A First For China

For Gao Xingjian, winning the Nobel Prize will not make up for all the years Beijing has shunned his writing. But it certainly helps. Last week the little-known 60-year-old novelist and dramatist became the first Chinese-born writer to win the award for literature. The Swedish Academy praised his "bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity" in work that explores "the struggle of the individual" against the masses. From his Paris home, a stunned Gao fielded congratulatory calls and interview requests. "At first I was just surprised, but I am beginning to realize what the prize means," he told NEWSWEEK by telephone. "I am delighted."

Not so Beijing. A Foreign Ministry spokesman downplayed Gao's selection and accused the Nobel committee of using the award for "ulterior political motives." That's because the government has long considered the intellectual Gao a political dissident. He first came under scrutiny during the Cultural Revolution, when he spent six years being "re-educated" in a hard-labor camp and ended up burning reams of his writing. His work was finally published in China in 1979. But in 1983, Communist Party officials derided his acclaimed play "Bus Stop" as "pernicious." The criticism never let up, and in 1987 he left for France. Beijing declared him persona non grata and banned his work altogether after he wrote "Fugitives," set during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

As a result, few Chinese have read Gao. And though he is slightly better known outside China, his vivid novel "Soul Mountain" has been published in English only in Australia. That, no doubt, is about to change.