One Man's Bible is a fictionalized account of Gao Xingjian's life under the Chinese Communist regime. Daily life is riddled with paranoia and fear, and government propaganda turns citizens against one another. It is a place where a single sentence spoken ten years earlier can make one an enemy of the state.
But One Man's Bible is also a profound meditation on the essence of writing, on exile, on the effects of political oppression on the human spirit, and on how the human spirit can triumph.
About the Author
Gao Xingjian (whose name is pronounced gow shing-jen) is the first Chinese recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in 1940 in Jiangxi province in eastern China, he has lived in France since 1987. Gao Xingjian is an artistic innovator, in both the visual arts and literature. He is that rare multitalented artist who excels as novelist, playwright, essayist, director, and painter. In addition to Soul Mountain and One Man's Bible, a book of his plays, The Other Shore, and a volume of his paintings, Return to Painting, have been published in the United States.
Read an Excerpt
It was not that he didn't remember he once had another sort of life. But, like the old yellowing photograph at home, which he did not burn, it was sad to think about, and far away, like another world that had disappeared forever. In his Beijing home, confiscated by the police, he had a family photo left by his dead father: it was a happy gathering, and everyone in the big family was present. His grandfather who was still alive at the time, his hair completely white, was reclined in a rocking chair, paralyzed and unable to speak. He, the eldest son and eldest grandson of the family, the only child in the photo, was squashed between his grandparents. He was wearing slit trousers that showed his little dick, and he had on his head an American-style boat-shaped cap. At the time, the eight-year War of Resistance against the Japanese had just ended, and the Civil War had not properly started. The photograph had been taken on a bright summer day in front of the round gateway in the garden, which was full of golden chrysanthemums and purple-red cockscombs. That was what he recalled of the garden, but the photo was water-stained and had turned a grayish yellow. Behind the round gateway was a two story, English-style building with a winding walkway below and a balustrade upstairs. It was the big house he had lived in. He recalled that there were thirteen people in the photograph -- an unlucky number -- his parents, his paternal uncles and aunts, and also the wife of one of the uncles. Now, apart from an aunt in America and himself, all of them and the big house had vanished from this world.
While still in China, he had revisited the old city, looking for the old courtyard compound at the back of the bank where his father had once worked. He found only a few cheaply built cement residential buildings that would have been constructed a good number of years earlier. He asked people coming in and out if such a courtyard used to be there, but no one could say for sure. He remembered that at the rear gate of the courtyard, below the stone steps, there was a lake. At Duanwu Festival, his father and his bank colleagues would crowd on the stone steps to watch the dragon-boat race. There was the pounding of big gongs and drums, as dragon boats decorated with colorful streamers came to snatch the red packets hanging from bamboo poles put out by the houses around the lake. The red packets, of course, contained money. His third uncle, youngest uncle, and youngest aunt, once took him out on a boat to fish for the two-horned water chestnuts that grew in the lake. He had never been to the opposite side of the lake, but even if he went there and looked back, from that short distance, he would not have recognized this dreamlike memory.
This family had been decimated; it was too gentle and fragile for the times. It was destined to have no progeny. After his grandfather died, his father lost his job as bank manager and the family fell into rapid decline. His second uncle, who was keen on singing Peking Opera, was the only one to work with the new government authorities, and this was on account of his Democratic Personage title. Nevertheless, seven or eight years later he was labeled a rightist. Afterward, he grew sullen, barely spoke, and would doze off as soon as he sat down. Transformed into a listless, wizened old man, he held on for a few years, then quietly died. The members of this big family died of illness, drowned, committed suicide, went insane, or followed their husbands to prison farms and simply passed away, so that the only person left was a bastard like him. There was also his eldest aunt whose black shadow had once engulfed the whole family. She was said to have been alive and well a few years ago, but he had not seen her since that photo was taken. The husband of this aunt was a member of the Nationalist airforce. As ground personnel, he never dropped a bomb but he fled to Taiwan, where he died of some illness a few years later. He did not know how this aunt had managed to get to America, and had not bothered to find out.
However, on his tenth birthday -- it was customary in those times to use the lunar calendar, so he was actually only nine -- the family was a large one, and it was a big event. When he got out of bed that morning, he put on new clothes as well as a new pair of leather shoes; to have a child wear leather shoes in those days was indulgent. He also received lots of presents: a kite, a chess set, a geometrical puzzle, imported coloring pencils, a pop gun with a rubber stopper, and the Complete Collection of Grimms' Fairy Tales in two volumes with copperplate illustrations. His grandmother gave him three silver dollars wrapped in red paper: one Qing Dynasty "dragon ocean," one Yuan Shikai "big bald head," and one new silver dollar with Chiang Kai-shek in full military regalia. Each of the coins made a different sound. The Chiang Kai-shek one made a tinkle, compared with the clank of the thick and heavy Yuan Shikai "big bald head." He put these in his little leather suitcase, together with his stamp album and his colored marbles. Afterward, the whole family went out to eat steamed crab-roe dumplings in a garden restaurant with artificial mountains and a pond full of goldfish. A big round tabletop had to be used to seat everyone. For the first time, he was the center of attention in the family and he sat next to his grandmother in the seat where his grandfather, who had recently died, would have sat. It was as if they were waiting for him to become the bastion of the family. He bit into a dumpling ...
