1 / The Existentialist Square: Gao Xingjian’s Taowang
Of the four writers in this book, Gao Xingjian is not only the oldest and the longest established but also the one with the most complicated reception history. Born in 1940, he is the only author here to have grown up in pre-communist China, in an environment where his early interests in Western literature, art, and music were safely encouraged. This childhood knowledge of an alternative sociopolitical reality perhaps made more acute his later experiences during the Cultural Revolution, when he, in a notorious gesture, burned a suitcase full of manuscripts to avoid persecution, and yet could not resist continuing to compose in secret in a reeducation camp for years afterward. Much of this biographical history would be literary lore to only a handful of scholars were it not for the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature. In its landmark one-hundredth anniversary year, the Prize was awarded to Gao, propelling him into international fame. At the same time, it spawned mythologies of his life and work that shed light, above all, on the cultural-political dynamics of the post-1989 world. The millennial Nobel and its attendant cultural politics will therefore serve as my study’s first nodal point for the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora’s global significance. From this discussion of contexts I will tunnel backward, first to Gao’s own essays from the 1990s in which he lays out his aesthetic philosophy, then to his 1989 Tiananmen play Taowang, with its dual portraits of state power and gendered violence. As I will argue through the arc of this chapter, what has been crucially obscured in the post-Nobel discourse on Gao is Tiananmen’s cardinal role in shaping his theories of writerly individualism and existential flight—and this political relation must be retrieved if we are to counteract his conceptual erasure of totalitarianism and a possible world amnesia about the massacre and its implications for human responsibility.
Part I. The Prize and the Polis
In 2001, the French journalist Jean-Luc Douin conducted an interview with Gao Xingjian, the newly crowned 2000 Nobel Laureate in Literature, the transcription of which was then published in Label France, a news magazine distributed officially by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The preface to this interview, after naming Gao as the first Chinese writer to be awarded the Literature Prize, goes on to introduce him thus: “A victim of the Cultural Revolution in China, this dissident of the Tiananmen generation, a political refugee in France since 1988, became a naturalized French citizen in 1998” (Gao, “Literature”). Conspicuously, this biographical blurb constructs Gao’s writerly persona from a primarily political perspective, and the signposts it establishes prepare the reader for an excursion into, not one writer’s aesthetics, but one citizen’s complex struggles with national politics. This deft interweaving of personal and national history divides Gao’s life into three phases: first, that of “victim,” implying involuntary subjection to and unjust suffering at the hands of state power; then, that of “dissident,” indicating active resistance to a tyrannical government; and finally, that of “refugee,” signaling failed resistance and forced flight from the homeland.
That Gao, like thousands of others, in fact fell victim to events of the Cultural Revolution is not to be denied. His second novel, One Man’s Bible, a semi-autobiographical account of his Cultural Revolution experiences, amply testifies to this. What is debatable, though, is the description of him as a “dissident of the Tiananmen generation.” The implication of this phrase is ambiguous on several counts. For one, Tiananmen has symbolically spawned multiple generations in twentieth-century Chinese history, from the May Fourth movement of 1919 and the lesser-known March Eighteenth Incident of 1926 to the April Fifth movement of 1976 and, most recently, the pro-democracy movement of 1989. The historical referent here is most likely the last. Yet Gao, who was already forty-nine years old by that time, can be considered “of this generation” only if one expands the category to include not solely the student protesters at Tiananmen Square but any participant in one of the numerous demonstrations around China that spring, whether in Beijing or elsewhere. Along this expanded interpretation, we can also note that the biography withholds two significant points: first, that Gao’s final departure from the PRC in 1987 predates the 1989 Tiananmen protests by almost two years, and second, that this departure was precipitated not by any immediate danger to his person but by an invitation from the Morat Institute for him to lecture in Germany, whence he went on to settle in France (Yip 320). Although Gao had indeed been the target of several publication and performance bans inside China up until this point, most notably during the 1983 anti–spiritual pollution campaign (Yan xvi–xviii), his decision to leave the country was entirely voluntary, made out of consideration for the future of his writings. The by now widely publicized detail that he was declared a persona non grata by the PRC government did not occur until more than a year after his relocation to Paris. Opposed to this actual chronology, the interview profile misleadingly reconstructs a much more engagé narrative. By inverting the sequence of the politically charged signifiers “Tiananmen” and “refugee,” it imparts the impression of Gao fleeing China in the wake of the massacre as a result of personal involvement with the democracy movement.
I begin with this scrutiny of a rather minor cultural document not to quibble with the news media, and not simply for the sake of historical accuracy. What requires investigation here is the larger issue of an international cultural politics that goes into the manufacturing of Gao’s literary identity via his political one. In particular, we encounter in this episode of fame-making a process by which the identity marker “dissident” comes to intimate concrete ideological content, namely, that of pro-democracy activism. The problem is twofold. First, the word “dissident,” when used by the West in reference to PRC contexts, has become a label ascribed very loosely to anyone from the mainland with some misgivings about the communist regime, regardless of his or her degree of political involvement or the substance of his or her arguments. The implicit assumption is that mere disagreement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) line constitutes sufficient criterion for dissident status, and the stripe of dissidence in individual cases is oftentimes not specified or taken to need specification. This discursive vagueness has two further repercussions. On the one hand, it promotes a reductive and binary image of the Chinese population as comprising either complacent communists or dissatisfied dissidents. On the other, it conflates the actual views and conduct of a diverse group of people, facilitating a conceptual slide whereby the range and compass of political dissent is contracted into a distinctly liberal-friendly brand of anticommunist, pro-democracy activism. In this framework, dissidence is typically followed by failed resistance and culminates in flight and exile. This narrative arc affirms at once the heroic efforts of the dissident (who tries but fails against overwhelming odds), the despotism of the communist state (which shows itself incapable once again of addressing grievances from within), and the benevolence of the West (which demonstrates its moral and political superiority by welcoming the forlorn exiles with open arms). The motif of distress-and-rescue no longer surreptitiously brackets but actively misattributes political positions to many on the dissent spectrum, effectively effacing difference in the name of dissidence.
Such, however, is also the most common narrative told of Gao Xingjian by the Western media. Indeed, in the past decade, Gao has come to fulfill the myth of heroic dissidence for the world like no other Chinese intellectual (until the emergence of Liu Xiaobo in 2010, as I will discuss in the next chapter), despite his own repeated rejection of the dissident label. The casting of Gao as écrivain engagé, so innocuously embedded into one interview’s preface, is actually symptomatic of a much wider trend in international reportage on him. Especially on the heels of the Nobel announcement in October 2000—the press release of which reverentially described Gao’s work as the site where “literature is born anew from the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses” (Swedish)—Western journalists, duly taking their cue, overnight turned him into a cultural celebrity and global icon. Their language was strikingly dominated by terms of dissidence and exile, and they invariably played up dramatic accounts of his trials, tribulations, and ultimate endurance within communist China.1 By March 2001, the BBC would outright pronounce him “one of China’s best known dissidents” (Chen L.). Tellingly, these news reports never said of Gao that he was a member of China’s democracy movement or that he personally took part in the 1989 Beijing protests. They signified not by explicit misinformation but by tacit insinuation and selective reportage or nonreportage. The interpretive possibilities they created, both individually and collectively, oscillated between a valorization of dissidence in general and a more distinct suggestion of Gao’s politics as kindred to Western liberal ideals.
This ideologically freighted reception may point to the dual political classifications of “dissidence” and “exile” as the primary cultural capital by which Gao captured his newfound international fame. Indeed, this was the very charge advanced by the PRC government—that politics, not art, was the main impetus behind the Nobel committee’s decision. After the Nobel announcement, CCP officials were quick to denounce the Prize as politically motivated, and a leading spokesperson from the Chinese Writers’ Association was prompted to give a public statement condemning the award as an illegitimate tool being used for political purposes (“Zhongguozuo”). The People’s Daily, the official state newspaper, also ran a special report entitled “Nobel Literature Prize is Not Without Political Flavor.” Overturning the Swedish Academy’s praise of Gao for his “oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights, and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama,” the article asserted instead that, purely on artistic grounds, “there are many contemporary Chinese writers whose literary achievements far surpass Gao Xingjian’s,” and that “were Gao Xingjian not anti-PRC but a supporter of the communist party, his chances for winning would be equal to nil” (“Xianggang”).
The case of Gao and his 2000 Nobel thus presents a significant moment of ideological confrontation between the PRC and the West in the post-Tiananmen period. More than this, it highlights the emerging pivotal place of the Chinese diaspora writer in the new millennium’s global cultural politics. It is indeed not by accident, or aesthetic considerations alone, that Gao became the first Chinese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the post–June 4 world, as Chinese diaspora literature itself becomes a key site of competing international claims, whether in the form of accolades and awards or denunciation and censure, Chinese diaspora writers, particularly those who emigrated around 1989, are often caught in the political fray between the PRC and the liberal West. Within this milieu, the extent to which a writer is able to determine his or her own identity becomes a complicated matter.
As Gregory Lee argues in his essay on the poet Duo Duo—who did, in fact, flee the PRC on the day after the massacre and was subsequently thrown, if much more briefly, into the international limelight—the central predicament facing Chinese exilic writers today is one of identity formation. The question, according to Lee, is not so much whether these writers can write what they want, but whether they are able to define their own literary identity: “Certainly, the alternative to such cultural producers defining and determining their own identity will be having their identity determined by the Western Modernist establishment, concerned with commodification and packaging of the writer/artist, and the whole commercial circus that surrounds literary activity which reaches its whirligig crescendo when sanctioned, and sanitized, by the Nobel Prize for Literature” (“Contemporary” 61). Lee’s argument, made in reference to Duo Duo several years before the 2000 Nobel, seems in retrospect to be even more germane to the post-Prize Gao. Certainly, the latter’s sudden and dramatic catapult into worldwide fame lends credence to Lee’s trenchant critique of the Western commodification of Chinese exilic literature. For Gao as for Duo Duo, “isolation and alienation were at the root of his impulse to write, but suddenly for a brief media moment, what his poetry said . . . did not as such matter.” Gao’s work, too, became “but a commodity, a sign of dissidence that the Western media could neatly, tidily read alongside Soviet and East European dissidents/dissidence.” As Lee acerbically concludes: “In China it was the Chinese Communist Party and its organs of literary control which suffocated literary creativity. In the West it is the commercial exploitation, and the tunnel-visioned greed, and need, of the culture industry that attempts to consume [the Chinese exilic writer] and his production” (71–72).
While Lee provides a useful way of reading the Western capitalist co-optation of Chinese diaspora writers, there are two important differences between Duo Duo and Gao. First, unlike the former, Gao was not actually involved in—and did not even approve of, as we will see—any political activity in the PRC, so his “dissidence” was not simply packaged into a commodity but wholly fabricated by an external discourse. Second, unlike the exilic poet, who on Lee’s description was “devoured by a brief orgy of a rapacious consumption” but then tragically abandoned after media interest in Tiananmen waned (70), Gao’s reputation shows every sign of having thrived on the media invention of his politics. Before the Nobel, his published writing outside of the Sinophone and Francophone world was relatively scarce. Certainly, many of his works had been translated into French, and he himself had begun writing in his adopted language, mostly by translating his own Chinese plays. In English, on the other hand, most of his works were available only in scattered form, embedded in scholarly anthologies on post-Mao theater or in specialized academic journals, not as independent volumes circulating on the commercial mass market or even academic ones.2 And although his first novel, the epic semi-autobiographical Soul Mountain (Lingshan), had been translated into Swedish and French in the 1990s, its English translator had trouble finding a publisher for it, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, procuring a contract for the book’s rights only in Australia and New Zealand (M. Lee, “Of Writers” 5–6). Since the Nobel, however, English-language publications of and on Gao have proceeded at a furious pace, and almost every year sees the appearance of a new book-length translation, retranslation, collection, or critical study of his work.3 Furthermore, post-Nobel, he has been inducted into various literary canons, via college textbooks as much as scholarly publications and academic conferences. Aside from his popular role as the exemplary dissident writer, Gao has emerged in the past decade as a paragon of “world literature,” “transnational literature,” and “global Chinese literature.”4 His name now lies at the hub of intersecting discourses of tradition and modernity, cosmopolitanism and Chineseness, globalization and transculturalism.
This explosion of critical interest in Gao’s oeuvre is understandable in light of the Prize, but the ensuing scholarly discourse on him is not entirely immune to hagiography and can at times replicate the ideological slant of the mainstream media. In particular, a prominent strand of scholarship has tended to bolster rather than debunk the heroic mythologies surrounding the Nobel laureate. For instance, the premier English translator of Gao’s fiction and essays, University of Sydney professor Mabel Lee, has been instrumental in introducing his nondramatic work to Anglophone audiences. At the same time, although she would be the first to point out Gao’s repeated and vehement objections to any kind of political branding, her evaluations of his writing often reinforce an image of him as valiant dissident. In one typical passage, for example, she writes:
As a creative writer, Gao Xingjian sees only one option, to abscond. Against power politics, public opinion, ethical preachings, the benefit of the party and the collective, in order to preserve personal worth, personal integrity, and intellectual independence, i.e. freedom, the individual has no option but to flee. It is only by fleeing that one can preserve one’s self integrity and autonomy. The alternative is either to rot in gaol, to be crushed by the criticism of the masses, to drown and be swept along by the flow of traditional practice, or to be tortured to the end of one’s days by empty glory, oblivious to what the self is all about. (“Walking” 108)
In rather alarming language, Lee depicts existence in the PRC as so many forms of death—death by rotting, crushing, drowning, and continual torture, with none-too-subtle accents of Caesar’s cowards. Against such a horrific backdrop, the alternative of individual flight to “freedom” cannot but be cast in exultant terms. This nesting of Gao’s life within the moral configuration of an either/or—either cowardly submission to or courageous escape from oppression—bespeaks a deeply dichotomous worldview of Chinese tyranny versus Western emancipation, the very triumphalist framework that undergirded Western media reportage on the Nobel.5 Nor is Lee unique in this scholarly apotheosis of Gao. Another critic who contributes to it is Kwok-kan Tam, the editor of a scholarly anthology on Gao’s work. For Tam, Gao represents the paradigmatic “transcultural” writer of our time, “a globalized/dislocated cultural identity that poses a challenge to people who still cling to the idea of national identity at the end of the twentieth century” (Preface vii). Examining the “politics of recognition” behind the Prize, he acknowledges that politics entered into the Nobel committee’s decision, but he interprets the episode as simply the international community’s attempt to “challenge China’s non-recognition of Gao . . . which hits hard on the complex of Chinese nationalism,” when Gao’s “achievements have long been recognized by scholars, literary critics, and theatre professionals” elsewhere (“Introduction” 4, 15). The implication here is that Gao, an accomplished and daring writer, can be granted the recognition he deserves only by enlightened institutions outside the PRC. The issue of Gao’s own political views, or of how the international community “recognizes” him only by misrecognizing and fabricating his political identity, is left largely untouched. As Gregory Lee and Noel Dutrait shrewdly note in this regard, Gao’s posture toward his Nobel is itself not apolitical: “After all, was Gao’s acceptance of the award not just as political an act as Jean-Paul Sartre’s refusing it?” (748).
