China

Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian: 'I've had three lives'

  • 22 November 2013
  • From the section China

Nobel Literature Laureate Gao Xingjian may be nearing his 74th birthday, but retirement could not be further from his mind.

"I haven't had a holiday in 26 years," he told the BBC. "I'm always working."

"I've never taken a weekend [off] because it was so difficult for me to gain the freedom to write and draw."

Mr Gao became the first Chinese-born writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, although his win was largely ignored by China, where his works have been banned for years.

His Nobel win and subsequent renown was a long way off from his early life in China, where he feared for his safety during the Cultural Revolution and was forced to burn his writings in secret to avoid persecution.

Mr Gao, who moved to France in 1987 and has not returned to China since, said his experiences left him feeling as if he had lived "three lives" already.

"My first life was in China, and I left China in the end," he said.

"I began writing, drawing and acting from a young age, and I set up a theatre group when I was at university, but in all these areas I faced a lot of problems and political interference, until in the end my plays were banned and I couldn't publish my works."

'Red terror'

During China's Cultural Revolution, a decade-long political campaign where millions were denounced and tens of thousands killed, intellectuals were at particular risk of persecution.

Books and artefacts considered ideologically unsuitable were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution

Mr Gao felt the need to burn all of his early works to avoid being denounced.

Nonetheless, after being relocated to the countryside for "re-education", he continued to write in secret, burying his writings underground.

"I could only write in secret, and when it came to burning, I had to burn them in secret too," he said, describing that period as a "red terror".

Mr Gao, who wrote about his experiences in his novel One Man's Bible, was not keen to talk about that time, a period he described as his "distant past".

However, he said that it was important that this era was remembered.

"People haven't written enough about this sort of terror. We should make sure this historical experience is known to future generations, to ensure it does not happen again."

The experience has given him strong views about the role of literature as well.

"Art and literature need to break free from politics to achieve total freedom," he said. "I don't advocate literature interfering with politics either. Otherwise, it becomes a political weapon or tool."

He continued to face censorship in China after the Cultural Revolution ended, with plays including Bus Stop and The Other Shore banned.

In 1987, he was able to travel to France as a painter and began what he described as his "second life".

Mr Gao sought political asylum in France and was granted French citizenship in 1998.

"After I went to France, I finally had an environment where I could work freely," he said. "So you could say I worked extremely hard, but I was very happy."

Gao Xingjian writes in both Chinese and French

"Gaining artistic freedom, and achieving my dream [of making films] all came true one by one."

'Caught in a storm'

His third life began abruptly in October 2000, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"I had just got the call," he said. "I didn't even have time to change my shoes - I was still at home in my slippers, and the reporters were already at the door. They knew about the award before me!"

"I opened the door to a whole bunch of people, and from then on, it was like being caught up in a storm."

He fell ill after being inundated with media requests while continuing to work on his art and writing full time.

"I didn't want to become a media figure, so I kept working," he said. "Of course it was very hard work doing both. After I recovered I decided I had to avoid giving interviews as much as possible."

"This is the only way I managed to continue to create so many works - I think it's important for an artist to speak through their works."

'Arts in crisis'

Despite spending close to 50 years in China, Mr Gao says he has little interest in China now.

He admits that he has not read any works by Mo Yan, the second Chinese-language author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, who Chinese authorities laud as the first Chinese writer to win the prize.

Mr Gao is also known for his ink wash paintings which he describes as "neither abstract or realist but something in between"

"There are a lot of changes going on in China, but I don't understand them," Mr Gao said.

"My concern now is Europe and its cultural traditions. In the 21st Century, with globalisation, pollution, all this political noise and advertisements everywhere, where is the place for solemn art and literature now?"

"Under today's conditions, how do you find fresh ideas, and how do you draw out contemporary arts and culture from the traditions of the Renaissance period?"

"I think today, we are facing not just an economic crisis, but a crisis for culture and the arts."

Despite what he describes as the challenges facing modern art and literature, Mr Gao still appears optimistic and animated when talking about his future plans.

"I have lots of invitations and upcoming projects - in fact, I'm fully booked until 2016!"

"I have an exhibition in March in Paris, but I haven't finished my drawings yet."

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