Printer Friendly

Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain: the making of the Eurasian post-modern self.


"I don't know if you have ever observed this strange thing, the self. Often the more you look, the more it doesn't seem to be like it, and the more you look, the more it isn't it" writes Gao Xingjian in his powerful narrative of the search for personal identity and spiritual meaning, Soul Mountain (150). Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, the book's title is "Lingshan" in Chinese, which means "Soul Mountain." Gao's book is profoundly influenced by both Asian and European traditions ranging from the epistemology of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the European grail quest motif to the mysticism of the Daodejing, Confucian cultural traditions, Buddhist religious meditations, and the repressive Socialist politics of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Soul Mountain is a novel about a spiritual pilgrimage to a sacred mountain in Southwest China, but rather than being a strictly religious pilgrimage, it is a spiritual search for a paradise. of the soul, a utopia where the protagonist hopes to be free from the disappointments of the physical world and to avoid persecution from the Socialist cultural environment. The central action of the story line is based on the author's wanderings in the remote mountain regions of Southwestern China following his false medical diagnoses of lung cancer with the prospect of immanent death. The narrator encounters mysterious Daoist priests, village elders, Panda researchers, Chinese ethnic subcultures, and tribal folklore that has been passed from generation to generation. Despite the ardent quest for truth and the search for resolution, Soul Mountain the place is nowhere to be found. However, the nameless protagonist manages to discover a more enduring monument: a post-modern concept of self that combines both European and Chinese cultures.


I will argue that one of the largest influences upon Gao's novel is French. It is a fact that he earned a university degree in French in Beijing prior to his exile to Paris in 1987, where he completed the manuscript of Soul Mountain in 1989. Born in 1940, Gao began his career as a writer in the 1960s, and his production would certainly have been more voluminous had he not been forced to burn many manuscripts during the Cultural Revolution. His translator Mabel Lee writes,
 Soul Mountain is a literary response to the devastation
 of the self of the individual by the primitive human urge
 for the warmth and security of an other ... Human history
 abounds with cases of the individual being induced by
 force or ideological persuasion to submit to the power of
 the collective; the surrender of the self to the collective
 eventually becomes habit, norm, convention, and
 tradition, and this phenomenon is not unique to any one
 (Lee 2000, vi)

Goran Malmqvist of the Swedish Nobel Academy notes that Soul Mountain deals with an existential dilemma: "man's urge to find the absolute independence granted by solitude conflicts with a longing for the warmth and fellowship which can be given by 'the other'" (Presentation Speech). Companionship threatens the individual's integrity and inevitably ends in a struggle for power, especially when it comes to relations between the genders. Gao's searing sense of loneliness in politics-intensive 20th century China made him go in search of "secret" parts of Southwestern China where he could find primitive ethnic cultures, shamanistic practices, and "original" Chinese individuals untouched by the Socialist utopian agenda. Using extravagant stories and exaggeration characteristic of Europe's "cock and bull" tradition, Gao excoriates conservative Confucian social rules and Marxist ideology at the same time he exemplifies the storytellers he encounters in the mountains.

The largest technical problems of the novel are two: 1) the author's manipulation of the personal pronouns and 2) the author's assault against and parody of the traditional European Bildungsroman or coming of age autobiography. In his quest for spiritual enlightenment, Gao is forced by his alienation into fabricating a "you," "he," and "she" so that he can distance himself from himself and create companionship. The multivalent "he" personas that appear in the novel work in many ways to project the author's ego and to explore a wide range of human relationships. Gao avoids the plural pronouns "we" and "us" because he feels they place too much emphasis on the collective experience. Gao expressed his anti-collective expressive theory in his Nobel acceptance speech:
 What I want to say here is that literature can only be the
 voice of the individual and this has always been so.
 Once literature is contrived as the hymn of the nation,
 the flag of the race, the mouthpiece of the political party
 or the voice of a class or group, it can be employed as a
 mighty and all-engulfing tool of propaganda ... In the
 century just ended literature confronted precisely this
 misfortune and was more deeply scarred by politics and
 power than in any previous period.
 (Gao 2002)

After exhibiting the ingredients of this multi-faceted self, Gao brings them together at various points. Gao tends to alternate chapters of Soul Mountain between "I" and "you," gradually introducing "he" and "she" as the quest advances. Late in the novel, the pronouns gather to discuss the "rules" of the novel in a chapter ending with the admonition, "reading this chapter is optional but as you've read it, you've read it" (Gao 2000, 455). Reminiscent of the 18th century Anglo-Irish satire Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, Soul Mountain includes a discussion of meta-fiction as one character argues, "this isn't a novel" (Gao 2000, 452). "Do you really think the petulant exchanges between these pronouns can replace the creation of the personalities of the characters," another pronoun asks, anticipating the claims of book reviewers in the West. "Why are you writing fiction if you don't even understand what fiction is?" (Gao 2000, 453).
 The critic is cowed and snarls, "This is modernist, it's
 imitating the West but falling short."

