Soul Mountain, by Gao Xingjian - Conversation #2 [5/4]


(Douglas Duff) #1


Reading and Live Discussion Schedule

April 6th, 2018 @ 12PM MDT: General Introductions to each other, to Gao Xingjian, and to Soul Mountain; read his Nobel lecture. Recording of April 6th conversation found here:

May 4th @ 12PM MDT: Soul Mountain, Introduction, Chapters 1-42

June 1st @ 12PM MDT: Chapters 43- 81

Carry your creative, free soul along side the travelling protagonist as you read. Come to the discussions as if “you” and “I” have travelled deep and explored the wide web of the underground Chinese folklore experience, gaining a deep connection to the land and the language of Soul Mountain.


About the Book

From inside dust jacket cover of 2000 English translation:

In 1983 Chinese playwright, critic, fiction writer, and painter Gao Xingjian (pronounced gow shing-jen) was diagnosed with lung cancer and faced imminent death. But six weeks later, a second examination revealed there was no cancer – he had won “a reprieve from death” and had been thrown back into the world of the living. Faced with a repressive cultural environment and the threat of a spell in a prison farm, Gao fled Beijing. He traveled to the remote mountains and ancient forests of Sichuan in southwest China and from there back to the east coast, a journey of fifteen thousand kilometers over a period of five months. The results of this epic voyage of discovery is Soul Mountain.

A bold, lyrical, prodigious novel, Soul Mountain probes the human soul with an uncommon directness and candor. Interwoven with the myriad of stories and countless memorable characters – from venerable Daosit masters and Buddhist nuns to mythical Wild Men, deadly Qichun snakes, and farting buses – is the narrator’s poignant inner journey and search for freedom.

Fleeing the social conformity required by the Communist government, he wanders deep into the regions of the Qiang, Miago, and Yi peoples located on the fringes of Han Chinese civilization and discovers a plethora of different traditions, history, legends, folk songs, and landscapes. Slowly, with the help of memory, imagination, and sensory experience, he reconstructs his personal past. He laments the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the ecology – both human and physical – of China. And in a polyphony of narrating selves – the narrator’s “I” spawns a “you,” a “she,” and a “he,” each with a distinct perspective and voice – the novel delights in the freedom of the imagination to expand the notion of the individual self.

Storytelling saves the narrator from a deep loneliness that is part of the human condition. His search for meaning – in life, in the journey – turns up the possibility that there may be no meaning. The elusive Lingshan (“Soul Mountain”), which becomes the object of his quest, never yields up its secrets, but the journey is a rich, strange, provocative, and rewarding one. Soul Mountain is a novel of immense wisdom and profound beauty.

About the Author


Too much analytical thinking, too much logic, too many meanings! Life has no logic, so why does there have to be logic to explain what it means? Also, what is logic? I think I need to break away from analytical thinking, this is the cause of all my anxieties.

Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain

Xingjian Gao was born on January 4, 1940 in Ganzhou, China. As a child, he was encouraged to paint, write and play the violin, and at the age of 17, he attended the Beijing Foreign languages Institute, majoring in French and Literature. He is known as being at the fore of Chinese/French Literature, attempting to revolutionize Chinese literature and art.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Gao destroyed all of his early work after being sent to the country for “rehabilitation.” His “Preliminary Explorations Into the Techniques of Modern Fiction” caused serious debate in the Chinese literary world by challenging the social realism that was at the core of Chinese literature and art. The authorities condemned his work and Gao was placed under surveillance. He left China for Paris in 1987 and was honored by the French with the title of Chevalier de L’Ordere des Artes et des Lettres.

None of Gao’s plays have been performed in China since 1987, when “The Other Shore” had been banned. In 1989, Gao left the Communist party. After the publication of “Fugitives,” which was about the reason he left the communist party, Gao was declared “persona noon grata” by the Chinese regime and all of his works banned. On October 12, 2000, Gao won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Chinese writer ever to do so. He is well known for his writing as well as his painting and has had exhibitions all over the world.

(Marco V Morelli) #2

I’m working on an Event page for this on Metapsychosis (linked back here to the forum). It’s not completely done; is there anything (@Douggins or anyone) you would like to change or add?

(Marco V Morelli) #3

@Dona, @Douggins, @Geoffrey_Edwards, @johnnydavis54 ~ it’s hard to believe a whole month has passed, but I’ve just about completed the reading for this upcoming session. How are you all doing? And, is there anyone else out there who might be joining us?

It took me, maybe, fifteen chapters, but I’m finally falling into to a rhythm with the book and really enjoying the author’s wandering mind, with its gentle manner and deftly drawn stories. With so many different episodes, I feel we might want to hone in on a few key passages in the text. For example, I found chapter 16, which recounts the narrator’s encounter with a terrifying darkness outside of the monastery-turned-hostel in Lingyan, to be one of the most striking. This also includes the meeting with a young peasant girl on a mountain path (different than the ‘she’ in high heels, who becomes his lover), as well as the brief exchange with the fellow lodger regarding existence of a sensuality devoid of evil. The presages the tete-a-tetes with the narrator’s lover in subsequent sections.

Themes of lust/love, predator-prey, and male-female sexual dynamics/politics come up again and again in the ‘she-’ oriented chapters, yet I feel that chapter 16 holds a certain key. It seems to be the moment when we might say that the narrator starkly encounters “Lingshan” or “soul mountain” in the experience of all-encompassing darkness—although his many other experiences with folk characters, magic, and legends (which I’m finding enchanting) fill in positive aspects of the ‘soul’ he is seeking.

