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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 445-449
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Soul of Chaos: Critical Perspectives on Gao Xingjian edited by Kwok-kan Tam. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2001. Pp. v + 345. $43.50 cloth.
This essay collection about Gao Xingjian's plays and novels consists of an Introduction by the editor, Kwok-kan Tam, and fifteen essays that trace the 2000 Nobel laureate's literary footsteps in chronological order, which "A Chronology of Gao Xingjian" sums up at the end of the collection. According to the editor, Soul of Chaos was born as a critical appreciation of "[Gao's] contribution to the rejuvenation of Chinese tradition and his significance in world literature," (2) as endorsed by the Swedish Academy the previous year.
In chapter one, "Gao Xingjian on the Issue of Literary Creation," Mabel Lee tackles the illusive concept of Asian cultural homogeneity, an implicit antithesis of the heterogeneous West. Observing the similarities in Daoist texts and Nietzsche's thinking, Lee maintains that "the perspective of the other" can be used "to describe the self" (25).
The three essays from chapters two to four concern Gao's second play The Bus-Stop (1983). Tam compares the first Chinese Absurdist play to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which waiting or wasting is portrayed as the means of scrutinizing—or failing to do so—the epistemological meaning of human existence. Appraising The Bus-Stop as a dramatic inquiry into the critical, experimental stage of the post-Mao China, Tam sees this play as a landmark of the new generation of Chinese drama, generating controversies over its ideological inclination which anti-modernist critics consider as a challenge to Mao's socialist doctrines of literature and the tradition of the realist theatre of Ibsen and Stanislavsky (45). William Tay argues that Gao's avant-garde theatre frees the stage from socialist-realistic constraints by means of Artaud's and Grotowski's theories of the minimalist theatre and the theatre of poverty while at the same time sustaining traditional Chinese aesthetics. Ma Sen suggests an equivalence between the post-war European existential crisis manifested through the birth of the Absurd theatre in the tragic mess of China following the Cultural Revolution.
In chapter five, Xiaomei Chen focuses on Gao's third play Wild Man [End Page 445] (1985), which creates "Chineseness" with the local dialect of Sichuan Province and episodic scenes filled with colorful costumes, masks, songs, dances, and acrobatics, recalling, as a whole, the ambience of the Beijing Opera. Gao goes beyond Artaud's "total theatre" by allowing characters with in-depth social, psychological dimensions; by stressing the cordial, festive atmosphere during the performance, Gao's theatre clearly differs from Brecht's theatre of alienation. Chen's contention that there are in Gao "two distinct but comparable entities" (104) seems to be countered in Jo Riley and Michael Gissenwehrer's "The Myth of Gao Xingjian." However, the cultural essentialism of their assertion that the intrinsic Chineseness of Gao's play with the full resources of the Chinese language makes it impossible for a Westerner to understand his works properly seems to be quite common among Gao's Western readers, which raises the question of translatability of culture through literature.
According to Amy T. Y. Lai, Gao's trilogy, Alarm Signal, The Bus-Stop, and Wild Man, all end in optimism heavily tinged with uncertainty. In the same vein, she argues that in Monologue (1984), where Gao deals with the linguistic constitution of subjectivity through the changing positions of the actor, there is little indication of hope about what the actor would do after breaking down the fourth wall, yet the game-playing of the actor exposes the self to uncertainty in a vigorous postmodern inquiry. In chapter eight, Gilbert C. F. Fong propounds that in Gao the interchangeable subject position is achieved through Daoist, or Zen Buddhist contemplation taken as a dramaturgic device in which the actor exists in the three modes of the self, the neutral actor, and the character; that, in turn, creates "a pan-subjective consciousness or even self-effacement" of the...