Ironically, as numerous scholars look to Gao for models of postnational, transcultural, or cosmopolitan identity, other cultural authorities have focused instead on his “Chineseness”—a term that operates simultaneously on ethnic, cultural, and national registers, and that comes to be commodified no less than his “dissidence.” Without exception, Western media coverage on the Nobel foregrounded Gao’s ethnic identity and national origin, marking him as a “Chinese novelist and playwright,” a “Chinese dissident,” a “Chinese exile,” a “Chinese-born writer,” and so forth. Again, the media might have been taking their cue from the Nobel Committee itself, which, despite its description of Gao’s work as “universal,” never failed to emphasize his Chineseness. As Julia Lovell points out, the Swedish Academy’s 2000 Nobel press release curiously ignored most of Gao’s drama, his most obviously existentialist and “universal” work, and concentrated instead on his two semi-autobiographical novels set largely in China and his one atypically “political” play on the Tiananmen massacre. Lovell hence wryly comments: “Is it perhaps the case that, despite the Swedish Academy’s progressive and multicultural welcoming of Gao, as the first Chinese-born winner of the Nobel Prize, into the global fold of universal literary modernity, the Academy has dressed up the traditionalist Western view of Chinese literature as ‘obsession with China’ with praise of his ‘universal validity’ (a plaudit that is, arguably, far more obviously applicable to his drama)? Do Gao’s novels depict an acceptably dissident Chinese ‘imagined community’ that the judges of world literature perhaps find absent in his drama?” (“Gao” 20). She answers these questions in the affirmative, concluding that the Swedish Academy fundamentally maintained an “age-old link between Chinese literature and (one version of) obsession with China, and the two-tier treatment of Western and non-Western literatures in world literature” (26).
Significantly, this ethnic-national reification of Gao by the Western establishment occurred at precisely the same time when voices within the PRC were vigorously repudiating his Chineseness. In stark contrast to the Sinicizing language of the West, a report issued by the official news agency Xinhua pointedly identified Gao as a “Chinese-French” writer. The report underscored the incidentalness of Gao’s Chinese birth and the deliberateness of his national abdication by stressing that he was born in China but “went abroad in 1987 and became a French national afterwards” (“Nobel”). The message was clear: in the eyes of the communist authorities, Gao was no longer Chinese, was perhaps never authentically Chinese in the first place. This cultural repudiation of Gao is not limited to the government. As Lovell elaborates, even mainland writers and intellectuals who approve of Gao’s Nobel have faltered over his Chineseness, identifying him not as one of their own but as a “Chinese writer in inverted commas,” “foreign literature worker,” or “French writer.” The more disgruntled among them complain about Gao’s sophomoric Chinese, noting that the language in his post-exile novel is “that of a high school student . . . washed and simplified by French,” or else they bemoan his literary deficiencies, frustrated at the world for thinking “he represents China” when “he’s not good enough” as a writer tout court (qtd. in Lovell, “Gao” 28, 34, 30).6 Of importance here is not the accuracy of these intellectuals’ criticisms of Gao but the fact that so many of them express their reactions to his Nobel by appraising his Chineseness—and by performing their own ability to validate, discredit, or exceed it.
With keen prescience, Jo Riley and Michael Gissenwehrer already recognized Gao’s susceptibility to being mythologized a decade before the 2000 Nobel. They distinguished “two kinds of myth” around Gao in the late 1980s: on the one hand, in China as much as the West, among academics and theater professionals, he was said to be the “most avant-garde, creative and stimulating playwright” of Chinese theater; on the other, among some European commentators, he was seen as a playwright working squarely within the modern European dramatic lineage of Ibsen, Beckett, Artaud, and Grotowski (111). The modernity versus tradition binary was thus already in place. Yet, the Nobel Prize and the subsequent media war over Gao’s identity have substantially transformed this pair of myths. In its stead, a newer and much more overtly political phenomenon of the two Gaos has been inaugurated. On one side, there is the Gao Xingjian constructed by official PRC forums, at best a deviant and hyphenated Chinese whose work is not only mediocre but insufficiently authentic because adulterated by Western influences. On the other, there is the Gao Xingjian fashioned by the international media and literary establishment, lionized as a dissident and exilic Chinese writer who has valiantly synthesized Eastern and Western artistic traditions despite tremendous political pressures. Remarkably, then, in the very instant when Gao’s Chineseness is repudiated within his original context of writing—and partly by the language in which he still writes—it receives insistent reaffirmation and reauthentication by translating cultural authorities almost everywhere else, even as these incorporate him into a larger discourse of globalism and commodify him as a latter-day citizen of the world.
Remarkable, too, are the multiple assumptions about identity and difference that underpin these two seemingly polarized discourses. While the PRC authorities, out of ideological interest, adopt a model of identity that is teasingly deconstructive, in which Chineseness can be dispersed along a gradient (with Gao measuring a deficit), the international media remain within the bounds of essentialism as they cling tenaciously to Gao’s unshakable Chineseness of being. This contest over identity, though, belies the not so diametrically opposed invocations of “difference” on both sides. Where the PRC expels Gao from its ranks by an appeal to his difference, under the sign of political and cultural deviation, the West embraces him by a comparable appeal to his difference, but redefined under the sign of ethnic and cultural otherness. In this latter process of inclusion through continual exclusion, the West welcomes Gao into its fold only to expel him once again by constantly recalling his foreign origins. Ultimately, the institutional structures determining the horizon of Gao’s identity reflect the shifting cultural politics of a post-Tiananmen world. Academic attempts to resituate him as a transnational or postnational subject have yet to fully account for the commodifying, exoticizing, and misidentifying forces within the very mechanisms producing his “global” identity.
INDIVIDUALISM AND NONCOMMITMENT
In the case of Gao Xingjian and his Nobel Prize, then, we find Gregory Lee’s anxiety over the Chinese diaspora writer’s identity formation played out in a most spectacular way. Gao himself, writing several years before his award, likewise deplores the dehumanizing effects of consumerist culture: “The objectification or commodification of people is precisely the end of human beings. If a person cannot say no to objects and preserve a bit of pride, can he or she still be considered human?” (Zixu 7).7 And yet, this very commodity culture in the West has provided the means for Gao to gain and secure not just recognition but also a continued artistic career—and by extension, it has afforded readers and critics greater opportunity to delve into his oeuvre, as more and more of his writings become available in print and in translation. So, despite Lee’s despairing diagnosis of Duo Duo, Gao presents a somewhat different scenario of the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora, one in which the writer acquires considerable and long-term agency to define, refine, and revise his own identity in light of external discourses. Indeed, Gao is a prolific essayist, especially in the decade before his Nobel, when he regularly wrote about his own creative work and aesthetic philosophy at large. This rich corpus will be instrumental in bridging the previous discussion of global cultural politics with my next section’s targeted analysis of Gao’s Tiananmen play. In particular, I will focus here on his theories of writerly individualism and political noncommitment.
Of Gao’s many essays, about two dozen have been collected in the signature volume Meiyou zhuyi (Without isms) (1996). Here, Gao articulates a position that consistently resists two things: first, the ossification of thought and writing into dogma, or what he calls an “ism” (zhuyi); and second, the intrusion of societal will or collective politics into the realm of literature. From this, he charts a wider theory of meiyou zhuyi, variously translated as “without isms,” “none-ism,” and “no-ism”—in thought, the negation of any kind of dogma, and in literature, the lack of belonging to or belief in any one school of writing. It is with such a bid for artistic autonomy, for example, that he begins the original title piece, “Without Isms,” often read as his literary manifesto: “Realism, romanticism, modernism and isms with labels such as new or old, critical or revolutionary, social or national or classist were applied to literature, and this heavy burden made it hard for China’s fledgling modern literature to breathe” (64).8 It will be highly instructive to track Gao’s conceptual moves in this essay. As we can see, his opening statements have very specific referents. He initially stakes his thesis about “isms” not as an abstract universal principle but in relation to the history of twentieth-century China, via a contemporary debate about Western imports into Chinese literature. Before he ever explicates his personal aesthetic, all the signposts he invokes are grounded in modern Chinese contexts. Along this vein, he goes on to offer a brief account of his personal experience with political branding in the 1980s, when his works were successively labeled “modernist,” “absurdist,” and “reactionary.” This autobiographical sketch, too, is made meaningful through key references to figures in the post-Mao period such as Wang Meng and Hu Yaobang. From here, he stages a larger claim about modern Chinese literature: “The disaster for Chinese literature is that there must always be judgments to enable the formulation of policies, directions, guidelines, principles, patterns and models, and to determine what is right or wrong, mainstream or non-mainstream. By failing to conform, one is consigned to the ranks of those to be criticized, banned, exterminated, purged, killed or destroyed” (65–66). And a bit later, with more specific temporal markers:
My experience of mass movements and mass tastes has taught me that these, like the so-called self, need not be worshipped and certainly cannot be superstitiously believed in. . . . However, when this social aspect is narrowly confined within the parameters of political function or ethical rules, and literature is turned into political propaganda and moral teachings, or even into an instrument of war for political factions, it is a terrible misfortune for literature. China’s literature has not completely freed itself from this. Modern Chinese literature was worn out by political struggles lasting from the end of the previous century to the end of this century. (67)
Thus far, Gao has cast himself squarely within the bounds of national history, as a subject embedded in and heir to national events, and a writer responding to specific national historical crises. Against such an explicitly historicizing frame, however, he culminates his essay by outlining a theory of literature in the most ahistorical of terms:
Literature is essentially an affair for the individual. It can be treated as an individual’s profession, but it can also simply express his feelings and dispel his emotions, or it can feign madness so that he can say whatever he wants to gratify his own ego, and of course it can also intervene in current politics. What is important is that it is not forced upon others, and naturally it will not tolerate having restrictions imposed upon itself either, whether it be for the sake of the nation or the party, the race or the people. Endowing the will of these abstract collectives with authority can only strangle literature.
For a frail individual, a writer, to confront society alone and utter words in his own voice is, in my view, the essential character of literature, which has changed little from ancient times to the present, whether it be in China or abroad, in the East or in the West. (67)
What is noteworthy, and exemplary, in the above passages is Gao’s conceptual movement from the specific to the universal, and from history to metaphysics. This movement defines the larger organizational structure of his argument. He starts with context-specific claims about twentieth-century Chinese literature but then leaps to universal, context-independent claims about literature in general—“from ancient times to the present, whether it be in China or abroad, in the East or in the West.” In one conceptual step, all qualifiers of time and place, history and geography, disappear, and only the sign of “literature,” now devoid of context, remains. In his defense of artistic autonomy from the encroachment of political agendas and moral dogmas, Gao seems to use his own experiences and China’s national history as supreme evidence. His argument thus adopts a logic of exemplarity: although literature’s tragic fate at the hands of coercive politics has been epitomized in the country of his birth, this antagonistic relationship between literature and politics, for him, is nonetheless not unique to twentieth-century China. On the contrary, it is an essential, ontological conflict.
Tellingly, in this passage as in many of his essays, the most frequently deployed term is geren—the individual. Literature, as a property of the individual, is an index of each human being’s existential confrontation with society and politics. Gao’s recourse to the individual is so fundamental, so total, that we can call it a philosophy of individualism. Of course, he takes pains to eschew this term, since it, too, is an “ism.” In his preface to the collection, he attempts to differentiate his theory of meiyou zhuyi from the idea of gerenzhuyi (individualism), stating that “without isms is not the same as isms that take the individual as its axis or philosophies that have this as their beginning point.” Unlike individualism, without isms presumably “does not take the individual’s judgments as its sole coordinate, since every individual is an other to other people, and an individual’s experiences and judgments can only have relative meaning, not absolute value” (Zixu 3–4). His objection to individualism has less to do with its definition of the individual than its alleged epistemological classification of the individual as the transcendental basis of “absolute value” or knowledge. His own invocations of the individual, he maintains, are temporary and contingent. Still, he himself constantly attributes to the individual all the functions it would possess within a formal theory of individualism, such as its role as the “starting point” of experience and judgment, the “validating source” of “value and behavior,” and even the ground of ethical “choice” and “human nature” (2–4). He may proclaim his refusal of teleological “conclusions” (jielun) and “ends” (jieguo) as well as any system of epistemological “verification” (lunzheng) along both a priori and a posteriori lines (xianyan), but his essays time and again take the individual as an axiomatic principle for all matters social and secular. He may hence be read as formulating a theory not of transcendental but of sociopolitical individualism.
