ONDON, Oct. 12 — Gao Xingjian, a Chinese-born novelist and playwright whose provocative, experimental works have been banned in his native country since the late 1980's, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature today by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.
In making the award to the 60- year-old Mr. Gao, who lives outside Paris, the academy said he had produced "an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama."
Mr. Gao (whose name is pronounced gow shing-jen) is the first Chinese-language writer to win the Nobel literature award, which carries a prize of just over $900,000. He declared today that the award "really is something, especially for a Chinese, because the Nobel is a very heated issue in China."
The writer, a slight man with gently graying temples who wore a sweat shirt and slippers as he greeted reporters in his two-room apartment in Bagnolet, a Paris suburb, said he had been astonished to hear news of the award, relayed to him in a brief telephone call from Stockholm. He was also instructed, he said, to prepare a 45-minute speech. "I said, `That's very long,' " he related.
Mr. Gao, who was forced to burn copious amounts of his early work during China's systematic crackdown on intellectuals in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, has always used writing as a liberation and a balm. "Writing eases my suffering," he told The Associated Press. "When you use words, you're able to keep your mind alive. Writing is my way of reaffirming my own existence."
Influenced by the modernism of Beckett and the absurdism of Ionesco, both of whom he has translated into Chinese from French, as well as by Artaud and Brecht, Mr. Gao is widely considered one of the most important Chinese dramatists of the second half of the 20th century. And, critics say, he is one of very few Chinese writers to reach beyond China into the broader world, and back inside himself.
"In some ways he represents what might be called a global vision," said Leo Ou-fan Lee, a professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. "His relationship with China is not limited to memory, history or politics. He uses all these themes as metaphors, indexes to a much more personal search for meaning."
Mr. Gao, who now holds French citizenship and says he deliberately stays out of Chinese politics so that he will have the freedom to think as he pleases, writes as fluently in French as in Chinese. "He's very unusual because most contemporary Chinese writers simply are not capable of writing in two languages," Mr. Lee said. "He's probably China's first bilingual writer."
Mr. Gao's work is not easy to characterize. The plays mix modernist techniques with elements from traditional Chinese theater — shadow plays, ancient masked drama, and traditional dance and music. And the novels, too, are a hodgepodge of styles. But much of his work can be read as a celebration of the individual's struggle against the masses. "He is a perspicacious skeptic who makes no claim to be able to explain the world," the Swedish Academy said.
Among Mr. Gao's most celebrated plays is "Bus Stop" (1983), which recalls Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and which was condemned when it opened as "spiritual pollution" by Communist Party officials. According to the Swedish Academy, the play was "described by one eminent member of the party as the most pernicious piece of writing since the foundation of the People's Republic."
Mr. Gao's most overtly political play is "Fugitives," a love story that unfolds against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Its publication caused him to be declared persona non grata in China and his works to be banned there.
Of his novels, the best known is "Soul Mountain," a long, impressionistic, musing work that had its genesis in a 10-month walking tour Mr. Gao took along the Yangtze River, in part as an escape from the increasingly watchful eye of the government. The book is a potpourri of literary styles and techniques, using a variety of narrators and a constantly shifting viewpoint, interweaving tales of people Mr. Gao met on his journey. It is, the Swedish Academy said today, "one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves."
And in a thoroughly modernist touch, it is self-conscious about its own techniques. At one point, the narrator irreverently criticizes the author and the book, saying: "You've slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend- like nonsense of your own, and are calling it fiction!"
Although his plays have been performed around the world, Mr. Gao's novels are virtually unknown in the United States. Even though "Soul Mountain" was completed in 1989, an English translation of the novel has been published only in Australia. It has not yet been published in the United States or in Britain.
But it would be a mistake to think of Mr. Gao as just a Chinese writer. "He's an intellectual, a very writerly person," said Howard Goldblatt, a professor of Chinese at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "His interests, while based on what's happened in China, take a back seat to a larger sense of humanity. He's said that it's his only avenue to freedom — to write — so that while he writes in Chinese and in Chinese settings, he would like to be known as someone who writes to a greater audience."
Still, few Chinese are familiar with his work, which has not been in circulation in his native country for more than a decade and before that tended to be known mostly by intellectuals and people familiar with avant- garde theater. "It's sad that a Chinese has won the Nobel Prize but few people here know his name," said Wu Zheng, an editor at Shanghai Daily, an English-language newspaper.
Several scholars expressed surprise that Mr. Gao won the award rather than his better-known countryman, the dissident poet Bei Dao, who has repeatedly clashed with the Chinese authorities. The academy tends not to give the literature prize to people from the same country within the space of a few years, meaning that Mr. Bei will probably not win any time soon.
Mr. Gao was born in 1940 in Jiangxi Province in eastern China. He studied in state schools, earned a university degree in French in Beijing and was encouraged to embark on a life of letters. But during the Cultural Revolution, in which intellectuals were punished for their learning, he was sent to a re-education camp and forced to spend six years at hard labor in the fields.
It was a terrible time, he said today. His wife denounced him, as was the habit in many families at the time, and he burned "kilos and kilos" of early work, a whole suitcase full, including novels, plays and articles. But he was always compelled to write, even when it was his writing that betrayed him, he said, and now he spends about 16 hours a day writing or painting.
"I've always had this obsession with writing," he told Agence France-Presse. "It's what caused my suffering and misfortune in China, but I'm not about to stop. Even during the most difficult times in China, I carried on writing secretly, without thinking that one day I would get published."
It was not until 1979 that Mr. Gao was first able to publish his work and to travel abroad, and during the 1980's he produced a prolific stream of short stories, plays, essays and books. Many of them attracted the unwelcome attention of the authorities, including an essay on aesthetics that challenged the social realism espoused by the late Mao Zedong and provoked a furious, and dangerous, debate about Mao's cultural legacy.
Under constant surveillance, and with his work increasingly denounced by the government, Mr. Gao left China in 1987, settling in Paris a year later as a political refugee. He renounced his Communist Party membership after the 1989 military suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations, in which hundreds of civilians were killed, and wrote the impassioned "Fugitives." None of his plays have been performed in China since.
He said today that he had left China so that he would have the freedom to express himself without fear of repercussion for his family and friends. "I am not a politician," he said. "I'm not involved in politics, but that does not prevent me from criticizing the policies of Communist China. I say what I want to say. If I have chosen to live in exile, it is to be able to express myself freely without constraints."
Mr. Gao is also a renowned painter who illustrates his own book covers and whose ink-wash paintings have been exhibited around the world.