Reading Group Guide
IntroductionLike The 1001 Nights, Gao Xiangjian's powerful and at times harrowing new novel takes the form of a story -- or stories -- within a story. The framing narrative begins in Hong Kong in 1996, where Gao Xingjian, a Chinese writer and artist now living in France, has come to oversee a production of one of his plays. Sharing his hotel room high above the city is a German-Jewish woman named Margarethe. Sexually uninhibited, insatiably curious, she is both Gao's mistress and his Mnemosyne, his goddess of memory. She wants him to remember. And although she mostly wants to know about the women who came before her, Gao cannot answer her questions about them without revealing -- and at times reliving -- his past in Mao's China, a past he has tried very hard to forget. His stories and memories of that past make up the inner narrative of One Man's Bible. They recount Gao's growth from the bookish child of middle-class communist sympathizers to a student, writer and activist during the Cultural Revolution, forced to practice his art in secret and to become a ruthless political intriguer in order to survive. Since the revolution makes absolute claims on people's passion, there is no such thing as casual sex. Each of Gao's sexual relationships -- from one-night stands to a misconceived marriage -- is an implicit challenge to the state, entered into with doomed abandon. Many of them end in betrayal, but so do many of his friendships. How can it be otherwise in a society where everybody spies on everybody else and children regularly denounce their "Ox Demon" parents? That Gao survives and eventually escapes this million-eyed hell is admirable; that he doesso while preserving his moral and aesthetic integrity is a small miracle. Part of this novel's achievement is the way it renders the texture of everyday life in totalitarian China, from the workplace criticism meetings that end in an orgy of confession and remorse to the spectacle of teenaged Red Guards beating an old woman to death. But beneath the documentary realism is an elegant structure of related images and episodes: the verticality of the Hong Kong skyline and the swarming density of Beijing's hutongs; red banners flying above a besieged building and the red blood on the thighs of a deflowered virgin; Gao's father hiding an outlawed Maoist text in a shoebox filled with silver dollars and Gao himself, years later, burning incriminating snapshots of his parents. At the center of that structure is Gao Xingjian himself -- a character by turns innocent and cunning, selfless and imperially self-centered, ardent and icily detached. But of course Gao the character is a creation of Gao the writer, who with One Man's Bible has given us a novel of great sophistication, sensual vividness, and emotional power. Discussion Questions
- The protagonist of One Man's Bible is alternately called "you" and "he." Why might Gao have chosen to split the character in this way? In view of the fact that Gao is writing about himself, why doesn't he simply use the first person?
- Discuss the relationship between the author's framing and inner narratives, its "present" and "past." In Chapter 10, for example, Gao makes love with Margarethe, while Chapter 11 begins with his memories of making love with the married Lin. Elsewhere Margarethe's relentless questioning is echoed by an interrogation by Red Guards. Where else do you encounter such mirrorings?
- How does One Man's Bible treat death? How does Gao relate his mother's drowning or the many suicides and political murders that he witnesses? Does this book seem to view death as a tragedy, as a random and relatively inconsequential event, or even as a form of liberation?
- Margarethe accuses Gao of exploiting her sexually. Do you agree? Is One Man's Bible a sexist book? Do you find its graphic erotic scenes gratuitous? Does sex have a different significance in communist China than it does in capitalist Hong Kong? Do the novel's European and Chinese women experience sex differently? Does Gao ever appear to judge their sexuality?
- At one point Margarethe and Gao argue over the difference between Maoism and fascism. Does the author's description of Mao's China remind you of accounts you've read of Hitler's Germany or the U.S.S.R. under Stalin? In what way does it seem different? Note, for instance, the relatively low profile of the army and secret police and the way repression seems to emanate not from above but from below, that is to say from students and even, horribly, from children. How has living in such a society affected the novel's characters? Does One Man's Bible contain any similar critique of the capitalist West?
- One Man's Bible may be seen as a contest between two views of the past. Gao wants to cut himself off from it completely -- a markedly un-Chinese attitude -- while Margarethe, departing from the stereotype of the pragmatic, present-oriented westerner, insists that the past must be remembered, honored, understood. Which view ultimately seems to prevail?
- Gao describes himself as being like "a free-flying bird. The inner freedom," he says, "had no attachment, was like the clouds, the wind. God had not conferred this freedom upon him, he had paid dearly for it, and only he knew how precious it was." How is this born out by events in the book? How would you sum up the author's view of freedom?
- In an imaginary conversation with Mao, the author argues that "although it was possible to kill a person, that person's human dignity could not be killed. A person is human because this bit of self-respect is indestructible." What does that dignity consist of? How does Gao manage to preserve his self-respect in a society that not only imprisons its people, but also degrades them? How are the novel's notions of human dignity and freedom related to those set forth in various philosophical traditions -- especially Chinese Taoism and European Existentialism?
- How does Gao appear to see his role as a writer? Does he believe that art has a social or political function, or that the artist has a responsibility to his society? Do art and literature have a different significance in totalitarian and democratic societies?
