Gao Xingjian's 70th Birthday Symposium
By Nicky Harman, published
I went to the second day of the two-day events to celebrate Gao Xingjian’s birthday at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Apparently, the lecture theatre was crammed to bursting on the first day – less so yesterday but still a fair showing, about two-thirds Chinese and the rest British/European, and including, in addition to Gao Xingjian himself, many other UK-based writers like Ma Jian, and the poet Yang Lian. Liao Tianqi from Independent Chinese PEN presented the session and Yang Lian, a delightful man, chaired in exemplary fashion. Proceedings were in Chinese and English. Gao presented his new work Ballade Nocturne, written in French (translated into English by Claire Conceison) and then staged by two actors in English. There was some strikingly beautiful imagery in it, which only close reading would do justice to. As a feminist, I did wonder whether lines which, if I heard correctly, went something like “women give love…use charms as weapons; men crush life…their weapons kill” were meant to be taken seriously or were satirical. As a translator, my burning question was whether Gao feels “Chinese” when he writes in French, whether his works express this, and indeed whether this is a meaningful question at all. But time was pressing and I only got a half-sentence answer, along the lines of “it was written in French so it couldn’t be Chinese”. Gao was asked a somewhat similar question (about the significance of reading French work in the original or in translation) at a 2001 forum at the Asia Society, New York but answered it only by saying his French gave him access to a greater variety of works. Interestingly, just as I was about to post this, I found an article The French Gao Xingjian, Bilingualism, and Ballade Nocturne but infuriatingly, it’s available to subscribers only.
Ballade Nocturne was followed by a DVD showing of Snow in August, 八月雪，written in 2000 in Chinese - stunning, left me wanting to watch it again.