Book review: ‘Soul Mountain’ by Gao Xingjian

By Douglas Yu


When author Gao Xingjian received a false diagnosis of lung cancer in the 1980s, he embarked on a soul-searching trek to southwestern China. His journey became the basis of the semiautobiographical “Soul Mountain,” which won the Nobel literature prize in 2000.

Gao’s travels read like the Chinese version of “Easy Rider,” which depicts hippies in the 1960s riding motorcycles and seeking truth. The expedition on Soul Mountain probes the human soul.

During the trip, Gao delved into the ethnic minorities of the Qiang, Miao and Yi, where people were socially conformed by the communist regime and their traditions faded away. He discovered a plethora of histories, folk songs, landscapes and anecdotes of local people who endured the Cultural Revolution.

Gao frequently addresses the reader as “you” throughout the book. This easy familiarity makes the book intimate, evoking traditional Chinese paintings on every page.

Gao’s poetic, slowly evolving narration leaves room for his descriptive talents. In one chapter, his eagerness to arrive at a town to learn about its legends is derailed by a bus driver. The driver decided to resume the trip the next day, but Gao refuses to stop. He eventually found a ride. This universal scenario of travel is punctuated by distinctly Chinese anecdotes.

The early part of the trip includes an encounter with “she,” who feared brutal sexual attacks from her past. They spend a pleasant night together after she is cuddled and comforted.

Gao used nuance to voice his dissatisfaction with the political landscape in China during the 1980s.

Profound beauty radiates through “Soul Mountain.” Its nonlinear plot may be difficult to follow, but is well worth the winding trek.

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