The making of a Nobel Laureate in Literature
Critiquing and defending the Nobel Prize in Literature

Junie L. Sinson
Contributing Editor
International Scene


he most common critique of the Nobel Prize in Literature is the often-heard refrain that it is “political.” To investigate that charge generally, and particularity as it applies to Gao Xingjian, I have had the benefit of three interviews. The first, as reported, was with Kjell Espmark in 2001. The next was the March 2002 interview with Malmquist, reported above.

Lastly, I had the opportunity to speak to the voice of a contemporary mainland Chinese scholar, Liu Haiping. Professor Liu is Dean of the School of Foreign Studies at Nanjing University. He is Chairman of the Department of English with a concentration in American Literature and Modern Western Theater. Like so many Chinese scholars, he survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which engulfed his country. In 1968, like other scholars, he was sent to a pig farm to perform governmental service. He emerged from that degradation to a course of academic study, which sent him to Harvard and ultimately, in 2002, to both Grinnell College and Nanjing University. From those collective interviews, there evolved a sensitivity to the “Nobel process” and an awareness of Gao Xingjian.

Who was the Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, so suddenly recognized as a major contributor in the world of literature? He was born in 1940 in Taizhou, Jiagxi Province, China. He initially studied art, sketching, and painting, at Nanjing 10th Secondary School. He wished to continue his art studies but was diverted by his family into the study of French at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Language, from which he graduated in 1962.

In 1981, he published First Essay on Techniques of the Modern Novel. In 1982, his play, Alarm Signal, was performed and described as the start of experimental theater in China. His roots in the theater were deep. His mother was an actress and interested in literature.

His plays were performed at the People’s Arts Theater in Peking. They continued to be performed there until 1983, when his publishing and performing were prohibited in China. In 1987, he traveled from China to France. He has continued to live in Paris to this date. In 1998, he was granted French citizenship.

After the publishing and translating of his novel, Soul Mountain, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It would seem interesting to learn the world’s and China’s reaction to the selection of Gao Xingjian. Gäoran Malmquist, in his interview, was asked to describe the reaction of China for naming Gao as China’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature. The response of Gäoran Malmquist:

GM: The response of the China Writer’s Union was that they had 200 writers better than Gao. Our response was “Give us your list. Give us your list.”

JLS: Were there any governmental reactions?

GM: The head of Chinese government was traveling in Tibet when the award was announced. A Chinese journalist asked the leader about his reaction to the naming of Gao for the award. His response was, “I understand he is a Frenchman who writes in Chinese. Chinese is a very good language for literature. In the future, I anticipate a Chinese writer may get the prize.” [The Chinese Foreign Ministry was less tactful, when they tersely described the award to Gao as “political.”]

The mainland Chinese had hoped that the award would have been given to Ba Jin. He was the former president of the Writer’s Union. Gäoran Malmquist stated that, according to Chinese rules and attitudes, the award should have gone to that 91-year-old writer, who had contributed so much to Chinese literature. Ba’s body of work had commenced in the 1930’s. He wrote and published a trilogy. It involved family history and life in Southwestern China. Those novels were individually called Family, Spring, and Autumn.

During the spring of 2002 interview of Liu Haiping in Grinnell, IA, an effort was made to learn the academic response of mainland China to the Gao selection by the Swedish Academy for the year 2000 award. Although Gao was relatively unknown in the west, Professor Liu was familiar with Gao’s writing and had, prior to 2002, taught Gao’s play, Bus Stop, in his courses at Nanjing University.

Professor Liu is a sincere and scholarly academic. It is with reflection and restraint that he described Gao as a “controversial dissident and a student of French literature.” Professor Liu’s sincerity seemed genuine when he described Gao as being “good but not great.” Professor Liu’s objectivity was to some extent compromised when he stated that, although 18 months had passed since Gao received the award, Professor Liu admitted that he still had not read Soul Mountain.

Professor Liu perhaps expressed and revealed his true feeling, and that of his government, when he stated in his interview, “We all know that Gao was a friend of the Swedish Academy and Gäoran Malmquist.” That casual comment reveals much of world attitude involving the Nobel Prize in Literature, where there involves a titanic clash between reality and inductive perception.

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