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To Many in China, Author's Nobel Is No Prize

Few in his homeland know Gao Xingjian's works, and discussion of them is discouraged. But the literature award may stir interest in the avant-garde arts movement he had to leave behind.


BEIJING — For the many Chinese who have long hoped that the Nobel Prize in literature would be awarded to a Chinese cultural luminary, thereby bringing recognition to their country's rich literary traditions, last week's winner came as a rude shock.

What they got, with the selection of experimental playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian, was a writer whose works few Chinese know, whom the government considers subversive and whom the domestic media have largely been banned from discussing.

But with mainstream Chinese culture caught between unbridled commercialism and official censorship, the award may serve to draw attention to China's small but vital avant-garde arts sector, which Gao helped nurture before going into exile in France in 1987.

On Friday, China's Foreign Ministry dismissed Gao's award, saying in a statement that it "shows again the Nobel literature prize has been used for ulterior political motives, and it is not worth commenting on."

And in a move certain to make Gao even less popular with Beijing, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian chipped in his praise for Gao on Saturday. Taiwanese media quoted Chen as saying, "We express our highest respects for his outstanding achievement." Beijing views Taiwan as a separatist province.

The few Chinese intellectuals who had heard of Gao responded to the news of his prize with mixed emotions.

"We should congratulate him for his award," said Shu Yi, head of the recently opened National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature in Beijing. But he added: "The award is stimulating and provocative for China. It makes us feel awkward--we don't know whether to laugh or cry."

Shu said the award showed that the Nobel committee doesn't understand China, which, he said, has plenty of authors of greater stature. But he also railed at China's cultural bureaucracy for not doing a better job of translating and promoting the country's own literature.

"We can't expect foreigners to introduce China's literature to the rest of the world," Shu said. "But China no longer has any great translators."

Shu pointed out that the literary giants of early 20th century China were also translators. Novelists and playwrights such as Ba Jin, Lu Xun and Shu's father, Lao She, were typically schooled in the Chinese classics, then went overseas to study foreign languages and culture.

In much of the second half of the century, most Chinese got neither. Translators went to foreign-language schools based on the Soviet model where they were trained as technicians and taught to reject China's humanist heritage.

In Shu's opinion, the logical choice for the prize would have been the 96-year-old Ba Jin, who has previously been considered by the Nobel committee. Ba's leftist writings inspired idealistic Chinese youths to reject feudal traditions and join the Communist rebels in the caves of Yanan before they seized power in 1949.

On the fringes of China's avant-garde art world, opinions about Gao's prize were more positive.

"The Nobel Prize is not the Olympics, who's No. 1 or No. 2. It's about cultural concepts, not achievement," said Meng Jinghui, a young director at China's Central Experimental Theater. "Really, it's about a bunch of old Swedes looking for meaningful works within their limited field of vision.

"I was very happy to hear of Gao's prize. He's someone who was right next to us."

Before Gao left China, his greatest influence was in the rarefied world of avant-garde theater, and this is where his contributions are most evident today.

As a director and playwright at the People's Art Theater in the 1980s, Gao was part of a group of directors who used bold visual imagery, lighting, sound and acting techniques to introduce Chinese audiences to postmodern Western drama.

Like emerging Chinese genres from political pop and installation art to punk and rock music, the plays mocked Communist icons and the party's role as the lone arbiter of what is "true, good and beautiful" in art.

At first, the absurdity, alienation and vulgarity of these works left most Chinese audiences bewildered. Now, avant-garde art has begun to go commercial, imitated on billboards and television ads, as well as more mainstream works.

In contrast to Gao's days in China, government censors now largely ignore avant-garde theater, partly because of a political loosening, but also because the genre attracts small audiences and scarce media coverage. But this is slowly changing.

"Before, we avant-garde artists mostly just performed for each other," Meng said. Now a night of experimental theater is the in thing for college students, yuppies and foreigners.

In 1990, Meng directed Eugene Ionesco's "Bald Soprano," which Gao had translated from French. Meng put on two shows at a 200-seat playhouse, and most of the tickets were given away as comps. His next production this year will include 40 shows at an 800-seat theater, and he even expects some box office revenues.

In 1998, Meng achieved his biggest critical success by directing "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," by Italian playwright Dario Fo, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in literature. In Meng's modified version of the play, police beat to death a madman who discovers evidence of official corruption, then hire a director to script a cover-up of the killing.

Comparisons to Chinese society were so obvious they didn't need to be drawn. Meng laughed, recalling, "The more we pointed out that the story was set in Italy, the happier we were."

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