- Do you see the novel's protagonist as its author's alter ego or as a fictional creation who happens to share his name and basic biography? What kind of character is Gao? Does the author ever present him in a less than favorable light?
- What is the significance of the book's title? What might Gao have intended in calling it a "bible" instead of a novel, memoir or autobiography?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of those books which seems disappointing in its early stages but which does pick up considerably after about the first quarter or third of the way through. The difficulties in getting into it were essentially two-fold:1. Gao is writing predominantly in flashback to the years of the Cultural Revolution and although it's obviously autobiographical the POV of the narrative shifts constantly between addressing his younger self (you do this, you did that) and writing about his younger self (he did this, he did that), which feels stilted and artificial throughout; and2. The early chapters are largely taken up with his sexual relationship with a self-pitying and self-indulgent German Jewish woman with a major chip on her shoulder (whether justifiably or not). In these early stages of the book, Gao swings alternately between beginning the recounting of his experiences and chapters focusing on their endless sessions of sex and her self-loathing and whining for reassurance and his endlessly having to provide the reassurance that she seems to need but never seems to benefit from. It is, in effect, from the moment that Margarethe leaves the novel that it really begins to take off.Inevitably it is Gao's depictions of the horrors and trauma of the years of Cultural Revolution with its cult of terror, arbitrary arrest, denouncements and punishments which hold the fascination.It therefore strikes me that it would perhaps have been closer to the spirit of the book if its English title had been One Man's Testament since what Gao has written here is indeed a testament, ie an act of witnessing the tumultuous moment in history known as The Cultural Revolution.Having read it, however, I'm now interested in finding out more about the Cultural Revolution and its predecessor, the Great Leap Forward (that wasn't) than I was before.
One Man's Bible is a profound meditation on the excruciating effects of sordid political oppression on human spirit. The sobriety of writing bespeaks a dignity, which is an awareness of existence, and it is in this existence that the power of the frail individual lies. In a laudably detached voice, Gao Xinjian stipples a vivid picture of human frailty, repression and suffering under the totalitarian regime that exists only in memory, like a hidden spring of spring gushing forth a deluge of feelings that are difficult to articulate.The book, unlike many of the contemporaries that expose austerity of life under Red Horror, is shockingly realistic and yet not a tale of suffering, at least that is not what Gao intends it to be. The delineation is so genuine and faithful to the reckless truth and excruciatingly painful purging that only men in Gao's generation can identify with. The reality is almost too heartrending to bear, even in words: the acrimonious politics, the class struggles, and a society that is riddled with paranoia and fear under such taut repression and miasma.Gao reflected on his childhood and adolescence, cudgeled his memory of China's most obstreperous times, and yet found an incredulously detached voice as if he is an outsider to all the horror. His narrative in the book is almost a form of joy without any connotations of morality. He is indeed like an outsider who narrates transparently the events, who scrapes off the thick residue of resentment and anger deep in his heart and articulates his thoughts and impression with amazing equanimity, and audacity. The result is a brand new voice in modern Chinese literature, a genre that deviates from post-modernism. It is a pure form of narration in which he contrives to describe in simple language the terrible contamination of life by politics, the tragic infringement of human rights, and at the same time manages to expunge the pervasive politics that penetrates every pore and sense. One can realize that Gao has carefully excised the insights that he possesses at the instant and in the place, as well as shoving aside his present thoughts.The meaning of the title is at total loggerhead to any preoccupied speculation that readers might possess prior to reading the book. Gao contrives not to write about politics though he means to accent his memories during the dark period. The outcome is a stunning account of man person's fate is being miraculously and calumnously determined with surpassing accuracy than the prophecies of the bible, attributing to the policies and regulations that fluctuate so frequently, according to the bitter contention of Party members. As accurate as it claims to be, the dossier, which exists for each individual, is generally inaccessible to the general public, does not necessarily reflect the truth (including mentality, thoughts, political stance, and affiliations) of individuals. People learn to wear a mask, to extinguish their voices, to hide their true feelings deep at the bottom of their heart in the midst of paranoia. Everyone seizes the opportunity to put on an act to score some good points for himself. Nobody dares to look one another in the eyes for fear of betraying any allegedly reactionary or counter-revolutionary thoughts. The sense of time is warped as Margarethe, Gao Xinjian's Jewish lover, stirs up his memories of the embittered childhood under the shadow of Mao in a hotel room during pre-handover Hong Kong. Though a fictionalized account, Gao has engaged in a dialogue that produces a state of mind that allows him to endure the pain of articulating the painful events. To him the country doesn't exist but exists only in memory that the country is possessed by him alone, and is thus a one man's account. The book is an epistle of freedom that is obtainable only through seizing the moments in life and capturing instant-to-instant transformations.
This book may not be everyone's cup of tea. There's a shift in perspective every other chapter that's difficult to follow if you don't give the it your entire attention. But if you stick it out, it is a richly rewarding reflection on a period of time in a part of the world that has been looked over far too often in the literary community. Mabel Lee somehow manages to preserve the intricacies of such a complicated piece without losing the readability. This is one of the more excellent translations I've come across.