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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16

Prize & Prejudice
Beijing grumbles about the literature award
By HANNAH BEECH

ALSO
Well Worth the Effort: Kim Dae Jung has come a long way from dissident to President to Nobel Peace Prize winner

For a century, China has moaned and groaned about how the Nobel judges have ignored its literary lions in favor of obscure Western writers. So when equally unheralded author and playwright Gao Xingjian was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Literature last Thursday, you would have expected Beijing to be raising shots of celebratory mao-tai for its native son.

Instead, China woke up Friday to an official news blackout of the top literary achievement in its modern history. Many Chinese have never heard of the 60-year-old writer, who has lived in Paris since fleeing his homeland in 1987 as a political refugee. His searing explorations of individual struggle have been banned since 1986, and the Nobel prize is unlikely to change that. "China is in a tough position," says Diana Yu, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. "It wants international honors, but Gao's individualistic style runs against everything Beijing believes in."

Gao's dissident streak may be just what charmed Stockholm's judges, who have rarely shied away from making political statements, with past choices like Soviet author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Still, while Gao's novel Soul Mountain strikes a human chord, critics contend it doesn't possess the dexterity displayed by other Chinese like Mo Yan or Jia Pingwa. Unlike expatriate Gao, though, many of China's writers have a hard time finding Western publishers. "Gao likely won because his work is translated widely," says Wen Rumin, Chinese-literature dean at Peking University. "He is not our top talent."

Gao says he won't return home until communism falls. But he promises to keep writing, even if his musings on the 1989 Tiananmen protests remain blacklisted. "To me, writing is a question of surviving the darkness," he told Time. For many of his countrymen, there is no such escape from the blackest of memories.

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