Summary and book reviews of Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Soul Mountain

by Gao Xingjian

Soul Mountain
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2000, 528 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2001, 528 pages

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Book Summary

A man's search for meaning -- in life, in the journey -- turns up the possibility that there may be no meaning. The elusive Lingshan (Soul Mountain) becomes the object of his quest. A novel of immense wisdom and profound beauty.

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.

Chapter One

The old bus is a city reject. After shaking in it for twelve hours on the potholed highway since early morning, you arrive in this mountain county town in the South.

In the bus station, which is littered with ice-block wrappers and sugar cane scraps, you stand with your backpack and a bag and look around for a while. People are getting off the bus or walking past, men humping sacks and women carrying babies. A crowd of youths, unhampered by sacks or baskets, have their hands free. They take sunflower seeds out of their pockets, toss them one at a time into their mouths and spit out the shells. With a loud crack the kernels are expertly eaten. To be leisurely and carefree is endemic to the place.

They are locals and life has made them like this, they have been here for many generations and you wouldn't need to go looking anywhere else for them. The earliest to leave the place travelled by river in black canopy boats and overland in hired carts, or by foot if ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

A man is diagnosed with lung cancer -- precisely the same cancer that had proved deadly to his father not long before -- and then is surprised to discover in a follow-up visit to the doctor that he is in fact perfectly healthy. And, the good news is not delivered with the amount of sensitivity that a new lease on life would seem to merit -- describing the attending doctor, the book reads, "'Go and live properly, young man.' He swiveled his chair around, dismissing me."

So begins Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain. It is from this peculiar and clear-eyed position that a journey begins through the remote mountains of China. The narrator explores rural villages and reflects on the influence that the Cultural Revolution has had...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Gao has created a sui generis work, one that, in combining story, reminiscence, meditation and journalism, warily comes to terms with the shocks of both Maoism and capitalism.

The Economist

Mr Gao's complexity goes beyond the dissident label that was immediately attached to him when it was announced he had won the Nobel prize; yet this is a strongly political novel. He travels on the margins of society to evade political persecution and the horrors of collectivism in China's Past are often evoked.

Le Monde

Chinese literature [of the future] will have to contend with the creative energy and the daring of Gao Xingjian.

Courier-Mail [Australia]

It is a relief to come to a book that celebrates the pleasures of literature with such gusto and knowingness.

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