Why I...believe Gao Xingjian does not deserve the Nobel prize

October 20, 2000

Bill Jenner
Professor of Chinese studies
Leeds University

There was obviously a feeling among the judges of the Nobel prize for literature that it was time to recognise a writer from China, the only one of the world's major cultures not to have had the prize. But why Gao Xingjian, an interesting but minor figure? It is to the committee's credit that it annoyed the bureaucrats of the Chinese Writers' Association by honouring an émigr é . But other Chinese writers have a stronger claim.

I would put forward Wang Shuo, who burst onto the scene in the late 1980s with his fiction and went on to write brilliant TV soaps. He is not po-faced about writing "great literature'' and does not set out to '"improve'' the reader - the besetting sin of Chinese writers. But he is great. He can be compared to the young Evelyn Waugh. In the same way that Waugh caught something of English disenchantment after the first world war, Wang explores the aftermath of Maoism by treating it as a joke. But, given the elderly Scandinavians' prejudice in favour of earnestness, his flippancy will not help.

Yang Jiang, who will be 90 next July, would be another deserving winner who will still be read in 200 years. Apart from her academic work on European literature, including a translation of Don Quixote , it is her autobiographical writing about the Cultural revolution that makes her great. Instead of adding to the self-dramatising victim-literature about Mao's China, she treats her tribulations with amused detachment. She writes about being first a target of the campaign in Beijing and then being "remoulded" in a camp in the countryside. She brings out the horrors of those years all the more effectively for understating them and for recognising that others fared worse.

There have been other writers in China who the Nobel people have missed: Lu Xun, who died in 1936. More recently, the late Shen Congwen, a writer from the 1920s whose best work celebrated rural life in western Hunan. After the revolution, rather than turn out party-dictated tosh, he wrote only on the history of Chinese clothes. There was no excuse for ignoring a writer who had a vision of the world worth commemorating.

  • Interview by Helen Hague

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