 He says then it's Eastern.

 "Yours is much worse than Eastern! You've slapped
 together travel notes, moralistic rambling, feelings,
 notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like
 fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like
 nonsense of our own invention, and are calling it
 (Gao 2000, 453)

What about the impact of French and European culture on Gao Xingjian? Gao shares with Rousseau an obsession with the emerging concept of self. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was born at Geneva, Switzerland and became famous as a French philosopher, ethicist, novelist, educator, political theorist, and musical composer who initiated the European era of Romanticism. In some ways, Rousseau invented Romanticism and the age of sensibility. The trend existed before him, but Rousseau was the first European to give it full expression. Rousseau's descriptive and philosophical writing shows subtle and acute awareness of the influence of natural surroundings, landscapes, trees, water, birds, and other external realities of human institutions as well as the personal and sometimes bizarre and sarcastic conspiracy thinking that forced him into exile in his own country. In his own way, Rousseau was chasing "Panda researchers" in the mountains and finding solace in erotic relationships that defied the social norms of 18th century Europe.

Rousseau was the son of a Geneva watchmaker who was irresponsible and preferred hunting, dancing, and dueling to work. Deprived of a maternal figure because of the death of his mother shortly after his birth, Rousseau at 16 years old started on a kind of spiritual pilgrimage and search for meaning that introduced him to Louise de Warens, who became his patron and his lover. A religious person, de Warens arranged for Rousseau's trip to Turin, Italy, where he became a skeptical adherent to the faith claims of the Roman Catholic Church. For a period, Rousseau lived the life of a common laborer, working as a servant to a powerful family in Turin, and then he proceeded on a variety of self-education schemes and jobs in Chambery, Savoy, and with Mademoiselle de Warens (Bondanella 1998, 177).

In 1742, Rousseau ventured to Paris to make his fortune with a new but ultimately unsuccessful system of musical notation. In Paris, Rousseau became friends with Denis Diderot and his circle of friends engaged in many kinds of speculative scientific and philosophical ventures, and he contributed articles on music to Diderot's grand Encyclopedie, the first attempt to accumulate knowledge on a remarkable 35 volume scale that enlisted nearly all the important French theorists of the Enlightenment. The rationalist Diderot used the Encyclopedie as a powerful propaganda weapon against Ecclesiastical authority and the superstition, conservatism, and feudal social norms of the time (Diderot). The Encyclopedie had enormous impact on writers and thinkers in France, Germany, and England as well as on Rousseau himself, who began to think on a macro-level about the structure of knowledge and human institutions. After coming to Paris, Rousseau also began his liaison with Therese Le Vasseur, a semiliterate servant who became his common-law wife.

In 1749, Rousseau won first prize in a contest held by the Academy of Dijon on the question, "Has the progress of the sciences and arts contributed to the corruption or to the improvement of human conduct?" Sounding like a Daoist, Rousseau embraced the negative side, arguing that humanity was inherently benevolent and had been corrupted by civilization. Many scholars still believe that all of Rousseau's philosophy is based on his call for a return to nature (the Romanticism of the so-called "noble savage"), but this is a reductionism that magnifies the importance of Rousseau's first essay and does not allow for the evolution of his social thought.

Rousseau's second essay, Discours sur l'origine de l'inegalite des homes (1754) is a more developed and provocative argument. After its' publication, Rousseau left Paris and returned to Geneva, where he reverted to Protestantism to regain his Swiss citizenship. There he finished his novel, Julie ou La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), written in part under the influence of his love for Mademoiselle d'Houdetot. Rousseau's subsequent works De contract social begins with the famous maxim, "man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains" (Rousseau 1988, 85). Rousseau's educational treatise Emile (1762) offended both the French and Swiss church hierarchies and was burned in the streets of Paris and Geneva, something akin to the persecution of writers in China during the Cultural Revolution. Rousseau fled Geneva, first taking refuge in Neuchatel and Bern. Several times after having his house stoned and being chased from the city, Rousseau accepted the invitation of David Hume to live at his house in England, where he began to write the first part of his Confessions. He returned to Paris a short time later, where he lived in a fortified garret and attracted the attention of hordes of foreigners. He died in 1778, and Rousseau's remains were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris in 1794.