In fact, beneath the universalist and existentialist veneer of Gao’s theory, we can discern preoccupations of a distinctly communist Chinese stripe, which lend his defense of artistic autonomy greater urgency than it would otherwise receive in more capitalist or postmodern contexts. In particular, we detect a continuing anxiety over the issue of nalaizhuyi—“bring-it-in-ism” or “borrowism”9—an anxiety about artistic license over cultural imports and the limits of the properly or rightfully usable. Without doubt, this issue has been one of perennial concern for mainland writers from the Cultural Revolution onward. Gao enters this debate, not via a theory of cultural nativism or one of modernist hybridity, but with a catholic appeal to the individual writer as the ultimate justification for all cultural usage. We can perceive a parallel here between individualism and nativism, for both are attempts to provide a rationale for cultural handling. Where nativism sanctions the use of all things native by the native, individualism permits the use of all things human by the individual. The former postulates a collective nativity as the supreme source of legitimation for cultural appropriation, while the latter calls upon the singular unit of the individual for the same purpose. One justifies cultural use by appeal to an ownership bequeathed by national birth and cultural belonging, the other to an ownership bequeathed by species identity and creative originality. This last capacity is paramount for Gao, who insists on the transformative power of the writer to turn other people’s cultural possessions into his or her own: “Some isms inevitably will be imported, but once writers transform these into things of their own, the original isms will have been considerably distorted” (“Without” 64). The figure of the individual, then, serves to enlarge the compass of the properly usable to its maximal limits for the writer. Like a protective ancestral spirit, it dispels every anxiety, every potential criticism of cultural appropriation.
Such a generous dose of license granted the individualist writer is not without its share of problematic assumptions and implications. First, we note the binarism in Gao’s deployment of the term “ism.” Early in “Without Isms,” he posits: “Literary creation has always amounted to the surging of blood in the writer’s own heart, and has nothing to do with any ism. If a work sets out to expound some ism it will certainly die prematurely” (65). This passage is symptomatic of Gao’s overarching thesis on literature. On his formulation, literature either “expounds” doctrine or else “has nothing to do with” it. This either/or logic fails to differentiate between terms of indoctrination and terms of thought or analysis. Nowhere in the corpus of his essays do we find a discussion of literature benefiting from pre-ossified thinking, via a reflective adoption of the components of an “ism”—i.e., ideas, concepts, analytic terms—prior to their rigidification into doctrine. The potentially complex and dialectical relationship between writing and thinking, whereby the two mutually influence and deepen at the same time they probe and critique each other, is flattened into a simple antagonism. Indeed, there is a sense that, in Gao’s extreme wariness toward doctrinairism, ideas are always already ossified, always already imperatives, so that even their first moment of contemplation requires suspicion. As soon as a term is taken up, it must be held at a distance, doubted, disowned. Hence his remark that he has “only doubts, and even doubt[s] all notions of value” (76).
Gao denies being a philosophical skeptic, stating that he does not “turn doubt into an ism or treat it as an absolute.” In this regard, the individual stands as his axiomatic alibi once more, in that “value judgments and ethical standards arise from the individual’s personal experiences and not other people’s proof” (Zixu 2). To further distance himself from postmodernism, Gao takes an unexpected turn toward what he calls “the real world” (zhenshi shijie): “For the past twenty years Western literature has been undergoing a crisis because it has become lost in linguistic form. Literature loses its life if nonstop changes in form result in a loss of connection with the real world. I attach importance to form, but I attach more importance to reality. This is not limited to external reality, but exists even more vividly in the perceptions of humans living within that external reality.” He is quite deliberate in criticizing Western literature’s tendency to focus on language play, and this trend, he contends, has put contemporary literature “within its own demon walls,” from which it must return to “the real world” if it is to be revivified (“Without” 71). By opposing language to “life” (shengming) and “reality” (zhenshi), Gao seems to invoke a structuralist distinction between sign and referent, signifying systems and the objective world, and his gesture toward Nietzsche’s notion of the prison-house of language further summons up contemporary theoretical debates about formalism’s social and political limits. He may therefore be read as critiquing Saussurian attempts to understand language through a complete bracketing of the social world. Surprisingly, in this contest between formalist and sociological literature, he takes the side of the latter. What’s more, contrary to both mainland Chinese and Western perceptions of him as the radical avant-garde writer, he is actually rather conservative in his views toward both linguistic experimentation and cultural appropriation for Sinophone literature. This conservatism is already hinted at in his brief comment on Lu Xun at the outset of “Without Isms,” when he calls Lu Xun’s mode of borrowism “somewhat excessive” (64). More explicitly later in the essay, he laments that, given the history of Western imports into the Chinese language since the May Fourth period, the “Europeanisation of the Chinese language is so rampant that at times it is unreadable.” He continues: “I do not totally oppose the use of Western languages to enrich modern Chinese; I am talking about respecting the language. I try to accord with the linguistic structures that have always existed in the language and not write Chinese that is unintelligible when read aloud. Even when playing with the language to convey content that cannot be expressed in normal sentence structures, I demand of myself that it be pure modern Chinese” (69–70). Mabel Lee’s English translation of this passage is perhaps slightly stronger than what Gao’s original would suggest, but it effectively captures the duality he erects between an authentic and a hybridized Chinese. Against the foreignizing forces that leave the Chinese language garbled and mangled, Gao expresses a preference for more traditional syntax, or sentence structures “intrinsic” (guyou) to Chinese, which is also for him a “genuine” or “pure” (chunzheng) modern Chinese. Exactly how Chinese can be “enriched” rather than corrupted by European linguistic influences is not clear. More importantly, what he fails to address here is the social dimension of language and syntax—a consideration at the heart of the May Fourth movement’s egalitarian efforts to revolutionize Chinese from a classical, syntactically dense, and sociopolitically elitist language (wenyan wen) into one of greater vernacular simplicity and accessibility (baihua wen). In Gao’s aesthetic philosophy, though, language and literature remain ever aloof from the concrete sociopolitical power relations of “the real world.”
This tension between literature and reality corresponds to an analogous one between the social and the real. Despite his endorsement of a literature grounded in “the real world,” this reality is never given determinant content. No sooner is “reality” conjured than it vanishes again into the private realm of the individual’s “lived experience.” And once the figure of the individual appears, it is inevitably pitted against the collective, and every conceptual venture into the social ends in refusal. Gao’s essays waver between these two poles of a solipsistic self and a nebulous reality. We might say his is a kind of subjectivism rocked by socialist anxieties, an individualism compelled to uphold some social unit as a point of orientation. Gilbert Fong makes a similar point and notes that Gao’s ambivalent “love-hate attitude” toward society, “his reluctance to totally cut himself off from humanitarianism in an effort to save the human soul,” is “characteristic of the modern Chinese intellectual who rebels against his own Chineseness and yet rejects a Western individualism which pays no heed to society” (xvi–xvii). Ultimately, though, Gao returns to a theory of literature as pure expression, devoid of responsibility to anything beyond the individual writer. In his ideal scenario, a “writer who is devoted to writing and has responsibility only for his own written language will strive to absorb and reproduce in his own creations all that interests him in the cultures of humankind, from ancient times to the present” (73). He himself is exemplary, as he admits with a mix of unabashed egotism and fatalistic humility: “It is for myself, not to please others, that I write. And I do not write to change the world or other people, because I cannot even manage to change myself” (76). In the preface, he enunciates this fatalism more forcefully in relation to society: “Without isms does not dream of any imaginary society or social ideal. Besides, reality has broken every one of this kind of utopias, so there is no need to invent yet another lie about tomorrow” (Zixu 4). On a macro view, we can understand these tensions and contradictions in Gao’s essays as symptoms of his diasporic position. The very terms and movement of his thought show him to be caught between the PRC’s and the West’s competing political discourses, between the ideological rhetoric of communism and liberalism, socialism and capitalism. Gao himself seems to believe this in-between role to be simply one of individual choice. As he avows in the concluding paragraph of “Without Isms”: “As a writer I strive to position myself between the East and the West, and as an individual I seek to live at the margins of society” (77). Yet, given his severance of literature from politics, this avowal can at most signify on an aesthetic level, whereas his condition of in-betweenness is just as fundamentally ideological, saturating the language he wields and the languages in which he is caught up.
Gao’s declaration of self-imposed marginality may bear a certain resemblance to Edward Said’s thesis on the modern intellectual—a willful exile who prefers to “remain outside the mainstream, unaccommodated, uncoopted, resistant . . . tending to avoid and even dislike the trappings of accommodation and national well-being” (Representations 52–53). Gao, as a voluntary exile from the country of his birth, fits the bill. His theory of without isms and his wide-reaching skepticism also accord well with Said’s ideal of the intellectual—as someone whose mission it is “to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them)” (11), to be “involved in a lifelong dispute with all the guardians of sacred vision and text” (89), and “to keep a space in the mind open for doubt and for the part of an alert, skeptical irony” (120). Beneath these superficial similarities, however, Gao differs from Said in one vital aspect: the public function of the intellectual. This is an uncompromising point for Said, for whom the intellectual must have “a specific public role in society.” Said’s intellectual is “an individual” too, but one “endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public” (11). For Said, the modern intellectual’s primary task is “to speak truth to power.” This task is a “special duty” (98) and a unique “obligation,” not a matter of personal inclination. And it pertains to not just the intellectual’s own culture and people but humankind: “To this terribly important task of representing the collective suffering of your own people . . . there must be added something else, which only an intellectual, I believe, has the obligation to fulfill. . . . For the intellectual the task, I believe, is explicitly to universalize the crisis, to give greater human scope to whatever a particular race or nation suffered, to associate that experience with the sufferings of others” (44). Insofar as a redress of these sufferings entails an engagement with “constituted and authorized powers,” Said defines a properly political responsibility of the intellectual toward global realities, with the implicit ideal-end of a universal human polity where divisions of race and nation recede into the backdrop.
It is precisely this principle of an obligatory responsibility on the part of the individual to the collective—first of one’s own nation and race, then of the global polis—that Gao negates. Not that literature should always refrain from touching on politics; on this score, Gao concedes that political intervention is one possible pursuit of literature. As he emphasizes, “Without isms is not politics and does not follow politics, but it does not oppose others from participating in politics.” Yet one of Gao’s most basic premises is the severance of any necessary relation between the individual and a polity of any scale. This relation exists only contingently for him, as a matter of personal choice rather than the writer’s vocational duty. In marked contrast to Said, he rejects “abstract collective names such as ‘the people,’ ‘the race,’ or ‘the nation,’” which for him can only weigh on the individual as a “forceful imposition” (Zixu 4). Gao will go on to reiterate these sentiments in his Nobel Lecture. This piece is worth quoting at length, for ironically, in this moment when his voice gains the widest international audience under clearly political circumstances, he insists all the more vigorously on the apoliticalness, powerlessness, and “frailty” of the writer:
A writer is a normal person—though perhaps a person who is more sensitive than normal, and people who are highly sensitive are often more frail. A writer does not speak as the spokesperson of the people or as the embodiment of righteousness. His voice is inevitably weak, but it is this weak voice that is the most authentic.
What I want to say here is that literature can only be the voice of an individual, and that this has always been so. Once literature is contrived as the hymn of a nation, the flag of a race, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a class or a group, it can be employed as a mighty and all-engulfing tool of propaganda. Such literature loses what is inherent in literature, ceases to be literature, and becomes a substitute for power and profit. . . .
In order that literature safeguard the reason for its own existence and not become the tool of politics, it must return to the voice of the individual, for literature is primarily derived from the feelings of the individual: one has feelings and articulates them. (“Case” 32–33)
We repeatedly encounter these themes in Gao’s other essays. For instance, in “I Advocate a Cold Literature”: “Originally, literature has no relation to politics. It is purely a matter for the individual, a kind of observation, a looking back on experiences, a bit of speculation and feeling, the expression of one’s attitudes, and the satisfaction of reflective thought. . . . Hence, literature has no obligation to the masses or to society” (“Wo” 15–16). The shunning of writerly responsibility is even stronger in “Paris Jottings”: “The writer is not the conscience of society, just as literature is not a mirror of society. He simply flees to the social margins, an outsider, an observer who looks on with cool detachment, with a pair of cold eyes. . . . He has responsibility only to himself” (“Bali” 22). This point is restated with some mockery later in the essay: “Responsibility is a strange word, a tight filet clamped down on the writer’s head in order to drag him here and there like a sheep. All the more should the writer not be stupid and put it on his own head. To bear responsibility to oneself is to derive personal satisfaction from the process. It is enough if one finds oneself interesting” (27). Finally, in a 1998 interview, Gao will speak most bluntly about his relationship to the PRC and its people: “The future of the Chinese who live on mainland China is their business. There’s no shortage of prophets willing to predict China’s future. I am not prepared to assume the role of spokesperson for the Chinese, nor for the Chinese people” (Lee and Dutrait 747).
Crucially, Gao consolidated this aesthetic philosophy of writerly individualism and political nonresponsibility only after his departure from China—and in the few years after June 4, when he penned most of his seminal essays. In this respect, Tiananmen is arguably the decisive event for Gao’s critical self-definition, and also a crux moment for the congealing of his diasporic intellectual identity.10 While his growing disengagement from the social and political spheres can be explained partly by his bitter experiences with mainland criticisms in the mid-1980s, it is telling that his philosophical synthesis occurred shortly after the Beijing massacre. Rather than sustaining attention at the remote crisis, however, Gao’s diasporic eye has turned intensely inward. It is thus difficult to reconcile his isolationism of the self with Said’s demand that the intellectual stand “between loneliness and alignment” (22). Indeed, what Gao outlines in his essays may be deemed a theory of noncommitment—not social or political irresponsibility, as some mainland critics have accused him of, but the negation of responsibility as a good-in-itself. Collectivities, regardless of magnitude, duration, or ideological stance, unfailingly denote for him the antagonistic other of the individual. They invariably stifle, distort, or crush personal identity, never foster or empower. Only in contexts unfettered by tugs of duty to a collective can the writer achieve full expression. Against the tugs of the political community especially, Gao articulates a double refusal—to belong to a polity, and to act as a citizen. Instead of the metaphorically agentive space of the margins, which designates for Said as for other theorists a potent site of political dissent, Gao in fact favors flight from the polity altogether.