In sum, I am beginning to appreciate why this book is so highly regarded, and am looking forward to letting our minds wander with Xingjian’s, or the like one of the rivers he follows, when we get together on Friday.

(Douglas Duff) #4

Had a little one join us this morning :baby: our very own mini-mountain of soul … likely missing out on the live discussion tomorrow (Both wife and baby Vincent in good health and spirits!).

(Marco V Morelli) #5

That’s wonderful to hear, Doug. Congrats! Good to hear that everyone is doing well.

Take good care, and please don’t be shy about sharing a baby picture in some channel. :hugs:

(Geoffrey Edwards) #6

That is awesome, @Douggins! Thinking of you all!

(Geoffrey Edwards) #7

I wrote a few words to describe each chapter, it is a way I have given myself to remember the journey :

Soul Mountain

The Inn
The young woman
The old woman and her story - abduction - bandits, Second Master
The dragon festival
The Research Camp
The Suicide and the Lover
The blue bird
The snow cocks
Getting lost in the fog
Diagnosis (ch. 12)
The zhuhuapo
The spirit medium
Lingyan (ch 15)
Darkness (ch 16)
Memories of Yaya (ch 17) the woman shaman
Ranger station and stuck in the mud (ch. 18)
Existence and non-existence (ch. 19)
Love-making with the girl who is learning to like it (ch. 20)
old people listening (ch22)
silver eel in a black tide while making love(ch23)
the masks
the self (ch 26)
the lotus and the math exam
the inspectors (ch 28) and the half bird half fish
the carver of divinities (ch 29)
Qichun snake
girl lost her virginity (ch 31)
“a woman’s story”
keeping watch over the mountain (ch 33)
the bridge & the fire god Zhurong
the cave on the mountain (ch 35)
the old monastery (ch 36)
the truck stuck in the mud
now what else can I talk about? (ch 37)
the woman and her dreams of blood (ch 38)
Miao festival (ch 39)
the dark blue dress (ch 40)
the ancestral sacrifice
dying suddenly (ch 42)

(john davis) #8

Sorry, but I am not up to speed today and may miss our reading group. I am suffering from overwhelm, too much of a good thing. I am enjoying the book, but have to read it slowly while I am reading lots of meta-theory quickly.

I find the juxtapositions of different kinds of reading difficult to juggle, different tempo-rhythms apply. It actually makes me feel queasy.

This novel is user friendly but is an adagio and I am currently caught up in a presto finale. I am trying to finish the Spheres as we move into the last stretch and going deeper into the minor gesture and then to write some of my own weird musings upon the nature of the human condition. This novel is full of minor gestures, which I love. I need to slow down to absorb the nutrients of these invocations. I am practicing QiGong while I read. I feel the chi flow through the text as well.

I would like to hear how it all turns out and am looking forward to the recording. I hope to catch up for the next session.

(Marco V Morelli) #9

Sorry for the delay, I had to rest this weekend. The video from our talk is now posted above.

(Geoffrey Edwards) #10

Wonderful discussion, most enjoyable, and it considerably deepened my understanding of the book. A couple of things - I realized you already discussed the left-write vs right-left writing issue. I think I was getting tired by the end of the discussion and my attention must have wandered at that moment.

Also, earlier on you were asking, Marco, I think about whether I used “local color” in my science fiction stories, and the answer is that I do. Of course, for the most part I have to invent the historical or folkloric incidents that are referred to, and that is a lot of work, but I do attempt to enrich my stories in that way as best I can.

(Geoffrey Edwards) #11

Following our discussion about the Chinese text, I found a Chinese version of the book that isn’t expensive and ordered it. I also hunted up my beginner’s Chinese book and my Mandarin-English dictionary. I’m not sure how much success I will have - as you pointed out @madrush, Xingjian favors traditional Chinese and my dictionary is for the simplified version. But I might be able to decipher a few words here and there!

(Marco V Morelli) #12

That’s great to hear, Geoffrey! I would be really interested in seeing the characters for:

  • You
  • I
  • She
  • He

I don’t know how Chinese works on English keyboards, but is there anyway you could share the pronouns as Xingjian uses them in the book?

(Geoffrey Edwards) #13

First, the character Ta for “he” :

This is made up of the character for “man”

and the character for “also”

Which is, in turn, composed of the character for “twist”

and for “down” (the vertical downstroke).

“She” is :

which is similarly composed of “woman”

and “also”.

Interestingly, “it” is

and is composed of “cow”

and “also”.

“I” or wo

is composed of “hand”

and “spear” or “lance”,

which is bigger than a “dart”.

Finally, “you” is “ni”

Or its “bookish variant”, “er”, which is composed of “small”

and “crown” (although here it means “cover”).

These images are all excerpted from “Reading and Writing Chinese : A Comprehensive Guide to the Chinese Writing System” by William McNaughton and Li Ying, from Tuttle Books (revised edition, 1999). Note the images also show the sequence in which the strokes are drawn. And as I indicated earlier, these are simplified Mandarine characters, not the traditional ones Gao Xingjian favours. However, the book gives a comparison between traditional and modern characters, and as far as I can tell, these are all identical in both sets, no doubt because they are so commonly used.

Also note that “ta” is pronounced with different tones to differentiate “he”, “she” and “it”.