Rousseau's Confessions propose to describe not only his life but also his innermost thoughts and feelings, hiding nothing even though it might produce shame. Rousseau was influenced by the model of the Confessions of St. Augustine, but he created a new, intensely intimate and revealing style of autobiography that challenges the traditional concept of the self:
 I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent,
 and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My
 purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way
 true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.
 Simply myself. I know my own heart and understand
 my fellow man. But I am made unlike any one I have
 ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one
 in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am
 different. Whether Nature did well or ill in breaking the
 mould in which she formed me, is a question which can
 only be resolved after the reading of my book.
 (Rousseau 1953, 17)

Before looking at a few parallels between Soul Mountain and Rousseau's Confessions and political theory, I will consider the concept of the self in European and Asian models. Western psychology allows for a "self-concept" for declarative knowledge and "self-schemas" for the unconscious, sometimes antithetical notions of public and private self (Kazdin 2000, 208). Each individual maintains a package of self-schemas that may contain multiple self-concepts such as body images, values, social roles, status, symbolic memories, goals, expectations, and so forth. In Western psychology, the self is a consistent repertoire of behaviors and beliefs that can be categorized by an external observer.

In contrast, Asian psychologies associated with Daoism, Buddhism, or Hinduism are seen as unstable spiritual systems and are thus inferior to Western models. China's two most important "religions" Buddhism and Daoism claim that our usual state of consciousness is illusory. According to their primary teachers Laozi and the Buddha, our minds are largely out of control. Adherents can experience transcendent states of awareness by spending time in meditation observing their breathing. These states of mind do not easily subject themselves to Western criteria of psychological observation. However, recent research by Westerners on altered states of consciousness reveal a broad spectrum of psychological states; Asian religions appear to be more psychological in nature than the religions of Western Christianity, and their goals tend toward mind training and altered states of consciousness. Asian religions aim especially at cultivating exceptional levels of well-being that predate by thousands of years today's interest in "positive psychology." Approximately 2500 years ago, the Buddha and Laozi created altered states of consciousness in their pupils, state-dependent learning, cognitive behavior modification, social constructionist models of reality, and inhibition-conditioning processes that are only now on the growing edge of Western psychology (Corsini 106). Asian psychologies emphasize phenomenology and personal experience. Although they lack conventional scientific methodology, the followers of Buddha, Laozi or Brahma claim their disciplines are highly experimental. One of their principle emphases is on personal testing of their claims via direct experience, and Asian religions lay out a road map of instructions. Any Buddhist or Daoist who wishes to do so can test for himself or herself the validity of their techniques, claims, and results.

Gao Xingjian and Jean-Jacques Rousseau share this emphasis on experimental states of consciousness. Many of the "experiments" in both Soul Mountain and the Confessions of Rousseau center around the concept of self. Rousseau writes that his self-consciousness began with his early reading experiences:
 I felt before I thought: which is the common lot of man,
 though more pronounced in my case than in another's. I
 knew nothing of myself till I was five or six. I do not
 know how I learnt to read. I only remember my first
 books and their effect upon me; it is from my earliest
 reading that I date the unbroken consciousness of my
 own existence.
 (Rousseau 1953, 19)

Jean Starobinski writes that "the discovery of the self coincides with the discovery of the imagination; the two discoveries are in fact the same" (Starobinski 1988a, 7). Rousseau posits that self-awareness is defined in relation to the probability of becoming someone else through reading, imagination, wandering, and exotic travel. The sentimental and illusory knowledge enabled by such imaginative reading and travel involves a risk, but it brings with it a significant advantage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau "raises himself" with the assumption that he is different, that his imagination is the prime vehicle for expression, and that he has the capacity to define himself through pursuing an original path.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Gao Xingjian writes, "during the years when Mao Zedong implemented total dictatorship even fleeing was not an option" because the monasteries on distant mountains that provided refuge were destroyed. "It was only in this period when it was utterly impossible for literature that I came to comprehend why it was so essential: literature allows a person to preserve a human consciousness."
 It can be said that talking to oneself is the starting point
 of literature and that using language to communicate is
 secondary. A person pours his feelings and thoughts
 into language that, written as words, become literature.
 At the time there is no thought of utility or that some
 day it might be published yet there is the compulsion to
 write because there is recompense and consolation in the
 pleasure of writing. I began writing my novel Soul
 Mountain to dispel my inner loneliness at the very time
 when works I had written with rigorous self-censorship
 had been banned. Soul Mountain was written for myself
 and without the hope that it would be published.
 (Gao 2002)