This tenet of flight surfaces prominently in Gao’s essays from the early 1990s onward. He writes in one: “If literary creation is to ‘intervene’ in politics or society, I believe it’s even more fitting for it to ‘flee,’ so that one can resist social pressures and spiritually purge oneself” (“Wo” 17). In another, perhaps with an allusion to June 4, he pronounces: “Modern society has not become any more civilized but continues to massacre people as ever before, and in ever more ways. . . . The only thing left to those who refuse slaughter and suicide is flight. Flight is in fact the sole method for ancient and modern man alike to save himself” (“Bali” 20). From social resistance to spiritual purging to self-salvation, fleeing fulfills ever more escalated functions for Gao, even as it becomes ever more singular as a means of human survival. It is at once a psychological attitude, a sociopolitical posture, and a metaphysical ideal. That Gao’s most commonly used word for flight or escape—taowang—derives from the title of his Tiananmen play is of central significance, as I will explicate below. For now, let me underscore that this thesis on flight is not merely social or political but existential, that he advances it not just for writers and artists but for all men, and in relation to not just specific forms of oppressive government but all human existence, from ancient to modern times. So, contrary to the international media’s valorization of his dissidence, he never in fact endorses democracy as a political institution, for his theories of without isms and existential escape apply to communist as much as democratic societies. Indeed, in Cornelius Castoriadis’s resonant phrase, Gao may be said to exemplify the writer who has “wriggled out of the city.”11
Yet the city—in the Greek sense of the polis, the original site of political life and citizenship—cannot be made to vanish purely through an act of will or writing. While it has seldom gone unremarked that Gao arrives at his views out of a desire for artistic freedom, it remains dubious whether this conception of the individualist writer endowed with maximal autonomy, who writes only for himself and is responsible only to his own language, can be made compatible with a model of the writer as socially responsive fringe critic. When commentators examine Gao’s philosophical outlook, their focus often rests on his perception of political structures, when the flip side of the question is perhaps even more fundamental. After all, the argument for autonomy is necessarily an argument for conditions that enable autonomy, that allow the writer or artist to create without directives and threat of persecution, that make possible the expression of viewpoints other than those of official power. This aspect of the polis as a potential guarantor of artistic freedom is never adequately dealt with in Gao’s writing. He may at times anchor his ideas in the historical situation of twentieth-century China, but instead of analyzing the elements specific to this context that have led to what he sees as the suffocation of modern Chinese literature, he inflates this national history into a universal thesis on all polities. He may indeed be “universalizing the crisis,” as Said proposes, but he does so not in order to promote a politics of dissent against unjust governments but to withdraw into solitary art, fleeing even from the subjugated groups that may seek his voice. Most of all, the history of totalitarianism and the suppression of artistic autonomy under its reign, a subject that Gao is perfectly placed to confront, gets taken up in his essays only to be leveled straightaway with all other modes of politics, and only to culminate once again in his affirmation of the individual. “Dictatorship must be opposed,” he acknowledges, “under whatever flag it hoists, whether it be fascism, communism, nationalism, racism, or religious fundamentalism,” but the purpose of this opposition is always to “win the freedom of without isms” (Zixu 5). His interpretation of Western fascism is also telling in its brisk conflation of totalitarian repression, exilic literature, and his own notions of individualism and artistic autonomy: “Under fascist rule in Germany and Spain, and under communist totalitarianism in the USSR, writers had no choice but to flee into exile. This served to escalate the globalisation of trends in modern Western literary thinking. Released from nation-state consciousness, the writer confronted the world as an individual with responsibility only to the language he used for writing” (“Without” 67–68). The political condition that arguably underpins Gao’s entire philosophical worldview—totalitarianism—is all but conceptually erased.
This is not a narrow appeal to the historicist imperative, nor should Gao’s views be invalidated on the basis of his attempt at metaphysics. Indeed, the enterprise of thinking the polis in transcendental terms is an indispensible one, and Gao’s value to this study lies precisely in his locating of Tiananmen within the philosophical discourses of exile and displacement, the human and the polis. We can hence engage him on his desired conceptual plane by tracing briefly here an alternative genealogy of political thought, one that threads together universal notions of human life and human responsibility, so as to bring into sharper relief the core problems in his philosophy and the possibility of conceiving the polis otherwise. Given, too, his aesthetic penchant to interweave Eastern and Western traditions, antiquity and modernity, we can constellate for an instant two disparate thinkers: Mencius and Hannah Arendt.
“The whole teaching of Mencius,” Arthur Waley tells us, “centres round the word Goodness [jen]. Different schools of Confucianism meant different things by this term. But to Mencius, Goodness meant compassion; it meant not being able to bear that others should suffer.” Waley then calls attention to Mencius’s two exemplars: “[Goodness] meant a feeling of responsibility for the sufferings of others, such as was felt by the legendary Yu, subduer of the primeval Flood: ‘If anyone were drowned, Yu felt as though it were he himself that had drowned him.’ Or such as was felt (so it was said) in ancient times by the counsellor I Yin to whom if he knew that a single man or woman anywhere under Heaven were not enjoying the benefits of wise rule, ‘it was as though he had pushed them into a ditch with his own hand; so heavy was the responsibility that he put upon himself for everything that happened under Heaven’” (83). What is extraordinary in this description of Yu and I Yin is not so much their embodiment of goodness and compassion, as Waley emphasizes, as their having gathered upon themselves a supernumerary measure of responsibility. In both examples, we are given an account of an individual’s sense of beholdenness toward those around him, a feeling contingent neither on bonds of kinship or friendship nor on contracts of service, yet of a magnitude far greater than what is culturally sufficient or expected. In both, this sense of responsibility works as though it were the most essential feature of social being. The second example moreover makes explicit what is implied in the first: this feeling of responsibility takes place in the province of the political and characterizes the relation between an individual and a political community. That the individuals in both cases are figures of power—Yu being the legendary founder and sage-king of the Xia dynasty, I Yin the minister of King Tang of the succeeding Shang Dynasty—is of course important for our reading of Mencius. His text, after all, is a tract on enlightened rulership, a document of monarchical times. Its definition of goodness, as a supreme gathering of responsibility for others onto oneself, is intended as a mode of imperial governance. To modern skeptics, Mencius’s ostensible subordination of power to virtue can be read as a justification of benevolent despotism, of the sovereign’s right to rule through a divinely bestowed moral superiority. Yet the argument here can also be read less cynically, as a philosophical precursor to a humanist ethics and politics for our time. In ethical terms, it means that every human being is capable of feeling and acting with the utmost benevolence toward another, any other, and in political terms, it imagines a human polity of all “under Heaven.” The contemporary relevance of Mencius lies in his effort to reclaim the idea of responsibility from the sphere of the contractual and the proper, from coded hierarchies of formal conduct, and return it to the provenance of communal being. An individual is thus responsible not so much for other individuals as to human life itself. This, at least, seems to be the interpretation by which Waley made his translator’s passageway into the Mencius, and this, conversely, is the suggestively anti-Confucianist formulation of Confucian ethics that cropped its way into English in 1939.12
We can call this model bare responsibility and distinguish it from obligatory responsibility, which operates within strictly delimited systems of interpersonal relations. Kinship bonds, for example, circumscribe parental and filial pieties not exacted of those outside the family. Similarly, national bonds oblige citizens of a country to treat each other according to a mutual set of laws in exchange for unique rights of residence in and protection by the state. Bare responsibility, by contrast, posits as its common denominator the life of the species: every instance of its practice emanates from an excess of provincial identities and aims to stretch the boundaries of the polis to include the whole of humankind. We can link this concept of bare responsibility to a number of current theories on cosmopolitanism and what we might call new humanism. In the past two decades, concomitant with the rise of globalization studies, there has been a resurgence of effort among intellectuals of myriad stripes to theorize cosmopolitanism and humanism anew, beyond the Enlightenment’s political legacies of colonialism, imperialism, racism, and so on. Edward Said is again instructive in this context. Drawing on Frantz Fanon and especially the latter’s reference to a “[real] humanism,” Said argues forcefully against “identitarian” or nationalist politics and advocates instead a “global, contrapuntal analysis,” one that is based not on a “symphony” or falsely harmonious view of world cultures but on an “atonal ensemble” that acknowledges the “complex and uneven topography” of worldly institutions (Culture 318). Not unlike Mencius, Said connects the perception of another’s suffering with a sense of global responsibility as the basis of a humanist politics and ethics. This connection is again established by Paul Gilroy, who introduces the concept of “conviviality” to replace multiculturalism as a new model of planetary cohabitation (Postcolonial xv). Tracing his argument through the specific genealogy of black intellectual thought but exhibiting a certain debt to Said as well, Gilroy too promotes a “planetary humanism capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other” (Postcolonial 4). Likewise, Kwame Anthony Appiah outlines his ethics of cosmopolitanism by intertwining a commitment to pluralism with an ideal of “universal concern” or “obligations to others” (xv). Even Jacques Derrida, in his exploration of refugee and asylum rights, adopts the language of cosmopolitanism to propose an “ethic of hospitality,” a notion, he points out, that is tautological, since “ethics is hospitality” (16–17)—a comment that cannot be made without an understanding of a species ethos. From the vanguards of postcolonialism and race studies as much as deconstruction, then—those schools of thought hitherto concerned most prominently with systems of difference—we now hear consistent and robust invocations of the human as the premise of a new global politics and ethics.
Behind these recent revivals of humanism, I would suggest, is the key figure of Hannah Arendt. Her lifelong project of thinking the human, and thinking of a paradigm of human rights beyond mere metaphysics, is arguably the philosophical point of origin for much contemporary discourse on ethical and political cosmopolitanism. Of particular influence has been her methodological approach to the human via negative routes, by way of pinpointing nodes in history that throw the idea of humanity into crisis. We can say she affirms a politics of the human exactly through those cataclysmic events that withhold or negate the principle of bare responsibility. One prime example is her well-known formulation of the banality of evil, which provides a powerful argument against models of responsibility premised solely on obligatory action. Her portrait of the Nazi soldier as a cog in the “mass-murder machine” is also the portrait of a paragon of obligatory responsibility: far from being a moral monster or perverse sadist, the average Nazi soldier who carried out daily execution orders saw himself simply as an honest jobholder and good family man, a model paterfamilias who felt he was shouldering the greatest share of responsibility for his family, his race, and his country by permitting himself to be mobilized by the state’s call to arms: “When his occupation forces him to murder people he does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity. Out of sheer passion he would never do harm to a fly” (“Organized” 130). What he asked exoneration from was responsibility to all communities beyond local ones. To such a psyche, the charge of crime against humanity would be incomprehensible, for he was above all a human being whose defining trait was the renunciation of bare responsibility.
Against race-based theories that try to explain the phenomenon of the Nazi through the German national character, Arendt insists it is the political environment of totalitarianism that has produced this modern type of the “mob man.” “The totalitarian policy,” she writes, “has completely destroyed the neutral zone in which the daily life of human beings is ordinarily lived” (“Organized” 124). The peculiar paradox of the totalitarian citizen is that the state obligates him to participate in acts of atrocity as a criterion of citizenship even as it absolves him of culpability toward communities beyond the nation-state. Under this polis, the “neutral zone” where people ordinarily live out the ethics of neighborly conduct, treating others not solely as compatriots but also as fellow human beings, guided not by duty and obedience but recognition of a shared humanity, becomes wholly incorporated into, and effaced by, state directives. This insight is partly what leads Arendt to a conviction that the most potent corrective for totalitarianism is a reclamation of the sphere of the human. Yet this reclamation, she realizes, must reach beyond the Enlightenment’s idolatrous “enchantment” with and “reckless optimism” regarding mankind’s innate nobility (“Karl” 84, 131). Especially with the development of nuclear technology and the prospect of species annihilation, the post–World War II world necessitates a reformulation of humanism along more pessimistic lines, where human beings must come to acknowledge with open eyes their shared responsibility for each other’s good as well as “evil potentialities”: “For the idea of humanity, when purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight” (“Organized” 131).13 In retrospect, we can see the idea of the human following a course of drastic reversal. The optimism in Mencius, which seeks to unite human beings in a common inherent proclivity for goodness, has evaporated in the postwar world, giving way to Arendt’s vision of a humanity locked together in negative potential for species holocaust.
Arendt’s argument for universal responsibility is anchored in another major aspect of her work: the dilemma of refugees and stateless peoples. The figure of the refugee lays bare for her the central paradox in the concept of human rights, for if the Enlightenment declared the Rights of Man to be inalienable, independent of all governments and innate to all human beings, then theoretically the dislocation of stateless peoples should manifest these rights in the starkest and most unobstructed light possible. But the decisive point for Arendt is that history proved the opposite true: “It turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them. . . . The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in the countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state” (Origins 292–93). What the “calamity of the rightless” reveals above all is the vital link between human rights and the political community. Before a human being’s right to live is ever challenged, there has to be “a right to have rights,” which is also “a right to belong to some kind of organized community.” Only a polity can guarantee human beings’ right to life, and “only the loss of a polity itself expels [a human being] from humanity” (Origins 295–97). In direct antithesis to Gao’s conception of the individual’s flight from the polis as the epitome of human dignity, Arendt argues that “the instant when a person becomes a human being in general . . . and different in general, representing nothing but his own absolutely unique individuality,” this individuality itself “loses all significance” (Origins 302). To be “a human being in general,” stripped of all communal ties, is to exist in a condition of rightlessness.
