a solitary existence that “takes no account of other and has no need for acceptance by other” leans toward egoism. One expression of this is his objectivization of women, indicated by his constant use of “use” (more prevalent in the Chinese original than the English translation) when referring to sexual intercourse with a woman. A number of female characters—Chinese and Westerners, girls and more mature women—appear in the novel. They seem ready to give themselves away for being “used.” Their existence, to the narrator, lies in the sensuous yet repetitive details of their body and coupling. Even Margarethe presents herself, sometimes masochistically, as a body inviting “use,” and her claim on the Jewish history and suffering seems rather insubstantial other than to serve the purpose of prompting the narrator to recall his past. Although it might be explained by the narrator’s philosophy of the individual’s absolute independence and integrity, these brief encounters read disturbingly in the narrator’s unmistakable male chauvinistic tone.

Some Western critics have pointed out the difficulty in following Gao’s modernist, nonlinear narrative, particularly if the reader is unfamiliar with Chinese culture and history. Unlike many (auto)biographies and novels set during the Cultural Revolution, which are written by Chinese emigrants in English for Western audiences and have won popularity in the West, One Man’s Bible was written in Chinese and translated faithfully into English by Mabel Lee.

More important, Gao is conscious of the present lens through which the past is examined. Unlike what has become known as “the wound literature” (shanghen wenxue), categorically referring to the writings about the Cultural Revolution published in China mainly in the 1980s, Gao’s work, the product of an exile in the West, shows the “freedom of expression and expressive freedom.” Gao’s belief in literature as an individual voice that will fl ee so as not to fall silent leads to what he terms “cold literature”: “literature that will flee in order to survive” and “that refuses to be strangled by society in its quest for spiritual salvation.”

In this sense, One Man’s Bible is not to be read solely as an account and condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, but a close examination of existential dilemma and the human psyche. Ironically, despite Gao’s rejection of the Chinese label and his declaration of being “tired of the debate over literature and politics,” the disputes over his award of the Nobel Prize and the interpretation of his works still point to his country of origin and the inevitable relation between literature and politics.

Analysis of Gao Xingjian’s The Other Shore

Draguet, Michel. Gao Xingjian: le gout de l’encre. Paris: Hazen, 2002. Engdahl, Horace, ed. “Gao Xingjian,” Literature, 1996–2000 (Nobel Lectures: Including Presentation Speeches and Laureates’ Biographies), 133–153. Singapore: World Scientific, 2003.
Kwok-Kan Tam, ed. Soul of Chaos: Critical Perspectives on Gao Xingjian. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001.
Quah, Sy Ren. Gao Xingjian and Transcultural Chinese Theatre. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
Zhao, Yiheng. Towards a Modern Zen Theatre: Gao Xingjian and Chinese Theatre. London: University of London, 2000

Categories: Chinese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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