Both Rousseau and Gao Xingjian find the origin of the self in the independent, imaginative experiment with language. In his speculation about the origin of the self, Gao talks with a Daoist archeologist who is excavating the ruins of a large semi-circular Han Dynasty city wall in a remote village on a sheer cliff of the Yangtze River. The archeologist points out earthenware spinning wheels in a display room of a cultural office, and Gao writes about the close resemblance between the swirling red and black patterns on the wheels and the Yin-Yang fish design or the Taiji Chart:
 At that time [Han Dynasty China] the individual did not
 exist. There was not an awareness of a distinction
 between "I" and "you." The birth of I derived from fear
 of death, and only afterwards an entity which was not I
 came to constitute you. At the time people did not have
 an awareness of fearing oneself, knowledge of the self
 came from an other was affirmed by possessing and
 being possessed, and by conquering and being
 conquered ... In the individual's struggle for survival
 amongst others, the self was gradually forgotten and
 gradually churned like a grain of sand into the chaos of
 the boundless universe.
 (Gao 2000, 308)

Gao's self is much more at risk of obliteration due to the social contingencies of military, political, and social oppression. However, imagination is just as crucial to Gao because of the necessity of achieving a nonteleoligcal oneness or a Daoist emptying of the self. The image of the Han Dynasty walls (representing Confucian teachings) surrounding excavation of an older Temple of the White Emperor with artifacts (representing Daoism) shows the problem: the Soul Mountain narrators must define the self in the midst of the crushing weight of nonsynchronous Chinese cultural traditions. The teachings of Buddhism and the parable of the other shore frequently provide counterpoint to the more pragmatic demands of Communism or Confucian filial piety. The self of Soul Mountain cannot exist independent of imagination, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, whereas for Rousseau, the teachings of the church and church authorities frequently undermine the search for the self.

The comparison between Rousseau and Gao Xingjian is so striking that many paragraphs taken from Rousseau could fit into Soul Mountain without editing. Perhaps the heart of the matter is that both authors must define the self in highly politicized climates. Starobinksi notes that revolt and critique of society is the start and begins with the experience of social outrage.

The Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts denounces an unhappy condition and an imposture. Men seem to live in concord and harmony; in reality, they give themselves over to cunning war, they dream only of doing evil, and, under the mask of civility, each conscience pursues death of the death (as Hegel will declare later). Primitive peoples, the unpolished citizens of Sparta or of early Rome, knew another existence. They lived in a union of the heart, in perfect transparency; they offered themselves to the examination of their gods just as they offered themselves to their fellow citizens. Their happiness consisted in living in such a manner that nothing ever prevented full communication between consciences. No shadow, no lie was ever interposed. For us, alas, everything has changed; we live in servitude and defiance. Everything opposes us, down to the interests which seem to join us together ... from this first Discourse, Rousseau formulates the grand outlines of what will be called his historical pessimism. The interest of this Discourse, if not its originality, lies in the aspect of human relations. Social disparity (the inequity of wealth) and psychological separation (the rupture between consciences) go together. The man who can no longer exist without a superfluity of possessions is the slave of opinion. He needs to shine before others, to impose himself upon them by his rank or by his ostentation. From that moment on, essence and appearance become more and more separated, there is no true friendship, no more good faith, no more piety. This laceration does not exist only between civilized man and his neighbor, it also exists from our truth; we are separated from ourselves, we have lost our unity. It is a quest for unity that the entire corpus of Rousseau's works presents to us (Starobinski 1988b, 222).

