Dialogue & Rebuttal: Dramaturgy Note
Written by: Carol Ann Tan
The playwright of 對話與反詰 (1992; Dialogue and Rebuttal), Gao Xingjian, is the first writer of Chinese descent to win the Nobel Prize for Literature — “for an œuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama.” This achievement has gone largely ignored by his homeland: All of his works have been banned in China since 1989. But while many people will be captivated first and foremost by Gao’s relationship to Chinese society and politics, Gao arguably resists classification as a “Chinese” artist — he became a French citizen in 1998 — and instead, his work is better viewed through a transnational lens.
Born in 1940 in Jiangxi province in eastern China, Gao graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University with a degree in French. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, Gao feared that his intellectual interest in European culture would invite persecution under Mao Zedong’s government, and so burned an entire suitcase filled with his writings. Despite this, he was still sent to a reeducation camp in the countryside to perform hard labor for six years. “It was only during this period, when literature became utterly impossible, that I came to comprehend why it was so essential,” Gao said.
Gao was not allowed to travel abroad or publish his work until 1979. Once that restriction was lifted, Gao began establishing a prolific body of work that encompassed short stories, novels, essays, and plays. As the resident playwright of Beijing People's Art Theatre, Gao became a pioneering voice for experimental theater in the country. However, because his work often challenged the central tenets and beliefs of Maoism, plays like 車站 (1983; Bus Stop) and 彼岸 (1986; The Other Shore) ended up drawing heavy condemnation from Communist Party officials. As a result, Gao decided to leave China in 1987 — moving first to Germany, and then to France.
But it was Gao’s reaction to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 that sealed his exile from the country. The Chinese government had attempted to quell the protests by force, leading to a death toll that may have exceeded 10,000. Appalled by the government’s actions, Gao publicly renounced his Communist Party membership and published the play 逃亡 (1989; Escape). The Chinese government retaliated by banning all of his works and declaring him persona non grata. Gao was unruffled: “I heard the news on the radio that people were gunned down, and right then, I knew I was looking at exile.” He tore up his Chinese passport and applied for political asylum in France.
So by the time Gao won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, he had already been living in France for over a decade. During this time, he lost interest in China — a country that no longer welcomed his voice — and instead, turned his attention towards European issues. He also began writing separate works using two languages (Chinese and French). Notably, Dialogue and Rebuttal was written during this shift in Gao’s priorities and perspective, though relatively early on — in 1992, some five years after he’d first left China.
And today, Gao disavows all political or national labels — directly contradicting the scholars and organizations who seek to frame his identity and work as “Chinese.” According to Gao, “In my creative work, you can’t distinguish between influences from East and West and there is no need to; they are all my culture.” And perhaps Gao resists such labels because of the high value he places on individuality and autonomy. After all, he sees his departure from China as entirely voluntary. As he once declared, “If I have chosen to live in exile, it is to be able to express myself freely without constraints.”
Despite Gao’s many claims to fame, his work is not often produced on American stages. But this seems like a missed opportunity, considering the degree to which his voice has influenced the landscape of contemporary global literature. As a fellow immigrant artist, I’m delighted to be directing Dialogue and Rebuttal and sharing Gao Xingjian’s words with Chicago audiences this August.