Arendt gives this notion of generic humanness two additional names: “the abstract nakedness of being human,” and the “mere existence” or “mere givenness” of human life, both recurrent phrases in her writing. Even more than the postwar refugees, the figures who most fully embodied this condition of naked humanity for her were the extermination camp survivors. In reference to them, she notes the nonsanctity of human beings’ bare state: “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” When human beings are dispossessed of their political community, what they have left is only this nakedness or “dark background of mere givenness” (Origins 300–301). These passages from Arendt echo a phrase from Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” in which he, too, speaks of the nonsacredness of human beings’ “mere life”: “Man cannot, at any price, be said to coincide with the mere life in him, any more than it can be said to coincide with any other of his conditions and qualities, including even the uniqueness of his bodily person. However sacred man is . . . there is no sacredness in his condition, in his bodily life vulnerable to injury by his fellow men.” Indeed, Benjamin calls this belief in life’s sacredness a “dogma,” “the last mistaken attempt of the weakened Western tradition to seek the saint it has lost in cosmological impenetrability” (251). In light of Arendt’s role as an editor of Benjamin’s work, she may well have in mind his term when she writes of naked humanity and mere existence. After her, this terminology will be picked up again by Giorgio Agamben, in his by now well-known formulation of “bare life”—“the life of homo sacer (sacred man), who may be killed and yet not sacrificed” (Homo 8). Taking an enigmatic figure in archaic Roman law as his point of departure, Agamben elaborates a theory of modern biopolitics on which the space of the camp, where the state of exception becomes the rule, is now the “new biopolitical nomos of the planet” (Homo 176). Agamben’s focus on the politicized bodies of modern homo sacer will be pertinent to my discussion of Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, especially in relation to Ma’s critique of PRC totalitarian biopower. For now, it suffices to conclude that, from Mencius to Arendt to a host of contemporary theorists, there can be traced a philosophical lineage which persistently connects human life to a universal polity. Vis-à-vis this other genealogy, Gao’s metaphysical severing of the individual from the polis appears profoundly solipsistic. More disturbing is that his retreat into the self has led him to quietistic positions on national and gender politics—as we will see in the Tiananmen play Taowang.
Part II. Fleeing Tiananmen
EXILE AND FLIGHT
Let us for a moment recast Gao Xingjian’s diasporic condition in Arendtian terms. While his eschewal of politics is entirely understandable in light of the thorough politicization of art in PRC history and his own experience with harsh political criticisms in the 1980s, for more than two decades now, he has found a comfortable place in a new polity that not only protects his existence but prizes his writing. Even if this new context carries its own brand of consumerist tendencies, it is nevertheless a polity that affirms his right to belong and safeguards his artistic autonomy. Despite these political benefits, Gao has yet to rethink his theory of the polis. If anything, his denial of the writer’s responsibility has taken ever-deeper and more recalcitrant root, and to ever-louder cheers of his role as the political exile par excellence. This cheerleading may stem in part from popular notions of the exilic writer as a melancholy rebel, nostalgic for his homeland but determined to rise above the fray of his country’s politics. On this view, it seems perfectly right and proper that a writer in exile from an authoritarian regime should insist on the apoliticalness of art and find some solace in holding onto this belief. This romantic image is frequently projected onto Chinese émigré writers, sometimes by the writers themselves. Of Duo Duo, for instance, Gregory Lee recalls Chen Maiping’s poignant metaphor of the exilic poet as “living in a valley between east and west,” a valley that threatens to flood but offers no exit (Introduction iv). Less metaphorical, though, and more concretely precarious is the in-between situation of another group of Chinese “exilic writers” in history—those Angel Island detainees who in the early twentieth century also turned to literature, by carving or brushing poetry on prison walls, to air their grievances against America. The figure of the detainee, whose political identity is put in a state of indefinite suspension and who possesses no legal recourse to a guardian authority, has dramatically resurfaced on the global radar after 9/11 with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, in our latter-day reincarnations of the camp that Agamben diagnoses as a space of exception. Following Arendt, we might call this category of suspended life bare exile.
The mode of exile Gao now occupies, however, is not bare but merely geographic. The fact that he has settled into a new polity that accords him citizenship and protection, and a community that encourages his writing and awards him fame and prestige, should signal a state of inclusion that is anything but exilic. Indeed, it can be argued that, when a subject attains this level of security, even when he or she remains geographically outside the country of birth, the word “exile” loses its political meaning. Gao, while still living in China and composing works of ideological danger such as Bus Stop, could be said to have fulfilled the role of a Saidian intellectual as well as what Leo Ou-fan Lee calls an “internal exile,” someone who does not necessarily suffer “physical banishment to the peripheries of the country” but who chooses to “turn inward—the construction of a sanctuary of the soul that stands in a peripheral position vis-à-vis the omnipotent center” (234). In the PRC, he was an eminently political writer in this sense, for his deliberate detachment from and resistance to co-optation by the center marked his intellectual marginality. Once in actual physical exile, though, and especially after being naturalized as a French citizen and awarded the Nobel by the European community, he can no longer be deemed a political exile in any meaningful way. Instead, he now exists entirely within the folds of the polis. It is also this newly acquired political stability that allows him, with complete impunity, to plead the primacy of artistic integrity and the irrelevance of political responsibility. From this angle, Gao now exemplifies the very opposite of the exile—the luminary, the idol at the center of cultural authority, perhaps with shades of the sovereign who allocates to himself an exceptional power to use and appropriate other people’s cultural goods.
Gao himself, tellingly, does not repudiate the name of exile. On the contrary, he embraces it as a positive and “completely normal” circumstance for the writer. He is wholly unsentimental on this score, and more than once has he spoken about the practical advantages of exile, and about the need to dispel the quixotic idea that exilic writers are tragically doomed to an “exceptional environment that leaves [them] unable to create” (Lee and Dutrait 743). As he states in his Nobel Lecture, exile represents the “inevitable fate of the poet and the writer who continues to seek to preserve his own voice” (595). Moreover, his affirmation of exile is much broader in scope, for he finds the condition not only creatively enabling for the writer but existentially necessary for the individual. In effect, he brings together the two distinct structures of exilic existence and existential exile. In one quintessential interview, he comments:
What we’re faced with now is not just a question of fleeing political oppression and the Chinese environment; there is also the flight from the Other, flight from other people. It was Sartre who said Hell is other people. But it’s not enough to flee the Other, there’s also the need to flee oneself. . . . I think the Self is like a black hole capable of sucking everything in. It’s terrifying. So it’s very important for an exile writer to flee the Self, that’s the only way he can establish the lightness and calm he needs to write. So I feel that in addition to fleeing present political circumstances, there is also a perpetual flight. (Lee and Dutrait 743)
In his essays, Gao calls this notion of existential exile taowang, “flight” or “fleeing.” By his axiom, every human being is always originally in antagony with both others and him or herself. In his aesthetic corpus, this theory of existential flight finds its fullest articulation in Taowang.
Taowang is a play whose reputation precedes it. While few critics analyze the text in any sustained way, most make a point of citing the circumstances surrounding its creation. Gao himself has been unusually vocal on this topic. In a 1991 speech at the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden in Stockholm, where the play premiered, he described its genesis thus:
In June 1989 after the Tiananmen Incident, a friend asked me if I could write a play for an American theater company. The play should be about China and, of course, related to reality. I agreed. In August the first batch of exiles from Beijing arrived in Paris and among them were a few of my old friends. At the end of September, I started to write the play and finished it a month later. The theater company read the English translation and requested revision. I refused and had my friend pass on my words: Even the Communist Party could not coerce me into making changes to my manuscripts when I was in China, let alone an American theater company. (“About” 69)
In “Without Isms,” Gao will reiterate this story with undiminished indignation: “The Americans wanted me to make changes, so I withdrew the manuscript and paid for the translation myself. When I write I have my own things to say and I will not make compromises to please the tastes of others” (74). The scholars most active in disseminating Gao’s work have been quick to propagate this real-life drama around the play. Mabel Lee, for one, hails the episode as yet another illustration of Gao’s “search for total freedom of artistic expression” and his rejection of “any compromise of the artistic self in literature” (“Gao Xingjian” 30). Reading the play as “an artistic exploration of some of the uncomfortable implications of group thinking and action” (“Gao Xingjian’s” 285), she applauds Gao for not being one to “sacrifice his writing for a political cause” (“Pronouns” 253). Whatever the real extent of disagreement between the playwright and the American theater company that commissioned the play, this breach has been magnified into a bona fide controversy within the canonized lore of Gao scholarship. Aside from Lee, Gilbert Fong also remarks melodramatically that Taowang put Gao “at odds with” not just one particular American theater group but “the Chinese Overseas Democracy Movement” itself. Fong further insinuates that the movement was rather petty and self-interested, finding fault with the play out of wounded vanity because one of its own is portrayed badly, as “susceptible to doubt and emotional vacillations” (xiv). Sy Ren Quah also writes approvingly of Gao that “his intellectual consciousness has prevented him from producing a blind eulogy of the student demonstrators” (180), implying that those who would wish to see the script altered can only be motivated by extreme naiveté or ideological bias.
On the other shore of this uproar was the vehement condemnation of the play by PRC authorities, a matter cast histrionically by Fong as Gao’s having “brought down the wrath of the Chinese government” in his unrelenting quest to “give full rein to his imagination” (xiv). Less talked about in this regard is the ironic fact that Taowang, though leading to the banning of Gao’s work on all mainland stages, also happens to be his only play to be published in full in the PRC after 1986. As Henry Zhao explains, communist hard-liners were so enraged by the play that they reprinted and distributed it widely in 1990 in a special edition entitled The “Elite” in Escape. This booklet was prefaced by a vitriolic review denouncing the play “as ‘a total lie’ and accusing the author of ‘having taken the criminal path of spreading rumours, mongering vilification and libel’” (95). In short, the mainland edition used Taowang to discredit the democracy movement and deny the massacre. Zhao helpfully records this incident but leaves unexplored the deeper question of why the play would so easily lend itself to antidemocracy propaganda, concluding simply that “the play, in a word, did not please anyone” (96). The Nobel Committee will go on to reproduce this slogan in its 2000 press release, promoting the play as a work that “irritated the democracy movement just as much as those in power” (Swedish). Undoubtedly, in the global cultural discourse, Taowang’s inception has served as a tantalizing biographical tidbit that buttresses the image of Gao as courageous and uncompromising artist.
Beyond the hullabaloo, I would argue that Taowang in fact typifies Gao’s political quietism and exposes the risks of an aesthetic that universalizes totalitarian violence. Despite the ubiquitous citations of the play, critics have consistently and conspicuously failed to tackle its most troubling aspects—namely, its representations of the Tiananmen student and of the woman, and by extension, its implications for national and gender politics. Perhaps the relative unavailability of the play in English up until quite recently, as with many of Gao’s essays, has contributed to this critical lapse, though European audiences became familiar with it early on, as it was translated into both French and German in 1992 and staged variously in Sweden, Germany, France, and Poland prior to the 2000 Nobel.14 The retranslation and republication of the play in English in 2007 may well lay the groundwork for a future reassessment of Gao’s oeuvre.
The play is set in the ruins of an unnamed city in an unnamed country, and the action unfolds from the early morning hours to daybreak of one unspecified day.15 Act 1 opens with the “rumbling sound of tanks on tar road” and the “continuous crackling of machine guns and submachine guns” in the background (Escape 3). Two twentysomethings, Young Man and Girl, have escaped from the shootings in an unidentified square and are hiding out in what looks to be a dilapidated warehouse. Soon after, they are joined by Middle-aged Man, who lives in a nearby apartment building but has run away from his home after witnessing a harmless old neighbor shot to death. The three strangers thus become fellow fugitives sharing a common predicament and place of temporary refuge.
As they discuss the military crackdown, the word “Tiananmen” is never mentioned. Indeed, throughout the play, Gao suppresses all specific geographical and historical markers, so that the connection to China and June 4 is only metatextual or paratextual. Audiences attending the play are assumed to already know its Tiananmen reference, and readers approaching the text are duly briefed by a scholarly introduction and then again by Gao’s commentary afterward. Yet, as Gao goes on to emphasize in this latter piece: “Escape is not a socialist realist play. I believe that being alive means always on the run, either away from political persecution or from other people. One still has to run away from one’s self, which, once awakened, is precisely what one can never run away from—This is the tragedy of modern man” (“About” 70). In his performance notes to the play, too, he stresses the primacy of its existentialist dimension: “Since ancient times, human existence has been an unending tragedy. Our play is an attempt to express modern man’s dilemma in the classical tragedy form. . . . Escape is about the psychology of political philosophy [or more exactly: it is a politico-philosophical and psychological play]. It should not be made into a play of socialist realism, which seeks only to mirror contemporary political incidents” (67). Certainly, the stage set encourages such an existentialist interpretation. The vacant warehouse, the predawn darkness, the isolation from the crowds—these features combine to create a zone of social suspension where the three characters can act simply as individual human beings apart from collective identities. At the same time, since the warehouse is symbolically situated at the threshold of state violence and the characters are uniformly threatened with imminent death, they can be read as united in a basic human condition of confronting mortality, which presses upon them with ever-greater urgency the task of affirming their individual existence.
All the critics who have written on Taowang interpret it along these lines, which is to say, they read very much along the grain of Gao’s own commentary and treat the play as fundamentally an existentialist drama about human nature and the human psyche. Citing Gao’s essays, Henry Zhao, for one, avers: “To escape from Tian’anmen Square in the play is only a more dramatic example of the universal necessity of escape. . . . We can go a step further to argue that this is not a political play but an exploration into the primal instincts when the individual person is faced with the prospect of death” (98). Similarly, Mabel Lee contends that the play aims not to “wallow in the tragedy” but to put “under scrutiny . . . the human psyche and human behavior in the context of extreme terror and confrontation with death” (“Nobel” 7). She further suggests that the form of classical tragedy recommended by Gao “is aimed at inducing a psychological distance that will allow members of the audience to dissociate themselves from the emotional trauma of the specific events of June 4” so they can better engage in “critical thinking and reflection on those events,” but that ultimately the philosophical thrust of the play “reinforce[s] the fact that the specific tragedy under scrutiny is not unique in human existence” (6). Sy Ren Quah falls into rank when he too maintains that Taowang “is not essentially a play about the demonstrators of the Tiananmen Incident. Metaphorically, it reveals a psychological predicament deeply rooted in human nature. It is also a personal manifestation of the playwright’s need to flee” (182). Without exception, critics replicate Gao’s logic by subordinating the particularity of Tiananmen to the universality of a human condition.
