Reviews / September 2016 (Issue 33)

City of the Dead and Song of the Night

by Huiwen Shi


Gao Xingjian (author), Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee (translators), City of the Dead and Song of the Night, The Chinese University Press, 2015. 84 pgs.


The Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, who won the prize in 2000 "for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity," is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel, Soul Mountain. But Gao is first and foremost a playwright. Versatile as he is,[i] his enduring passion has always been for drama. City of the Dead and Song of the Night are the first English translations of the Chinese versions of these plays, written in 1991 and 2009 respectively.[ii] Translators Gilbert C. F. Fong and Mabel Lee bring Gao's distinctive language and "philosopher's drama" alive. [iii] I can readily imagine these two plays being performed in English to enthusiastic receptions.

Publishing the two plays together is astute, as not only do their titles echo each other, but there are also parallels in their themes. As Lee points out in the introduction, the use of a female psyche is a signature move in many of Gao's plays, where complaints against patriarchal society are filed relentlessly. More importantly, as the plays are so thematically similar but generically and stylistically different, when read together they allow the reader to see how Gao's theatrical experiments in style, tone and narrative and dramatic construction evolved over two decades.
Each play is ambitious in its own way in treating the problematic relationships between "male" and "female." City of the Dead, for example, subverts a Chinese legend that has historically been used to reinforce notions of female chastity and fidelity. Song of the Night, on the other hand, feels completely independent from the Chinese literary canon and equally free from the absurdist theatrical tendencies of Gao's earlier plays. The plays showcase two notable directions in Gao's drama: City of the Dead is in the lineage of historical and legendary plays, which look back at archetypical stories; Song of the Night is plotless, eventless and arguably characterless,[iv] focusing mainly on the inner psyche. Therefore, one may argue that the former seeks to investigate the historical Chinese collective consciousness, while the latter makes drama out of individual consciousness, presenting universal anxiety in a contemporary context. [v]
City of the Dead is genuinely entertaining, despite the grim injustice of its ending, and uses comic language to tell a tragic story. I was surprised by how blackly humorous Gao Xingjian can be, knowing only his dry, Beckettian plays such as Bus Stop (1983) and Wild Men (1985). For instance, at the very opening of the work, the actor playing Zhuang Zhou enters as a narrator and states firmly that it is "long, long ago, and the story is an old and ancient one," which has "absolutely nothing to do with the contemporary world." Such an ironic disclaimer makes it all the more conspicuous that shockingly cruel things happen on- and off-stage in the play and probably all the time in real life.
The play is divided into two scenes: the first is a reworking of the famous story of Zhuang Zhou (the Taoist master), who fakes his own death and returns disguised as a young suitor in order to test his wife's fidelity. When she falls for the man, Zhuang Zhou unveils his true identity, revealing his wife's disloyalty. She eventually kills herself out of shame and guilt. In Gao's version, however, the wife's death is a defiant protest against the husband's farcical test. In a way, Gao does what Lu Xun does so brilliantly in Old Tales Retold—dismantling a classic narrative and feudal society's moral strictures by belittling heroes and siding with "villains." By giving Zhuang and his wife an equal hearing, the play wickedly reveals the truth of the philosopher's hypocrisy.

The second scene departs from the old tale completely. It offers a brand new story of the wife's journey into the underworld after her suicide, but her quest for justice there proves an atrocious failure, when she is treated with magnified brutality by a corrupt and immovable hierarchy. The play's final moments witness the female victim's tongue being ripped out so that her silence will be perpetuated in both the world of the living and the city of the dead.[vi]

There are many sparkling moments in the drama where I feel that Fong's translation has truly done Gao justice. When Zhuang Zhou describes the nobility of his search for knowledge, for example, he uses five lines to emphasise its significance:

I've searched high and low, climbing
mountains and crossing rivers, observing human
behaviour and studying the sun, the moon and the stars
in an attempt to find the Way of Heaven. However, the
Way that can be spoken is not the eternal Way.

His wife, by contrast, needs only one line to undercut her husband's obsession:

My husband has been consumed by wanderlust and he is away all year round.

A single "wanderlust" is worth a thousand words, and, to me, its use means the English version actually outdoes Gao's original line.[vii]

Likewise, when Gao uses sound-patterning in the original, Fong tries to replicate the effect in English: "好端端"is translated as "hale and hearty," replacing the doubling "端" with alliteration. At another point, Gao makes a visual pun with sexual connotations, which the translator nails by inventing an equally naughty phrase: the Chinese character "呂"is shaped like two mouths kissing, so when the wife asks the disguised suitor (actually Zhuang Zhou in disguise) what he wants from her, he says he wants to write a "呂" with her, boldly hinting at his carnal intentions towards the recent widow. Fong goes for "fish in your pond" here. Although it does not recreate the vivid picture of the Chinese character, the translation accurately captures the sexual tension of the exchange without being too literal or obvious. There are many more judicious examples like these throughout the play.

Gilbert Fong's translation is funny and witty, meticulously faithful and nuanced. It replicates Gao's wordplay and colloquialisms, which are crucial for a play about a scholar and the high court. Gao's cunning use of Greek tragedy, especially the chorus, is also quickly recognisable in the English version. But, of course, there are things lost in translation, too. Fong has been rather casual about how the way music is used, whereas the original stage directions pace the play intricately with southern Chinese opera, switching the tone and the mood periodically as the story unfolds.

