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Sunday, 10 December, 2000, 09:17 GMT
China in denial over Nobel laureate
Gao Xingjian
The ban on Gao's work in China remains in force
By Duncan Hewitt in Shanghai

The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a Chinese writer for the first time last month, but official reaction in China itself has been virtually non-existent.

During the 1980s, it often seemed that Chinese intellectuals did little else but sit around debating why a Chinese writer had never won the Nobel prize, and demanding that this state of affairs must change.

It was seen as a matter of national pride, at a time when China's intellectuals were emerging from the Cultural Revolution and again seeking to make their voices heard to the world.

One key participant in that period of idealistic intellectual ferment was Gao Xingjian, whose plays, staged in China's major cities in the mid 80s, were seen as groundbreaking forays into the hitherto unknown territory of existentialism.

A decade and a half later, Gao Xingjian has finally fulfilled the dream.

Yet there has been no fanfare in the Chinese media ahead of Sunday's award ceremony - in fact there has been absolutely no coverage at all.

'Dissident' status

Back in October, during the first hours after the award was announced, China's state media, clearly uncertain how to respond, reported the news in a factual manner.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji
Premier Zhu Rongji is said to have reacted positively
But by the next day the Chinese Writer's Association was denouncing the Nobel Committee's decision as politically motivated, and an interference in China's affairs.

When Premier Zhu Rongji was quoted in the Hong Kong press a couple of days later as having reacted positively to the award, state media rushed to deny that he'd ever discussed the issue. And since then, silence.

This is of course a reflection of Gao Xingjian's status as a "dissident".

Gao, who has spent much of the last decade painting in Paris where he found political asylum in 1987, rejects the label.

But Beijing's ban on his works, imposed during one of the ideological retrenchments of the 1980s, still stands - even when other once-criticised writers can publish again.

One major reason is the play Fugitives, which he wrote in response to the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen protest movement.

Call to lift ban

From China's point of view, the ban has clearly been effective. Young people who have heard about Gao Xingjian's Nobel success have generally reacted with indifference.

Hong Kong protester
The Tiananmen Square massacre is still a sensitive issue in China
Many educated members of the young generation had never heard of him before, while others question the relevance of a 60-year-old exile, who now holds French nationality, to a China which has changed vastly since the 1980s.

Yet even against this backdrop, Gao Xingjian is not completely without supporters in China.

One intellectual in his sixties spoke animatedly of his respect for Gao's novel Soul Mountain, cited by the Nobel Committee as a work of major stature.

And a group of 40 dissident intellectuals sent a letter to the government shortly after the award was announced, calling on it to lift the ban on Gao's works and allow him to return to China.

Others, like veteran writer Zhang Xianliang, himself criticised in the past but now a member of the official writers association, say it is simply a good thing that the Nobel committee should finally have recognised someone writing in the language of a quarter of the world's population.

Influence still seen

And despite the official media blackout, some people did dare to post messages supporting Gao Xingjian on internet bulletin boards in the days after the award.

And though Gao's plays, such as Bus Stop, often described as a Chinese answer to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, cannot be performed these days, some in the drama field say his influence can still be seen.

Certainly there have been a number of performances of absurdist and avant-garde drama in the theatres of Beijing over the last two years.

Indeed some observers believe that China's attempts to ignore the award may ultimately provoke a backlash, leading more critical intellectuals to ask why Gao Xingjian's works cannot be published or performed in his own home country.

For the moment though there seems little chance that the ban will be lifted.

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See also:

07 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Nobel laureate condemns Beijing
12 Oct 00 | Europe
Chinese writer wins Nobel prize
12 Oct 00 | World
Profile: Gao Xingjian
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