There is a striking doublethink here, however. While critics unanimously raise the sign of “Tiananmen” so as to designate the play as a political one—thereby bolstering the impression of Gao as at heart a writer of social conscience—they withdraw the pertinence of this sign as soon as Gao faces potential criticism on political grounds or heads down an awkward political path. Rather than confront the challenge of positioning Gao both philosophically and politically, they follow his lead by equating politics with mere heroics. So, following the authorial claim that Taowang is a “political philosophy play without any heroes” (“Without” 74), Zhao notes that “the three characters in the play . . . are hardly heroes” (95), Quah asserts that “a heroic figure [is] absent among the characters” (177), and Lee declares that “Gao knew he could not distort the truth by portraying [the students] as heroes” (“Nobel” 6). If, as Gao avows, Taowang is intended to be a “political philosophy play,” then the political part of the equation has surely received much shorter shrift. Those mainland critics who vilified Gao for “spreading rumors” may well be accused of failing to read philosophically, but sympathetic scholars may equally be seen as failing to read politically.
In fact, the play is political through and through. Although all three characters are identified only generically by their gender and age, intimating an emptying out of collective identities, no sooner do they rendezvous than they assume the roles of spokespersons for various social groups or ideological causes—the Young Man for pro-democracy activism, the Young Woman for female autonomy, and the Middle-aged Man for individualism and noncommitment. They act and speak mostly as tokens rather than truly individualized personalities. In this sense, the play is more a political than an existentialist allegory, with each character representing a type—student, woman, writer—and its corresponding outlook on politics rather than the species category of the human. In particular, as we will see, the Middle-aged Man bears an unmistakable resemblance to the playwright himself, for many of this character’s lines will reemerge almost verbatim in Gao’s essays in the next decade. This fictional surrogate of the author cannot be straightforwardly read as the most representatively human character in the play unless we, too, indulge in a circular logic whereby Gao’s theories are elevated into universal truths. Finally, this is a play driven more by dialogue than by action, more by the verbal contest of ideas and beliefs than by the mechanisms of an unfolding plot. Its principal moments of dramatic tension therefore lie in the characters’ heated exchanges, especially those in which the Middle-aged Man gets provoked into debating the merits and demerits of sundry political topics with the Young Man or the Girl.
A prime example is the running dispute between the two men on the value of the democracy movement, a subject that constitutes the dialogical focal point of act 1. The Girl’s shocked disbelief at the massacre and her frantic exclamations of “Bloodbath!” conveniently set the stage for the men’s first political wrangle:
|GIRL:||No one could have expected something like that to happen.|
|MIDDLE-AGED MAN:||They should have.|
|YOUNG MAN:||And you?|
|MIDDLE-AGED MAN:||They were worse than I’d expected.|
|YOUNG MAN:||That’s really something.|
|MIDDLE-AGED MAN:||When you were mobilizing people you should have thought of ways to retreat.|
|YOUNG MAN:||Did you?|
|MIDDLE-AGED MAN:||I should have. . . .|
|YOUNG MAN:||You already knew the ending, did you? So why did you let yourself get drawn into it?|
|MIDDLE-AGED MAN:||(Laughs bitterly.) I couldn’t help it. I hated this sort of dirty politics right from the start. (11–12)|
We can pause here to note that, according to what are now the most reliable eyewitness accounts of June 4, it was not due to the student demonstrators’ lack of an organized retreat that the massacre occurred. I will explore in greater depth in chapter 4 the circumstances of the evacuation, but I raise the issue of history now, not in order to accuse Gao of historical inaccuracy—he would, after all, refute this charge on the grounds that he is not writing a realist play that “mirrors” the Tiananmen incident—but to elucidate the Middle-aged Man’s stance toward the democracy movement. On a purely emotional level, his attitude toward the student activists may be described as condescending and sanctimonious. Steeped in moral didacticism, he goes on to lecture the Young Man on the more correct, and more enlightened, understanding of the term “the people” (renmin):
Beyond the emotions, the Middle-aged Man’s high-minded remonstrances clearly carry a political judgment as well. It is strongly implied in these passages that he foresaw the bloodshed, that he “already knew the ending” before it happened, that the outcome was “so obvious” to him. This suggestion of foreknowledge coincides with what Gao will later say of himself in an interview, that he “was able to predict the suppression of the demonstration a few days before June 4, 1989” (Quah 180). What the Middle-aged Man—and presumably Gao—express here is the political opinion that the Tiananmen movement was doomed to failure from the start. According to this widespread and rather hackneyed view, the massacre was inevitable, and since civilians were no match for the communist government and its tanks, the students who led the protests should take the blame for their foolishness, recklessness, and immaturity, having sacrificed not just their own lives but those of innocent supporters. It is within the framework of such a political condemnation that the Middle-aged Man embeds his remark about the student leaders’ lack of a planned retreat. This indictment resurfaces a bit later in more severe terms:
Incidentally, the Middle-aged Man’s relentless chastising of the Young Man provides the most concrete illustration of how Gao’s theories of political noncommitment and existential flight shape up in the face of actual political crises. His is a classic formulation of the bystander’s supposed perspicacity, mixed with the proverbial wisdom of hindsight. Instead of trying to delve into the complexities of the event to gain some historical understanding that one can take into the present and future, the Middle-aged Man blames the victims for the tragedy and absolves himself of the need to comprehend or take partial responsibility. Instead of analyzing the specific situation at hand, he makes philosophical proclamations about the futility of collective politics in general. He then moves decisively into the existentialist realm with his thoughts on escape: “Escape! Escape is what we have to face now! It’s destiny, yours and mine. To live is to escape, to run for your life all the time!” (14). And a bit later to the Girl: “It’s our destiny, yours, mine, even his. It’s in a man’s destiny to escape, to run for his life” (27). And finally to the Young Man again:
The Middle-aged Man’s existentialism is not Sartre’s but more aptly deemed a kind of fatalism, since for him no human action is adequate to changing or improving the social lot. In his speeches, the human condition and death itself become argumentative tools against the Young Man’s pleas for political action: “Son, you have to stand it even if you can’t. You have to stand defeat. Your blind enthusiasm is futile in the face of death” (13). If it is the human condition to suffer oppression, from oneself as much as others, then to oppose such oppression is inherently, existentially futile.
Since the Middle-aged Man’s invocations of existential escape (taowang) and without isms (meiyou zhuyi) will reappear almost verbatim in Gao’s essays, we are hard-pressed not to read this character as the authorial persona. We are moreover led to conclude that, in Gao’s eyes, June 4 is chiefly a vehicle to paint in large strokes the oppressive capacities, not just of China’s communist government or of authoritarian or ultranationalist regimes in general, but of all polities. The city in the play’s backdrop, set afire by the military and filled with billowing smoke (8), is symbolically every city, every polis. This political allegory in turn functions to justify the necessity of existential flight, since every citizen, every human being who lives in a polis is thereby transformed into a refugee or fugitive. Along a metaphysical analysis, this movement from particular to universal can validly be entertained. Along a political one, however, this move problematically reduces and even normalizes totalitarianism into a species condition. As in Gao’s essays, the particular political formation that leads to state-sanctioned bloodshed is conceptually erased and then metaphorically universalized. More specific to this play, the political context of Tiananmen—the flight of democracy activists from a state-orchestrated massacre—is summoned as a prototype only to be dismissed as a concrete reality for its participants. As a result, even a remote and detached spectator such as himself can now creatively appropriate the political fugitives’ plight as an analogue to his own exile, for on Gao’s logic, he too is an existential escapee. His aesthetic philosophy of the writer’s universal license serves him well here, for the Tiananmen episode becomes eminently appropriatable without his jeopardizing either his repudiation of the PRC or his self-image as the cosmopolitan writer. This is the way in which Taowang existentializes the Square—and the way by which Gao inadvertently normalizes and legitimates totalitarian power.
But if there is one significant difference between Gao and the Middle-aged Man, it is surely their degree of distance from the massacre itself. This difference of location, I would argue, matters essentially. As much as Gao fashions the Middle-aged Man in his own image, it is patently not the case that he at any point lived on the threshold of Tiananmen’s violence. His first knowledge of and access to the horrors of June 4, like much of the world’s, occurred from afar and was mediated by television images and newspaper reports. Gao’s diasporic location in 1989 coincides with Ha Jin’s, and as I will discuss in the next chapter, the consciousness of diasporic distance pervades Jin’s The Crazed, structuring almost every aspect of the novel’s representation of the Square. By contrast, despite his overt cynicism and censure of the student activists, Gao produces a text that displays a subtle yearning for origin’s violence, a nostalgia for being on-site at the place and time of China’s greatest recent national trauma. He cannot directly experience such an event in the diaspora, but he can imaginatively and vicariously come into ownership of it via his double in the play. In this respect, we may speculate that the conflation of Gao with the Middle-aged Man, far from being an interpretive blunder, is actually a move meticulously plotted and promoted by the playwright himself, who takes pains to render this character recognizable as his fictional counterpart. If anything, given that Taowang precedes Gao’s many essayistic formulations of existential flight and political noncommitment in the 1990s, we can say he has gone on in the post-Tiananmen decade to compulsively write and rewrite himself back into the play, in the exact image of his protagonist.
In this light, we might be tempted to interpret Taowang as an instance of traumatic writing. Gang Gary Xu, for one, reads Gao’s two novels through precisely this lens, arguing that “the real traumatic core of Gao’s writings” is the dilemma that “he writes in order to remember only to find writing requires the forgetting of what he desperately tries to remember” (126). Xu’s reading converts Gao into a prototypical trauma victim of national crises, especially the Cultural Revolution, but such a reading falters when applied to Taowang. Since Gao did not personally live through June 4, any attempt to read this play via trauma theory must first establish the diasporic and appropriative perimeters of his artistic claiming of the massacre, an issue on which I will elaborate in the next chapter. What is striking about Taowang is Gao’s aesthetic contraction of his diasporic distance. Despite his espousals of political detachment and intellectual aloofness, he pointedly projects his surrogate self onto origin’s scene of violence. Indeed, as the play proceeds, the Middle-aged Man’s symbolic marginality in relation to the Square becomes remapped, so that he edges ever-closer to the center of the killings. Ultimately, Gao’s fictional locating of his authorial persona at the site of trauma serves less as a dramatic device for bearing historical witness than as circumstantial warrant for leveling criticism at the student movement.
Were Gao one to take a serious interest in the analysis of history, he would have found an abundance of published material in the last two decades to disabuse him of some of his initial reactions to the democracy movement. It is not my purpose here to provide an authoritative account of Tiananmen as a corrective to Gao’s political opinions; such a task is beyond my ability, in any case. In chapter 4, I will explore in greater depth the controversy around the actual details of the massacre, but for now I will briefly mention a few relevant works that have shed invaluable light on the issue of the CCP leadership’s decision to deploy force. Crucially, these works dispel a popular sentiment, endorsed by Gao and expressed complacently by his Middle-aged Man, that the protest movement was fated for a bloody end right from the outset—a sentiment that all too often serves as moral artillery against the students themselves. If the victims are partly to blame, then why follow in their footsteps by continuing their fight against tyranny? Bystanders can henceforth rest assured in conscience and mind, their sense of responsibility and feelings of revulsion assuaged. Among the earliest commentators to refute this view, however, was Ruan Ming, who wrote in no uncertain terms just two months after the massacre: “It is not true that the 1989 Democracy movement was doomed to failure” (Liu, Ruan, and Xu 108). Ruan maintains that “the real reason why the Democracy movement of 1989 failed is that the reformers within the Party were too indecisive, waiting and looking on, wavering and backing up. They, not the students, lost the opportunity”—and they, more than the students, were the ones “not united or organized” (104, 108). An erstwhile midlevel Party official in Hu Yaobang’s pro-reform camp, Ruan has since left the PRC and gone on to write a study of Party politics in Deng Xiaoping’s era, arguing that, ultimately, it was Deng’s pragmatic succumbing to the antireform hard-liners that led to the carnage of June 4 (Ruan).
Ruan’s argument has received some validation with the publication of The Tiananmen Papers. This massive compilation of government documents—including state security bureau reports and secret Politburo meeting minutes, all smuggled out of the PRC by a Party official with the pseudonym Zhang Liang—chronicles the CCP leadership’s shifting viewpoints and internal power struggles during that Beijing spring. The documents reveal that the Politburo was not only intensely divided at the top but actually had a three-man majority in favor of dialogue with the students rather than martial law. As Andrew Nathan comments in the introduction to the volume, had this majority faction carried through on their vote and opened dialogue with the students, it “would have tipped the balance toward political reform, and China today might well be an open society or even an electoral democracy, possibly under the rule of a reformed Communist Party” (xviii). On Nathan’s assessment, the students and the reformers “shared many goals and much common language,” but “through miscommunication and misjudgment, they pushed one another into positions in which options for compromise became less and less available. . . . The slide to calamity seemed slow at first but then accelerated as divisions deepened on both sides. Knowing the outcome, we read the story with the sense of horror that we receive from true tragedy” (lv). Zhang Liang himself writes in the preface that, although the Tiananmen movement’s failure was “inevitable,” this failure stemmed from “the weakness of the reform faction at [the] highest levels of Party leadership” as much as the “divisions among the demonstrators and their lack of a tight organization or program” (xxxi–ii). He will later modify this statement in an interview by clarifying that “bloodshed was completely avoidable,” that “it was not necessary to have killings” (“Tiananmen”).
