I Activating Memory as Personal Testimony

The Language of Trauma in Selected Short Stories by Gao Xingjian

Michael Kci-chi Cheuk


In his essay “Author’s Preface to Without Isms" (1995), written approximately 30 years after his witnessing of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), or 12 years after his survival of the Chinese state’s “anti-spiritual pollution campaign” (1983), or eight years after his voluntary exile from mainland China to France (1987), Gao Xingjian proposes an artistic vision of being “without isms” as follows:

To be without isms is not to be without opinions, points of view or thoughts. However, these opinions, points of view and thoughts do not require verification or a conclusion and do not constitute a system, but end as soon as they are voiced and they are voiced even if it is futile to voice them. Nonetheless, unless physically incapable of speech, to be alive in the world one inevitably speaks, therefore without isms is in fact simply speech without outcomes.


Gao’s definition of being “without isms” can be understood in three parts: Firstly, “without isms” is an expression, and should not be mistaken for an ideology or -ism. Secondly, “without isms” does not require expression to be dictated by conclusive outcomes. Expression that is without isms is only for the sake of expression. Thirdly, since the expression of one’s opinions, points of view, or thoughts is an innate desire, expression that is without isms is not a unique or categorical way of expression, it is simply “speech without outcomes.”

The above clarifications on being “without isms” offer important insights into Gao Xingjian as an author, and especially his portrayal of trauma as a result of Chinese politics. In an autocratic society, where every aspect of life is state-con-trolled and therefore politicized, being without isms is easier said than done. In his Nobel Prize-winning, quasi-autobiographical novel One Man’s Bible (1999), Gao reveals how he had burnt all of his notes, manuscripts, diaries, and hand-copied excerpts in order to protect himself from the political persecution of the Cultural Revolution Red Guards in the 1960s. In the same novel, Gao also shares his experience of being sent to the countryside for “re-education” during the latter half of the Cultural Revolution. As part of the 1970s “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” movement, Gao became a farmer at the countryside of Anhui province. There Gao met his former wife, who would later accuse him of being an “anti-revolutionist” after reading his writings. During the 1980s New Era period, Gao had been a frequent target of the state’s attack on “spiritual pollution.” As a playwright of the Beijing People’s Theatre Group, Gao was regularly subjected to public-pressure campaigns and even bans for introducing Western modernist techniques into Chinese modern theatre. As a fiction writer and literary critic, Gao also attracted much political pressure and criticism for subverting the state’s expectations of realism in literature. It is against such a biographical context that Gao’s artistic vision of being “without isms” is best appreciated: “To be without isms is the most rudimentary freedom for today’s individual. Without this modicum of freedom, can a person still be human? Before discussing this or that ideology people must first be allowed to be without isms” (Author’s Preface to Without Isms, 50).

Simply put, Gao Xingjian emphasizes that the precondition of being human, let alone a writer, is the freedom to be without subscription to any collective ideology. In this chapter, I further extend Gao’s view to his portrayal of one of the most devastating man-made disasters in modern history: the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In order to re-establish ruling order and credibility after what was known as the “Ten Years of Chaos,” the Chinese state’s interpretation and resolution of the Cultural Revolution prioritize national political and economic interests ahead of the people’s recover}' from emotional and psychological damage. As such, the official discourse of the Cultural Revolution depends on collectivism. In contrast, Gao’s selected short stories, namely “The Temple” (1983) and “Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather” (1986), establish spaces for individualistic introspections toward the Cultural Revolution trauma. Gao utilizes in these short stories a literary technique which he refers to as the “flow of language.” Such a narrative feature liberates Gao and his readers from the heavily politicized discourse surrounding the Cultural Revolution, and to shift their attention toward the exploration of the scarred subjectivity of Cultural Revolution survivors. Although these stories do not directly respond to the devastating yet ambiguous struggles of the Cultural Revolution, I contend that Gao’s writings offer detached yet substantial insights into the Cultural Revolution.

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