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  • Ma Jian and Gao Xingjian:Intellectual Nomadism and Exilic Consciousness in Sinophone Literature
  • Shuyu Kong

It’s part of morality not to be at home in one’s home...

For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from the Damaged Life

Even though literary creation may touch upon politics and society, I think it is more accurate to say it is ‘to flee’, not to ‘intervene’, so as to resist the pressure of society on oneself and to release one’s spirit. Thus I think it is best for the writer to stay on the margins of society so that he can silently observe and reflect, and then immerse himself in this cold literature.

Gao Xingjian, “Cold Literature”

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, many intellectuals, students and artists have left China and headed to the West for a different kind of life. This intellectual migration reached a peak in the months following June 1989, when the Tiananmen democratic movement was crushed amidst bloodshed. Student leaders, public intellectuals, dissident writers and artists fled to Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and North America to escape the ensuing political persecution. In the years that followed, thousands of Chinese overseas students and scholars were granted political refugee status in the West. The result was the biggest intellectual diaspora in modern Chinese history.

This mass diaspora of intellectuals has been vocalized through many forms of life narrative and literary works. Most noticeable has been the sudden flourishing of personal memoirs and autobiographical histories in English by Chinese writers, ranging from Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Wu Ningkun’s A Single Tear to Shen Tong’s [End Page 126] Almost a Revolution. These publications have benefited from extensive support in the media and academia as well as broad public attention from both foreigners and overseas Chinese communities. In the literary field, a new wave of diaspora literature appeared and a Chinese literary exile community was formed on the peripheries of the Chinese cultural linguistic center. In particular, a historically situated and politically engaged exile literature gained full expression. With the effective advocacy of prominent literary figures such as Bei Dao, Gao Xingjian, and Liu Zaifu, and with university campuses and academic conferences offering themselves as bases, and literary anthologies and journals such as Today and Tendency providing sites for public expression, this literary exile community is reminiscent of a Chinese Samizdat/ Tamizdat movement.1

In the new millennium, while many literary exiles have returned to China or given up their creative writing completely, others have turned their once-temporary exile into a permanent existential state. Writers and poets such as Gao Xingjian, Bei Dao, Yang Lian and Ma Jian find that living abroad not only provides them with a creative space sheltered from political censorship and the more beguiling temptations of the market, but also gives them an alternative perspective on literature, identity and their homeland.2 Through their transnational existence and writing, these Chinese writers have been able to live out the contested and paradoxical relationships between the individual and the state, between personal writing and national trauma, and between political engagement and intellectual alienation, and have provided new evidence for the emergent phenomenon of Sinophone literature, “literature written in Chinese by Chinese-speaking writers in various parts of the world outside China, as distinguished from ‘Chinese literature’—literature from China” (Shih 29).

This paper examines the exilic experience and nomadic discourse in the lives and works of Gao Xingjian and Ma Jian, two prominent literary figures who have lived outside China since the late 1980s. Since his emigration to France in 1987, Gao Xingjian has adopted Paris as his home and travels all over the world to promote his works. However, he has consciously stayed away from Mainland China and on various occasions has expressed his determination to live as a member of the diaspora. Despite his persistent advocacy of an apolitical “cold literature,” the controversy surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature that he received in 2000 put Gao Xingjian in the international spotlight as one of the most “political” writers in world literature. Ma Jian...


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pp. 126-146
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