A quest for unity might explain what emerges from the wanderings of Gao Xingjian: a post-modern Eurasian concept of self that combines Rousseau's rebellious definition of individuality with a Chinese religious sensibility and respect for the past (also shared with Rousseau). To imagine the structure of Gao's post-modern self, one can visualize a chart with the headings "Chinese" and "European" above a long list of attributes. Of course, the chart itself seems dualistic and out of step with the search for unity, but it allows us to catalogue features in service of a conclusion. On the left side under the Chinese heading, we can list many things: Buddhism, Daoism, Confucian ethics, Chinese history, Chinese geography, Chinese folklore, legends, songs, "the Wild Man," ethnic minorities like the Miao and Yi, Maoist rhetoric, primeval forests, raging rivers, and mysterious mountain sages.

On the right side of the chart under "European," we find the uncanny parallels to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the interest in political rights, social mobility, the quest for self definition, the card-carrying "writer" on a research mission to reveal scientific and anthropological secrets in the spirit of Jacques Cousteau or Jacques Marquette, the erotic connections with a woman that allow him to explore the inner recesses of sexuality and sensual knowledge, the individualistic quest for the "grail" against the currents of politics, religion, and morality.

"The book [Soul Mountain] questions everything," said Gao in an interview with the Boston Globe. "All the paradigms of existence: history, society, politics. It raises doubts about consciousness, self, even the ability of language to express the self. It emphasizes how difficult it is for human beings to connect with one another." Asked if he ever misses his cultural roots, Gao said, "Homesickness is a drug for a writer. I have a continuous quest for new understanding and knowledge; this has made me write about China, but also about the West. If a writer cannot start something new, his life force is missing and he should give up writing" (Mehegan 2001, A 17).

For some Chinese, Gao's vision in Soul Mountain is incompatible with the fundamental structure of reality. "In the Chinese language," explains Yaohua Shi of UMass-Amherst, "one rarely uses the singular pronoun. In English we say 'my country,' but in Chinese we would say 'our country.' To call it 'my country' would sound presumptuous, as if it belongs to you" (Mehegan 2001, A 17). But in a sense, the China of Soul Mountain does belong to Gao Xingjian because China is within the author's imagination, a rare balancing act between self and society, East and West, individual and collective, a monument to the enduring ability of literature to speak out across cultural boundaries. Gao resists the idea of being a national hero or an example for others. "Nations are not the boundaries of culture, not literature, not a text. When we read a Western author, we do not think of what country he comes from, but of what moves us." The same can be said of Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain. Ultimately, it matters not that the author is culturally Chinese, only that his stories engage the reader and challenge our ideas about the novel. Gao's achievement might represent the ironic triumph of the West: the individual who through extraordinary genius transcends the cultures that created him or her, a nameless internationalism that both broadens horizons and enrages local politicians.


Bondanella, Julia Conaway. 1998. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Biographical Sketch." In Rousseau's Political Writings. Ed. Alan Ritter. New York: Norton.

Corsini, Raymond J., Ed. 1994. Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. New York: John Wiley

"Diderot, Denis." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2004. 1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation. <> Accessed on 11 November 2002.

Gao Xingjian. 2002. "Nobel Lecture." The Nobel e-Museum. <>. Accessed 11 November 2002.

--. 2000 Soul Mountain. Trans. By Mabel Lee. New York: HarperCollins.

Kazdin, Alan E. 2000. Ed. The Encyclopedia of Psychology. Vol 7. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Lee, Mabel. 2000. "Introduction" in Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. New York: Norton.

Malmqvist, Goran. 2002. "Presentation Speech." The Nobel e-Museum. <> Accessed 11 November 2002.

Mehegan, David. 2001. "The Man Who Can't Be 'We.'" Boston Globe 7 March 2001; section Living, A17.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1953. The Confessions. Trans. J. M. Cohen. London: Penguin.

--. 1988. On Social Contract or Principles of Political Right. Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella. In Rousseau's Political Writings. Ed. By Alan Ritter. New York: Norton.

Starobinsky, Jean. 1988a. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Trans. By Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

--. 1988b. "The Political Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau." Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella. In Rousseau's Political Writings. Ed. By Alan Ritter. New York: Norton, 1988. 221-232.
COPYRIGHT 2004 The Asian Studies Development Program's Association of Regional Centers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Thorndike, Jonathan L.
Publication:East-West Connections
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:Humor literature as a lens to Chinese identity.
Next Article:Diamond knowing: philosophical reflections on the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita-Sutra.

Related Articles
Chinese novelist wins Nobel Prize for literature.
Soul Mountain.
Books fact and fiction: Top 10 Fiction.
Gao Xingjian. One Man's Bible.
The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Soul Mountain.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters