One Man’s Soul Mountain: Translating Gao Xingjian

Published on November 09, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Gao Xingjian
Born January 4, 1940

“The human need for language is not simply for the transmission of meaning, it is at the same time listening to and affirming a person's existence.” - Gao Xingjian

Gao Xingjian is a Chinese French national who won the Nobel Laureate in Literature in 2000, the first time the award had been given for work written almost entirely in Chinese. A novelist, playwright, critic, professional translator, screenwriter, stage director, and painter, Xingjian is a true renaissance man. Although his work is less celebrated in China, Xingjian is highly regarded in the Americas and Europe. Earning a degree in French literature in Beijing and settling in Paris in 1987, Gao Xingjian’s plays and translations have since set the trend for experimental drama in China and the West. Two of his translators, Gilbert C. F. Fong and Dr. Mabel Lee, are showcased as Xingjian’s close friends and esteemed colleagues.

  • Receiving his basic education in schools of the People’s Republic of China, Xingjian grew up in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion. His mother was an aspiring actress who took great joy in stimulating Gao’s interest in theatre and writing. He wrote his whole life, creating countless manuscripts which he kept in a suitcase. During the cultural revolution (1966-76) Xingjian was sent to a re-education camp, where he is said to have burned that suitcase. He was able to travel to France and Italy in 1979, when he was finally able to publish his work.

  • During the years of 1980-87, Xingjian published short stories, essays, and dramas in various literary magazines throughout China. He was able to publish four books in French: Premier essai sur les techniques du roman moderne/A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction (1981), which incited violent written attacks on the author, A Pigeon Called Red Beak (1985), Collected Plays (1985), and In Search of a Modern Form of Dramatic Representation (1987).

  • Xingjian wrote arguably one of his most famous novels, Soul Mountain (1990), based on a journey through the mountains and forests of southwest China. Pioneering Western interest in Chinese literature in translation, Soul Mountain gained the attention of The New York Times, who called the book “remarkable”, and is said to have been the catalyst that pushed him toward winning his Nobel Laureate 10 years later. On Xingjian, the Nobel Prize Committee said, “In the writing of Gao Xingjian, literature is born anew from the struggle of the individual to survive the history of the masses."

  • Originally written in Chinese, Soul Mountain needed a translator into English. Born in New South Wales, Dr. Mabel Lee grew up bilingual in Cantonese and English, with a growing interest in Chinese cultural affairs. Her translation of Soul Mountain took her seven years, then an additional two years after that to find an adequate publisher. Just three months after she published her translation, Dr. Lee found herself with Gao Xingjian at the center of International literary recognition when Xingjian won the Nobel Laureate. Today, Dr. Lee works as a Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia, is the founder of Wile Peony Book Publishers, and is one of the leading authorities on Chinese literature and translation.

  • Where Dr. Mabel Lee translated Xingjian’s novels, Gilbert C. Fong translated his plays. Also a professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fong specializes in Gao Xingjian, translated drama, and Hong Kong movie and television subtitling.

Gao Xingjian moved to France to seek political asylum and was granted citizenship in 1998. "After I went to France, I finally had an environment where I could work freely," he said. "So you could say I worked extremely hard, but I was very happy."

Gao Xingjian in numbers:

The decade during which Xingjian stayed in Anhui Province doing farm labor and teaching Chinese at Gankou Middle School during the Down to the Countryside Movement. In 1975 he was allowed to move back to Beijing where he became the group leader of French translation for “China Reconstructs” magazine (《中國建設》).


The number of politically charged plays that are argued to have openly criticized the Chinese government and contributed to his absurdist drama acclaim. Titles include Signal Alarm (《絕對信號》, 1982), Bus Stop (《車站》, 1983), The Primitive (1985), and The Other Shore (《彼岸》, 1986).


Five years after being granted asylum in Paris during a visit to Europe in 1987, Xingjian was made Chevalier de l'Ordere des Arts et des Lettres de la France.


Number of pages in Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain; a fictional autobiography exploring Xingjian’s boyhood and relationships with women. The protagonists in the novel are named with the pronouns "I," "you," "he," and "she", and explore the interconnectedness of each others’ identity. 


For a New York Times interview with Xingjian, click here.
For an interview with one of Xingjian’s translators of Soul Mountain, Mabel Lee, click here.
For the Asia Society’s interview with Gao Xingjian, as interpreted from Chinese by Daniel Fertig, click here.

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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citations: TranslationReview, NobelPrize, UGC, IrishTimes, TIME, NYTimes, AsiaSociety, TheGuardian