Together, these perspectives offer a compelling case against the notion that the democracy movement was doomed from the start. They do not deliver a “blind eulogy” that romanticizes the students as heroic martyrs, but they do attempt to uncover and evaluate the multifaceted reasons behind the movement’s tragic outcome. In the process, these works broaden our understanding of the communist leadership and afford us a look, at once hopeful and heartrending, into the inner workings of a totalitarian government that nonetheless came extremely close to reforming itself from within. In short, in direct antithesis to Taowang, these works demystify totalitarian power. Craig Calhoun puts it most judiciously: “The democracy movement of 1989 was creative, vital, and full of possibilities. It did not succeed, over the short run, in achieving many of its participants’ goals. Yet to say it was foreordained to fail is not realism but cynicism. Sometimes social movements do succeed against all the odds; fate speaks only after the fact in human life. For the Chinese people, and for the world, the events of spring 1989 have value as an inspiration, not just as a cautionary tale” (x). That Gao does not take into consideration any of this published material is a matter of authorial choice, of course, but his disregard adds neither wisdom nor perspicacity to his portrayal—and his audiences’ comprehension—of Tiananmen.
What Gao gives us instead are simplistic and polarized images of 1989. In the play, the democracy movement is represented by the hotheaded student on one end and the wise writer-intellectual on the other. We have already explored how the Middle-aged Man hosts many of Gao’s personal views. In addition, this character embodies the voice of worldly experience and shrewd insight in the play, and he is invariably given the most eloquent lines and intricate arguments. From the first, he is depicted as a paragon of grace under pressure. When he first enters the warehouse, the Young Man asks with hostility, “What do you want?” to which he answers with urbane composure, “Just looking for a place to hide, to smoke a cigarette” (7). Evidently, he is capable of cool-headedness and sarcastic humor even in the face of flying bullets. Though wishing to be a detached observer, he, too, as he soon discloses, was reluctantly drawn into the movement when he was asked to sign a petition. “How could I say no?” he says wryly. “Sometimes the signatures weren’t even mine. People called you up and said your name had to be there. How could you refuse?” (24). The Middle-aged Man is thus presented as an intellectual who maintains dignity and calm even when crushed between the pressures of competing political groups.
The Young Man, on the other hand, is repeatedly shown to be crude, impetuous, and zealous to the point of hysteria. A mere mob child, he lacks individuality and substance of thought, and when matched against the older man, he cannot sustain a rational debate about the merits of the very political causes he champions. For every cynical and jaded rebuke by the Middle-aged Man, he counters with empty bravadoes, stock phrases, and ideological platitudes, such as “The people’s struggle for freedom will triumph sooner or later, even if it has to be won with blood!” (13), or “call for a general strike by the workers and students! A civil war will soon break out!” (28). When he fails to convince the older man of the value of collective action, he alternately gets angry and aggressive, hollers, and at last dissolves into sobs and sinks into a sulky silence. His final, sputtering words on the topic of the protest movement are “All that bloodshed for nothing? But history, history will remember this day! This blood-stained day! This victorious day—” (30). It is therefore entirely in keeping with his character when, at the end of act 1, he impatiently scrambles to be the first to leave the warehouse and is thought to be killed by gunfire outside. The Middle-aged Man then passes this verdict: “He wanted to be a hero. The fool, he killed himself” (53). And a fool he is. Indeed, what is noticeably absent from the play is an interlocutor who can speak intelligently for the student movement and adequately engage the Middle-aged Man in political dialogue.
THE GIRL AND THE SPECTATOR
This denouement to the masculine debate about national politics conveniently sets the stage for the play’s gendered drama in its second half. At this pivotal point, the Young Man’s presumed death sends the Girl into immediate hysterics: “They’ve killed him!” she screams several times. The Middle-aged Man is thus prompted to take control of the situation. “Stop being hysterical!” he barks and, irritated, slaps her in the face. He then gruffly offers to sacrifice himself in order to protect her: “Go to the back and wait! Don’t shout if they come looking for us. Don’t utter a sound! Go and hide at the back, didn’t you hear me?” (47). This display of paternalistic machismo has the effect of propelling the Girl into the older man’s tender embrace. “Don’t leave me on my own,” she pleads, taking his hand. “Don’t smoke, I’m scared of fire and light, I’m scared of everything.” At her urging, and out of sheer pity, he starts to kiss her, as she “stands on her toes, enraptured.” She soon becomes aroused and throws herself passionately on him, and after a brief initial protest, he yields to her “wild” and “wanton” womanhood (48–49). This scene of sexual consummation at the end of act 1 already foreshadows the play’s climactic conclusion.
Midway through act 2, the Young Man is revealed to have survived his temporary exit and returns to the warehouse, only to discover with much embarrassment and resentment what he has missed in the meantime. At the beginning of the play, he had been the one to act as the strong manly protector to the Girl’s damsel in distress. Indeed, throughout much of the first act, the two youngsters perform to a T stereotypical gender roles of masculine fortitude and feminine frailty. Their first scenes together, for example, repeatedly highlight the Girl’s agitation and terror on the one hand and the Young Man’s calmness and gallantry on the other. As she variously moans and weeps about the blood splattered on her dress, her sense of suffocation, and the imagined wounds on her body—“Where did this blood come from? . . . All over, I’ve got blood all over me! . . . My chest. I can’t breathe. I’m going to die . . . I don’t want to be a cripple! . . . I feel sick . . . I’m going to puke . . . I can’t stand the smell of blood. . . . I really feel like crying”—he tries to soothe and steady her: “Calm down! It’s only on your dress. Other people’s blood. . . . Don’t be silly. . . . You’re perfectly all right. . . . Of course you’re alive. We both are. We’ve managed to escape from the Square. . . . I’m right here beside you” (4–6). Tellingly, this scene occurs prior to the Middle-aged Man’s stage entrance. The implication seems to be that the student activist breaks down into irrational tantrums only in the face of the wiser intellectual, and conversely, that it is only in the face of female weakness that he appears heroic and stalwart.
If the Young Man is discreet enough to step aside while the Girl takes off her blood-splattered dress in this initial moment, he will exhibit his masculine strength again with greater sexual prowess later in act 1, perhaps as a form of displaced aggression at being bested by the Middle-aged Man in political argument. Here the Girl relapses into a nervous hallucinatory trance: “I really can’t take it any more! . . . My nerves are going to snap any minute! . . . I’ve got no feelings left, not even a little bit, my whole body’s as stiff as a corpse. I wish somebody’d just shoot me and finish me off . . . I can’t hear anything. Where am I? Don’t leave me, I’m dying . . . floating, floating on a river full of dead bodies . . .” In response, the Young Man tries once more to reassure her: “Close your eyes. . . . Just relax. Lean on me . . . You’re good, alive and well . . . I’ll protect you, I’ll be with you all the time.” This time, however, he delivers more than his share of chivalry as he exacts tribute in the form of fondling and kissing: “Your whole body is talking . . . Don’t worry. I’m here . . . to caress you . . . so warm and soft.” This physical intimacy between them comes to an abrupt conclusion when he, incited to sudden heights of desire by the obscene sound of passersby urinating outside the warehouse, frantically embraces and kisses her, even though she struggles to push him away (17–19).
The sexual interruption is only temporary, however, for this is the very scene the Young Man will resume at the play’s end—on much more menacing terms. Upon his return to the warehouse, he spies the Girl’s naked body and quickly infers what has happened between her and the older man. Dumbfounded and hurt, he threatens to leave, but she cajoles him into staying, and he collapses, sobbing, into her arms. He then begins to kiss her forcibly, over her shoves and protests. “How come you let him?” he demands, indicating the Middle-aged Man. “I wanted to,” she answers coldly. “I’ll do it with anybody I want! As long as I feel like it.” “Anybody? Anybody who happens to pass by?” he asks, stunned at her indiscriminate promiscuity. “Even an asshole? Some horny philandering asshole! . . . You sure know how to put on an act! Whore—” (56). At this insult she slaps him, then kneels down and starts to cry. Without fail, her familiar display of female vulnerability halts him. Momentarily recalled to his chivalric code, he apologizes with much contrition. This detour into civility, though, does not last long, for the Girl proves herself to be his equal in the ways of verbal provocation and mockery. Refusing to play the forgiving woman this time around, she snarls bitterly: “‘Sorry, sorry.’ Always the same old ‘sorry.’ Just this one word is enough for a man to hurt a woman.” She then reproves him in language oddly reminiscent of the Middle-aged Man’s: “Nobody can save me. Nobody can save anybody. We’re all passers-by. Don’t think that just because you pulled me away and saved my life, I should be your woman, and I’ll have to sleep with you. . . . You think that women are cheap, right? That they can’t live without men? You’re just a little boy, but you’ve got such a filthy mind” (57). Her vindication of the worth of women, and her diatribe against the “filthy” offenses of men, waxes even more vehement at the older man’s show of sarcasm: “But you men are all the same inside. You think that women are all bad, but it’s you who are the dirty ones. You only feel good after you’ve made women dirty, but in actual fact you’ve only managed to make yourselves dirty” (60). Finally, targeting both men, she explodes into a long speech on behalf of all women:
You’re all depressed [or suffocated: biemen]. When you’ve dumped your troubles onto women, every one of you is a hero. You can’t stand loneliness, but you demand that women be alone. You can’t face yourselves, and the only thing you can do is prove that you’re a man, a real man in front of women, but you won’t allow a woman to prove herself, that she’s a woman, a woman with integrity, dignity, and desires! (Stands up. Proudly.) You only allow yourselves to have desires, but you won’t allow a woman, someone you possess, someone you claim to love, to have desires for anything but you. You only allow yourselves to have your so-called freedom, spirit, and will, but you won’t allow other people to have them. You just pass on your pain to others—Every one of you is selfish, ugly, and wretched, and dying to show off your ego. (Laughs to herself.) You’re only real when you’re in front of women, the naked bodies of women, and when you’re naked as well. (64)
After this clearly feminist speech, the Middle-aged Man suddenly takes her in his arms and kisses her; she—inexplicably—reciprocates, nestling into his embrace. It is in this instant that the Young Man, jealous, enraged, but feeling licensed to transgress at last, dashes over and wrestles her onto the ground. In the rape scene that follows, the two “roll around in the muddy water” as the Girl first “moans, then howls loudly like a wounded animal.” In a perverse kind of narrative fulfillment, her recent anxieties over “filth” and her invectives against men’s “dirtiness” are exteriorized in the plot and revisited on her own body. Gao’s stage directions here dictate that the rape be prolonged, lyricized, almost ritualized: “Everything happens slowly and solemnly, accompanied by the continuous sound of dripping water.” The Middle-aged Man has enough presence of mind to break away, but the Young Man appears not even cognizant of his own assault when he utters his last lines in the play a moment later, in panic and fright over the Girl’s unconscious body: “What’s wrong with you? Wake up! Wake up! She—?” (65).
So, in an alarming and rather bizarre turn of events, the student activist regresses into not only a mob child but, more damningly, a rapist, and an oblivious one at that. In an inversion of the student-government power dynamic that forms the play’s backdrop, Gao casts his sole representative of the student movement in the role—not of victim, whether in part or in full—but of sexual aggressor, one of infantile and unthinking brutality. But the Girl, too, Gao implies, is a guilty victim. Just as the Middle-aged Man reprimands the Young Man early on for being “too green to be playing with politics” (ni wan zhengzhi tai nen) (26), so he says to the Girl after her feminist tirade that she is “playing with fire” (ni zai wan huo) (64). In both these grim warnings, he uses the word “play” (wan), at once comparing the two young people to children and invoking a rhetorical equivalence between the Young Man’s national politics and the Girl’s gender politics. Through the voice of the Middle-aged Man, Gao seems to suggest that the Girl is an overly reckless proponent of women’s freedom, that by making speeches—like the Tiananmen students—in front of the wrong audience, she too is foolishly courting a destructive end. Indeed, the Girl’s rape in the immediate wake of her fierce critique of patriarchy suggests a logic of punishment—for her insolent transgression into the masculine realm of politics, for her foolhardy demands for sexual freedom, and in the end, for playing the feminist.
In this conclusion to Taowang, we detect a correlation between Gao’s unsympathetic critique of Tiananmen activism and his more sympathetic but nonetheless misogynistic critique of feminism. By aligning the massacre of the students with the rape of the Girl, he maintains the conservative viewpoint that the disempowered of a society should not petition for their rights and freedoms too vigorously, since forcing the issue with the powers-that-be will only result in a wreaking of sovereign violence on their own persons. The disenfranchised and the powerless should flee from the polis and from every incarnation of power. To band together and form a collective movement is at best futile; at worst, it leads to further violence and possibly self-destruction. No doubt this is the implication of Taowang’s finale: the two young champions of the politics of freedom, having escaped the scene of a large-scale massacre, in the end cannot avoid a microcosmic reenactment of the use of force with each other. This is, after all, Gao’s core criticism of all modes of collective politics. And this, finally, is the sinister way in which his theories of existential flight and political noncommitment become compatible with a kind of quietism, one that resigns itself to and perhaps even inadvertently validates every existing system of repressive power.
Significantly, the concerns raised by these two vectors of the play—the politics of gender and that of national governance—while interrelated, are not utterly interchangeable. I would suggest that it is precisely through a scrutiny of gender disparity in Taowang, a play ostensibly premised on national politics, that we can uncover a larger problem in Gao’s writing, namely, his contradictory handling of the concept of otherness. As already noted, critics of Taowang have consistently avoided tackling its most unsettling elements, particularly its representation of gender. As far as I know, in English-language sources at least, no critic has even mentioned the rape scene. This omission allows Henry Zhao, for instance, to declare with startling confidence that Taowang showcases Gao’s “intense social-commitment,” “social consciousness and sense of responsibility” (98). Sy Ren Quah, in a more balanced analysis, nevertheless skirts the scene by focusing on the more gender-neutral denouement afterward, which enables him to conclude, in an existentialist vein friendly to Gao, that “by fleeing the collective, the individual will need only deal with problems of his or her own self” (184). Most curious of all, Mabel Lee, in her discussion of the play, focuses on the theme of sexuality at length and even summarizes in detail the physical flirting between the characters, only to abruptly switch to an exegesis of One Man’s Bible just when she would have been obliged to address the Girl’s rape. In place of that scene of sexual violation, Lee distills several narrative moments from Gao’s novel that involve women voluntarily and enthusiastically offering their bodies to the autobiographical protagonist, moments that facilitate her feel-good thesis about Gao’s portrayal of “sexual lust” as “an affirmation of life, a lust for life, in situations of extreme terror” (“Nobel” 8). By ignoring the play’s representation of sexual violence, however, these critics end up giving subtle ideological consent to it.
