Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian is amongst the most challenging writers of the present era. He has probed the dynamics of Chinese and European literature and developed unique strategies for the writing of seventeen plays, two novels, a collection of short stories and a collection of poems. He has also written two collections of criticism.
The present collection takes the title Aesthetics and Creation from the name of the Chinese collection from which most of these essays are drawn, but it also includes some of Gao’s most recent unpublished essays. University of Sydney academic Mabel Lee is the translator, and the book also includes her authoritative introductory essay that contextualizes Gao’s significant position as an independent and uncompromising voice in the noisy hype of the globalized world of the present in which creative writers and artists are forced to conform with the demands of political and other group agendas, or with market forces, in order to survive.
Gao Xingjian’s Aesthetics and Creation has importance and relevance to the general reader with an interest in literature and art as a creative human pursuit that is not demarcated by national or cultural boundaries. This book is both indispensable and inspiring reading for intellectuals and informed readers who regard themselves as citizens of the world. For academics, researchers, and students engaged in the disciplines of literature and visual art studies, world literature studies, comparative literature studies, performance studies, theatre studies, cultural studies, narrative fiction studies, and studies in the history of literature and the visual arts in modern times, this book is essential and thought-provoking reading that will have many positive outcomes.
In yesterday’s post, “On the Tyranny of Big Languages,” I wrote that “so-called ‘smaller languages’ are actually languages of fewer speakers.” I put it this way to get away from the notion of stature-as-importance, and trying, in the case of Europe, to give a neutral presentation of why English, French, German, and Spanish might be considered “big languages” in comparison to the languages of the authors featured in the linked-to article, viz. Bulgarian, Romanian, and Czech. And in the case of Europe, not only is that true, but English, French, and Spanish are languages spoken in countries around the world, making them even bigger both in population and power.
Originally thinking about languages big and small in the context of Europe meant I could bypass the question of whether Chinese–one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, but still a “less commonly taught language” (LCTL) in the west–was a big or small language. I meant to give examples about the translation of Chinese into European languages was dependent on first being translated into English or French (here’s another one: the Greek version of Soul Mountain 靈山 by Gao Xingjian 高行健 was translated from the French version by Noël Dutrait; and another: in Norway, editors “follow the line-by-line edits made by US and UK publishers” of Chinese translations), but then I mentioned that the first Chinese edition of what we know in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude was translated from Russian and English editions… Is this to suggest that Chinese is a small language, then?
Well, in terms of international power, yes (although it is one of the official languages of the UN), though in terms of population clearly not. More specifically, in terms of translation into other languages, I don’t think publishers around the world are looking at what’s successful in the Chinese market to base their decision on what to do next, and the translation market in China clearly looks to other countries’ successes. Big and small are relative and vague terms, but when it comes to translation, it’s pretty plain that China is a follower rather than a leader. If we apply this retroactively to understanding the world system, we might say that while it’s clear that the current world system is not a representational democracy, it’s also clear that China could do more–or act differently–to set an international cultural agenda.
English novelist and Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason has compiled a top-ten list of books on China he found helpful for his novel Rare Earth (here’s a review of the novel by scholar-translator Julia Lovell), comprising five works of fiction in translation (including Lu Xun 魯迅, Mo Yan 莫言, Gao Xingjian 高行健, Wang Xiaobo 王小波, and The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅–and he mentions the translators!) and five works of social science or historical or literary scholarship (including a work by friend and follower of this blog, Charles Laughlin).
It’s an interesting list. I’m glad to see literature in translation so well represented. As a novelist, it makes sense that Mason would be so drawn to fiction, but I wonder what it would take for works of Chinese poetry to make it onto such a list. Certainly I think Xi Chuan can be helpful for readers looking to know more about China, though of course the instruction does not travel in direct lines.