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Gao Xingjian – One Man’s Bible

Title: One Man’s Bible
Original title: 一个人的圣经
Author: Gao Xingjian
Year: 1998

I read this novel as part of a study assignment, which is why it is more ambitious than my normal reviews. The instruction was basically to reflect upon the novel and its contents and since I thought I might as well publish what I hand in, here you have my reflections on Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible. This novel is utterly impossible to spoil, so even though I do reveal parts of the story, I do not feel that I have to issue a spoiler warning.

One Man’s Bible is a story composed of two narrative threads, beautifully interlaced to form varied and lucid fabric depicting the author, his background and relation to his native country: China. The focus of the novel is roughly equally distributed between the two threads. The first explores the author’s historical heritage, focusing on the Cultural Revolution and the period following it, the second consists reflective musing on literature and life, always with clear connections to his personal background.

About the author
Gao Xingjian is a fascinating character in many ways, not least because of his background. He was born in 1940 to a bank official and an actress in Ganzhou, People’s Republic of China. Before the Cultural Revolution, he studied at university and worked as a translator. During this period, he also produced numerous works of literature, but he was compelled to burn them all out of fear of government reprisals (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

As the tremors of the Cultural Revolution shook China, Gao fled to the rural parts of western China in order to hide. He worked on a farm and later as a teacher, but persevered in his writing. Yet again, he had to immolate his manuscripts to avoid persecution by the authorities. After the Cultural Revolution, he moved back to Beijing and became a renowned and prolific playwright (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

In 1987 he left China, probably for good, since he does not want to return to that authoritarian state. He is now settled in France, where he has begun to produce literature in French, as well as to publish old material in translation to English (as of 2008, four books are available in English). Gao Xingjian is possibly most well-known for being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

About the novel
As I have already stated briefly, One Man’s Bible consists of two parallel stories, and although interlaced and supporting each other, I think reflections upon the book will merit from treating these threads separately. Let me begin with the thread concerning historical times, because it is the basis of the novel and without it, the thread taking place in modern times would be pointless.

Writing about terrible things belonging to the author’s personal history is always difficult, because there is so much suffering in the world that I as a reader do not feel the need of adding more. Certain authors are capable of writing about terrible events and, at the same time, manage to create great literature (Imre Kertész and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spring to mind). I think that Gao Xingjian places himself firmly in this exclusive group of authors, mostly because of the reflective writing that parallels the historical retelling (more on that later), but also because it is apparent in his writing that his main objective is not to earn sympathy or to paint as dark a picture as possible of China’s history. This impression does of course not render this very story in a more positive light, but it makes the novel worthwhile.

The author focuses on fairly subjective narration of his experiences, not always in chronological order, but always with added comment and thought. It is not a wallowing in filth, repression and terror, but rather a story of a deeply reflective man put in a society in which he cannot thrive. It is moving to know that although he risked death, he still wrote during the Cultural Revolution. Thinking reflectively and openly was not something he felt that he could do, but over and over throughout his writing, he expresses an aptitude for reflective writing.

Note that Gao Xingjian does not write to encourage humanity to learn from history, because, as he rather cynically puts it “when people have forgotten about it [the terrible times], it will make a comeback, and people who have never gone crazy will go crazy […] This is because madness has existed since the birth of humanity, and it is simply a question of when it will flare up again” (p. 195). Instead, it is a one man’s bible, a story about a lonely man and his need to “release himself”, something which he associates with a “deep, instinctual animal drive” (p. 196).

I have previously read one book which takes place during the cultural revolution (Red Azalea by Anchee Min) and, even though I would like to make it clear that I do in now way intend to say that these books are similar in any other way, I would like to say that their portrayal of society is reminiscent of each other. Both are stories about repression, albeit it in different ways, and paranoia and fear are themes which run as a scarlet thread through both novels.

Throughout the novel, the author often touches on the issue of wearing a mask to conceal one’s real emotions and thoughts about what is going on in one’s vicinity, which is a theme I think can be traced to most novels set in repressive, totalitarian states. Perhaps, it is something present in most societies, albeit that the consequences of violating the masquerade is fatally different in the China of Gao’s youth, compared with that of present day Sweden. We all wear masks to present a face to the world which enables us to survive and thrive in the social milieu. The difference for me personally is of course that changing masks is something that can be allowed to function naturally and is seldom forced upon me from the outside. In the China of One Man’s Bible, this is not so. The author notes that “[h]is real face only came into existence later on, when, finally, he was able to take off the mask. But taking it off was not an easy matter, because the face and the facial nerves had become stiff from wearing the mask” (p. 212).

By way of making a connection to the other narrative thread in the novel, I would like to comment on another theme, which is present in almost all 61 chapters of One Man’s Bible, namely women. In the beginning, Gao’s relationship to the opposite sex is fairly ordinary, but after being scorched by a particular girl who betrays him after him having invested trust and emotion into his relationship with her. He says that you (here using second person singular to address aspects of himself, more on that below) “wander from country to country, city to city, woman to woman, but don’t think of finding a place that is home. You drift along, engrossed in savouring the taste of the written language, like ejaculating, leaving behind some traces of your life.” (p. 426) It is through his conversations with these women that we receive the story of One Man’s Bible. Women also constitute an important thread running through the historical narration, since the author often uses them as a basis from which to explore his past.

As seen in the quotation above, the author uses second person singular to separate himself from the story, because, as he says, literature is like a camera for a photographer in that it allows the author to shield himself from what he is writing about. This technique feels awkward in the beginning, but after a while, I sense a true separation between author and main character, and I cannot help but admire how skilfully this is executed. In certain chapters later in the novel, Gao uses this technique to highlight certain effects (since he uses third person singular for his historical narration, he is thus enabled to comment on what has happened, both from his standpoint behind the camera, as it were, and as a participant in the events he describes).

Gao Xingjian manages to do what few other authors are capable of, namely to write about suffering and misery in a way which makes his novel worthwhile to read, not because of the suffering, but because of the way in which the author relates to it. The greatness of One Man’s Bible resides in its ability to combine such reflections and still manage to create great literature. The language of this English translation (by Mabel Lee) is excellent and the stylistic ingenuity shown by the author makes this pure joy to read. Even though it is sometimes hard to relate to what is being told, and although the story itself is not always mesmerising, my overall impression of One Man’s Bible is very good. I intend to read more by Gao Xingjian and, if I may, I humbly suggest you do the same.


Gao Xingjian. (2003). One Man’s Bible. Flamingo: London.

Literature resource center (accessed 2008-02-21).

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  1. Martin’s avatar

    Coolt. Vad tror du om den svenska översättningen som finns här: http://www.adlibris.se/product.aspx?isbn=9174865153

    Står tyvärr inte vem som översatt, men du kanske ändå har något insidertips?


  2. Snigel’s avatar

    Jag är rätt säker på att det är Göran Malmqvist som har översatt. Om jag vetat det innan jag började läsa boken (jag upptäckte det efteråt när jag läste på lite), hade jag lätt valt den. Göran Malmävist är kung!