Claire Conceison is therefore quite right in exhorting that issues of gender need to be “subjected to more self-conscious and deliberate feminist analyses” by Gao’s critics. As she points out, his “disturbing gender hierarchies and depictions of the female . . . beg for immediate feminist critique or at least more serious analytical engagement” (752). A number of critics have heeded Conceison’s call, most notably the contributors to a 2002 issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture devoted entirely to Gao’s work. In the lead article, for example, Julia Lovell provides an instructive reading of Gao’s two novels as largely a masculinist enterprise aimed at “recenter[ing] the marginal male intellectual” in post-Mao China (“Gao” 22). She situates him within the generation of post–Cultural Revolution male writers who feel a “deep sense of male anguish at their recollections of impotence while suffering political repression,” and who consequently turn to quasi-autobiographical narratives of sexual fantasies and exploits in order “to reassert their freedom, strength, and masculinity” (“Gao” 25). Gang Gary Xu extends this gender analysis in a more positive direction when he reads Gao’s novels as metatexts exposing the “symbolic constructedness” of gender itself, especially gender as constructed through traumatic events. Xu is, however, perhaps a bit too eager to acquit Gao of misogyny when he feeds the latter’s “equation between political violence and sexual violence” into a psychoanalytic theory of masochism on which the emphasis shifts from gendered corporeality to the psychic economy of theatricality (119–25).
It is this equivalence between political and sexual violence that Carlos Rojas, in the same issue, firmly rejects, arguing that the female constitutes an “axis of alterity” in Gao’s fiction. Of Gao’s critics, Rojas is the one who most takes the Nobel laureate to task for his representations of gender. Where others credit Gao with cleverly transcending or self-consciously deconstructing gender differences, Rojas proposes that feminism constitutes a central ideological blind spot in Gao’s writing, in which claims of feminism persistently get suppressed, erased, or denied (199–202). It is with biting irony, then, that Rojas titles his piece “Without [Femin]ism.” None of these critics address Gao’s drama at any length, if at all, and none deal with Taowang, but Rojas’s critique can be aptly transferred to Gao’s Tiananmen play. While an aesthetic of alterity is certainly not a necessary evil in the realm of literary representation (and theorists from Gayatri Spivak to Jean Baudrillard have usefully mobilized a notion of radical alterity in the service of postcolonial subaltern politics as much as critiques of contemporary mass media), I would nonetheless agree with Rojas and go further to propose that attention to the tendency toward ideological suppression in Gao’s work will be valuable for pinpointing not just his gender politics but also his very conception of citizenship. Bringing these two aspects into interpretive alignment will clarify his problematic position of ideological complicity along multiple axes of alterity.
Returning to Taowang, then, we recognize how Gao’s unequal gender politics is already apparent from the outset with his naming of the characters. Whereas the two men are referred to by gender-neutral terms distinguished only by their relative age, the female character is referred to as Guniang, which Gilbert Fong literally and fittingly translates as “Girl,” even though she is several years older than the Young Man. The name conspicuously not chosen is “Young Woman,” since the word for “woman” (nüren) connotes someone with sexual experience. All the same, the Girl’s sexual identity is a point of debate in the play in a way not applicable to the men. In act 1, for example, the Middle-aged Man constantly calls her a “girl” while she repeatedly corrects him with “Stop saying ‘girl’ this and ‘girl’ that” (24) and “I’m a woman!” (48). Gender is hence mobilized as a determining factor only when the character is female, and then the relevant shades of difference become entirely a matter of sexual knowledge. Even the Girl’s two aspirations—to become a wife and mother, and to be a successful actress—are highly feminized, dreamed of solely in relation to men, and emphatically tied to the sexualized body (21–23). Gao attempts to naturalize this link between woman and the sexual body by having the Girl herself, as we saw above in her definitive feminist speech, equate “reality” with “the naked bodies of women” (64). Although her criticism of the Middle-aged Man’s philosophical posturing may be read as an intriguing instant of Gao’s dramatic self-irony, we cannot but observe, too, that Gao stages this self-critique chauvinistically, by making the Girl ventriloquize his own gender biases and represent herself as wholly sexuality and body, in stark opposition to the men as mind and politics. In addition, in spite of her participation in the student demonstrations, the play defines her in terms of not national politics—a masculine realm consigned to the Young Man—but womanhood and corporeality. The only route by which she can enter the political domain is via gender, i.e., feminism. Yet even in this respect the Middle-aged Man will not grant her political authority, as evident in his crabbed remark to the Young Man: “It’s real fun to listen to a woman talking philosophy like this” (61).
Gao’s reduction of women into sexual bodies has the effect of essentializing them as bare life. Recalling Agamben’s thesis, we can say that the rape scene at the end of Taowang posits women as the existential homo sacer to male sovereign aggression, an interpretation enhanced by the play’s allegorical atmosphere. On this reading, the play seems to intimate that, even in circumstances of shared vulnerability to state power, even in the warehouse’s suspended zone of relative protection, a woman will never acquire complete safety in the presence of men, and so she must live cautiously, moderately, modestly. By extension, the license permitted men to take part in affairs of the world, to enter into the polity, can never be fully accorded women by virtue of their greater and dual exposure to bodily violence. What the Girl brings upon herself may seem to be a gendered version of suicide, corresponding to what the Middle-aged Man calls the heroic mass suicide of the student activists (12), but the salient difference is that, while both the Girl and the Young Man successfully escape the carnage in the Square, at least temporarily, she alone cannot escape the more fundamental condition of womanhood, even in the symbolic space of common humanity and existential refuge. This is a point Gao drives home by having the absent scene of violence in the Square re-created exclusively, exceptionally on the female body. In effect, political violence—which Gao theorizes as universal violence—is uniquely displaced onto and inflicted upon the woman. In the play’s existentialist calculus, not all “others” are equal, for some bear the brunt of actual suffering more than others. From this perspective, the closing scene that comes after the rape—where heavy pounding at the door signals the three characters’ discovery by the troops and portends their eventual death together (66)—gives the impression of a dramatic cop-out. If the three share a common fate as victims to external power, if all distinctions of otherness are again erased among them as they face the same existential death, then it is pointless to hold anyone accountable for his or her actions in this life. The Young Man as much as the playwright can thus safely escape from specific responsibility to the burning polis as much as the violated woman.
Gao, however, plays a double game with the theme of escape. On the one hand, he promotes fleeing as the only mode of being that can preserve an individual’s humanity and dignity. On the other, he advocates a kind of marginal spectatorship for the writer. In his essays, he often presents himself as a writer of “cold literature” who stands “at the social margins so he can better observe with stillness and self-reflect” (“Wo” 17), “an outsider and an observer who looks on with a pair of cold eyes [yishuang lengde yanjing]” (“Bali” 22). His notion of “looking” (guancha), unlike more current theories of historical witnessing, is not tied to any sort of social or political mission and is more properly regarded as a form of detached spectatorship. Its sole function is to satisfy the individual’s personal desires and interests. In Taowang, this translates into the Middle-aged Man’s contradictory stance toward violence. No “hero” by his own admission, he is as quick to flee the killings around the Square as anyone, and he justifies this as an unavoidable existential condition. Yet he also describes himself rather archly as a “bystander” or “passer-by” (luren) (26), someone who cannot help but watch events unfold from the sidelines even though he has no wish or intention to become a direct participant.16 With this self-portrait as an isolated observer of national drama, he insinuates that he is after all a man of conscience with psychic investments in the country’s well-being. When this role of the aloof spectator is transferred to a scene of sexual violence, however, it becomes suddenly much more chilling. Having warned both young people of their imprudent behaviors, the Middle-aged Man stays true to his self-description as a nonactivist and noninterventionist when he merely stands by and stares at the spectacle of the rape, “looking very sad” but unmoved to action even when the Girl keeps crying out, “No!” (65). He is implicitly credited with objectivity of mind for extricating himself from the two’s rolling bodies, but paradoxically, and contrary to both his earlier reaction to the military crackdown and his advocacy of flight from every situation of power and force, he fails to absent himself from this scene of gendered violence, remaining not only anchored to the site of the woman’s ravaging but transfixed by the sight of it. In effect, he comes to occupy the role of voyeur—complicitous in a guilty pleasure that no amount of “looking very sad” can nullify. Indeed, were he to live up to his own philosophy of escape or execute his role as passerby more fully, he would flee the scene of this latter crime as swiftly as he had that of the political massacre. Once more, then, we see an asymmetry in the way Gao portrays cool spectatorship vis-à-vis the gendered other versus the political other.
This brings us to the issue of Gao’s own complicity in representational violence. Despite his self-proclaimed “fragility” and powerlessness as an individual and a writer, Taowang divulges his unconscious and incongruous positioning of himself in relation to power and lack. Ultimately, he lacks neither authorial agency nor complicitous desires when he grants himself the artistic license to re-present the Tiananmen massacre as the rape of the Girl, and then to project himself as spectator and voyeur at the scenes of both crimes. This collusion is in turn dramatically erased through his appeal to the theory of existential escape, by which he appropriates the plight of Tiananmen activists and of violated women alike as parallels to his own geographical exile and supposed intellectual marginality. At the same time, by existentializing the Square, he erases both gender inequality and totalitarianism as specific, nonuniversal structures of oppressive power, as well as his own possible complicity in them.
Most ironic of all, contrary to his self-presentation as first and foremost an individualist writer whose views and beliefs arise purely from his autonomous self, Gao’s entire worldview is actually and vitally grounded in the Tiananmen episode. As noted, Taowang in fact precedes the 1990s essays in which he lays out his many theories of without isms, existential flight, political noncommitment, and detached spectatorship. His aesthetic philosophy, far from being an intellectual system that springs independently and wholesale from the chambers of a solitary mind, can in fact be traced back to his historically specific response to the PRC’s use of force on June 4. Although he is in the habit of citing Henri Laborit’s Eloge de la fuite (In praise of flight) as a book kindred to his own philosophical outlook, he himself admits that he discovered Laborit only after he finished writing Taowang (Lee and Dutrait 743). Gao, of course, is not one to attribute his own ideas to political history, but it will be his translators and critics who, in their canonization of him, decisively reverse the historical chronology and obscure the political debt. And so Mabel Lee, for one, after pointing out that Gao’s theory of fleeing is galvanized after he wrote Taowang, goes on to explicate Laborit’s thesis as Gao’s philosophical “starting point” (“Nobel” 5). By contrast, we can say Tiananmen is the historical starting point of Gao Xingjian the individualist existentialist writer, and also the ideological origin of Gao Xingjian the Nobel winner. That is to say, possibly unbeknownst to himself, Gao is an eminently Tiananmen-inflected writer, and the international authorities in charge of literary canonization have aided in burying the trail of the massacre.
Gao’s relation to Tiananmen is not simply one of moderate sympathy for the student activists, and certainly not one of political support for the movement, but essentially one of exilic nostalgia for the scene of origin’s violence and ideological complicity with the power that wielded that violence. The nonrecognition of the specific nature of his link to Tiananmen has led the international media to rebrand his nostalgia and complicity as “dissidence.” This raises the question of what needs and desires Gao satiates for the West. The answer can only be speculative, but on one level, perhaps his erasure of totalitarianism, from the writing of Taowang to his later essays, facilitates a kind of global amnesia about the massacre. This amnesia does not entail an utter forgetting of the event itself, for the memory of Tiananmen is resurrected frequently, if misleadingly, enough by the West, the media coverage on the 2000 Nobel being a good index. Rather, perhaps, this amnesia entails a forgetting of responsibility and complicity, of the memory of the world’s position as spectators and voyeurs—much like Gao himself, psychically projected onto the conveniently proximate figure of the Middle-aged Man—enrapt by the scenes of atrocity brought close to home by technology, literally into the space of one’s home via television, but not close to home enough to compel political or ethical intervention, either in personal or collective form. What Gao facilitates is this mode of empty memory, where the event becomes mediatized as a spectacle, imagistically globalized and diasporized but evacuated of all political and ethical urgency. At the same time, worldly spectators can be exonerated for their spectatorship when ensconced in Gao’s soft humanism. With China’s meteoric rise as an economic and political force on the international stage today, the task of reexamining Tiananmen’s imprint on our current global cultural politics becomes ever more pressing. The task of reversing Gao’s aesthetic of amnesia will fall to the most recent diaspora writer of Tiananmen, Ma Jian, in his 2008 novel Beijing Coma, which most fully reconnects June 4 as a cultural memory to the longer history of PRC totalitarian politics that both predates and postdates the massacre.
Finally, given Gao’s harsh but timely critique of nationalism, we may be tempted to construe his determined attempts at existentializing space itself as symptomatic of a certain yearning for denationalization, a global map devoid of national boundaries. His prominence as a diaspora writer who combines Asian and Western aesthetic traditions contributes to this popular understanding of him as someone who strives to carve out for himself a new mode of inhabiting globalization by deterritorializing the imagination. Indeed, he frequently refers to himself as a “citizen of the world” in just this sense. Yet this effort is not unique to Gao, nor can it override the enduring significance of space and the power effects of national and governmental boundaries. The resurrected desire for humanism in our time, in order to distinguish itself from its Enlightenment precursors, must resolutely tie the politics of the human to a continual awareness of historical legacies of sovereign power. Gao, however, erases real differences in the world’s unequal modes of political being, particularly the difference between his location now in a territory of political privilege and others’ location in one of political repression. This theme of the persistence of location, nationality, and power will get taken up by Annie Wang in Lili, a text that situates Tiananmen within a larger international dynamics of global capital and contemporary orientalism. Before Wang’s novel, though, we will first take an intermediate step toward globalization in Ha Jin’s The Crazed, for which Tiananmen is conceived not existentially but diasporically, not as a universal species condition but an inaugural point for the Chinese diaspora.