If we see City of the Dead harshly ironising a Chinese tale of female virtue, Song of the Night works beyond irony, situating itself in the postmodern, post-absurdist era. The play explores dimensions of female subjectivity through the use of only one real character in the entire play, "she," albeit one who is played by three different women (two dancers and one actress). The proliferation of different "she-identities" is made possible through dramatic monologues, verbal banter between the actress and the character she is playing and the intricate bodily exchanges between the "melancholy dancer" and the "vivacious dancer." Movement and the body are at the heart of the work, which Gao Xingjian originally wrote in French, as a dance performance. For this reason, it might have perhaps been more fitting to keep its original French title, Ballade Nocturne.

Unlike City of the Dead, I am not going to offer a close analysis on the translation for Song of the Night because the Chinese version is not readily available. I do, however, trust that Lee's translation has been loyal to the work as it successfully delivers Gao's aesthetic elements and intriguing innovations.

The first of these is the poetry at play. One simply cannot ignore the play's poetic elements—line breaks, stanzas, stunning imagery, abstract language and occasional rhyming patterns—and it is definitely intended to be read as well as performed. Take for example:

Like a butterfly
Pinned alive on the wall
Flapping its wings
Body no longer its own
She groans
Hoarse and exhausted
And just trembles


All of you assign to women
A range of cost-free virtues
Chastity as daughter
Kindness as mother
And also wild abandonment as mistress
While all of you are engrossed in seeking pleasure
It is really depressing!

Second, the use of pronouns is even more pronounced in this play than in City of the Dead: "you," "I" and "she" all refer to the same female protagonist. Unlike the wife in City of the Dead, an individual woman who fights injustice in the male-dominated world, Song of the Night establishes a female voice that is representatively emphatic. Through the anonymity offered by pronouns, her voice's haunting ventriloquism creates an indestructible female consciousness.
Thirdly, the play is meta-dramatic, keen on involving the audience as part of the theatrical construct. When "she" addresses the male audience members as "you dear" or "all of you," a split between male and female is created. This division is made more pronounced by the use of the only male "character" on stage, the musician, who is outnumbered, silenced, marginalised and eventually victimised. Hence, the play is not a superficial and simplistic feminist outcry, but instead casts doubts upon an equally dangerous matriarchy, as is exemplified by the actress repeatedly jumping in and out of character. The rationale of "she" is thus made incredibly disconcerting for the audience.
Song of the Night is not an easy play to read or to perform, despite its relatively short length and deceptive linguistic simplicity. It leaves much to be worked out in the staging and choreography, and I would be curious to see how it is transformed in the theatre. After all, for any dramatic piece, the ultimate test is its performance on stage. I believe that the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre from Taiwan, given its philosophy and history, would be an excellent choice for realising this piece, either in English or in Chinese.
Despite the quality of the translations, I have reservations about the book's introduction, entitled "Gao Xingjian: Autobiography and the Portrayal of the Female Psyche," which feels rather out of place. Although it contextualises the history of Gao's numerous plays, it does not serve well as an introduction to these two plays specifically. Lee's account of half a dozen of Gao's theatrical works are detailed and synoptic, but lacking in focus and purpose. And while I can certainly see the use of the female psyche within Gao's oeuvre, even with abundant examples, Lee fails to persuade me that the works are driven by an autobiographical impulse, especially in the cases of City of the Dead and Song of the Night. Perhaps it would work better as a journal article, or as a comprehensive survey of Gao's drama, but it is ineffective as an introduction.
Nonetheless, as I have stated, the two plays themselves are excellent works that deserve our attention. I look forward to their ultimate translation: staging Gao's plays in English is now not only possible but desirable with such luminous translations.

[i] Gao is a literary theorist, painter, film director, novelist and playwright. Before leaving Mainland China in the late 1980s, he was already a rising star among intellectuals who had suffered a decade's oppression during the Cultural Revolution. Gao published a best-selling booklet, Preliminary Explorations into the Art of Modern Fiction 《現代小說技巧初探》(1981)—in which he theorised about modernist fiction and its techniques—and he was one of the first writers to introduce contemporary Western fiction to China. As a playwright at the prestigious Beijing People's Art Theatre, Gao wrote avant-garde plays like Signal Alarm (1982), Bus Stop (1983) and Wild Men (1985), stirring considerable controversy.

[ii] Gao wrote originally wrote Song of the Night in French under the title Ballade Nocturne (1999). The play was actually first translated into English by Claire Conceison from the original French; whereas Mabel Lee's translation is from the author's 2009 rewrite in Chinese.

[iii] Hu Yaoheng (胡耀恆), a professor at the National University of Taiwan, has described Gao Xingjian's plays as "philosopher's drama" (Gao Xingjian, On Writing, Hong Kong: Ming Pao Monthly, 2008. vi).

[iv] Gao Xingjian replaces characters with shifting pronouns in many of his plays.

[v] Gao analyses these two dramatic directions in his essay, "Potentials for Drama."

[vi] Traditionally in Chinese literature, the world of the dead is where final judgment is passed upon the deceased. The king of the underworld (閻王), also known as the keeper for "The Book of the Dead," punishes souls according to the deeds done throughout their life. The underworld is thus intended to be a realm of justice and equality. City of the Dead, however, portrays the judge and the police officers of the underworld as just as corrupt as their counterparts in the world above.

[vii] The original is "夫君一味遊山玩水,終年在外"(《高行健劇作選》,香港:明報,2001,第70頁。)

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