My hometown is Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, a place called Jiangnan. There are many old people in the village, and I played with them when I was young. One of the old people always said something to me. He grows vegetables at home, he is a very ordinary person, his beard is already white. Everyone in the village felt that the old man was a lunatic, and found it unreasonable. He often ran over to talk to me, but I couldn’t understand what he said. He talked for a long time, and I didn’t know what he was talking about.
When I was a child, I also regarded him as a lunatic, and wanted to stay away from this person because I was very scared. He is very kind to people, but I don’t understand what he is talking about. There is always a doubt in my mind. Later I went to university and went home from Shanghai. This old man is still alive. One day, when he passed by me, he said something to me again, and I understood—he spoke English. In the remote mountain village of our hometown, there is an old man who speaks English to you. He also knows you don’t understand, but he keeps talking.
Then, one of the problems that caused me to think was that if I had never left my village and never learned English, this experience would have been sleeping in my memory and it would be impossible for me to understand this old man life experience. Later, I went to understand how this old man learned English and what he had done before. Of course I have a lot of ideas, and I have written many parts of it in “Human Face Peach Blossom”. He constitutes my writing experience, but this experience is not automatically acquired.
We experience different things all the time and have a lot of memories. However, it is difficult to say whether these things will definitely enter the literary works or will be used by you to write.
We know that there are two types of writers, one is Dickensian, such as Shen Congwen in China. Their experience is very rich. Before Shen Congwen went to Beijing to start writing, he had traveled to most of China and experienced countless things, many of which put him in the test of life and death. When he said “I want to write a novel” in Beijing one day, many people thought it was strange. How could you, a person who graduated from elementary school with a very low degree, write?
Shen Congwen said, I dare not say anything else, but it is possible that I surpass Shakespeare. He is very arrogant. But he has his reason, because he has accumulated a lot of experience, there are a lot of things flooding his pen, he wants to write them out.
However, there is another type of writer, such as Hawthorne, Kafka, and Borges, who stay at home. Compared with ours, their experience will not be more, but only less. They tend to be small clerks all their lives. What exactly constitutes the writing of these people? This is also a question that has puzzled me for many years.
Following these questions, we can also ask a lot of questions, for example, are literary works really an expression of experience? I give lectures to students at Tsinghua University and often talk about this issue.
Everyone knows Du Fu’s “The Year of the Li Gui in the South of the Yangtze River”: “It is common to see in the mansion of King Qi, and heard it a few times in front of Cui Jiutang. It is the beautiful scenery in the south of the Yangtze River, and it meets the emperor in the blooming season.” Yuwen Suo is in his book “Reminiscence” Have analyzed this poem. He joked that it would be terrible to translate this poem into English. After translating it into English, read it to the effect: I often see you at King Qi’s house, and I have heard of you at Cui Jiu’s house. Now in Jiangnan, we meet again. It’s that simple after translation into English. Therefore, when Americans see this poem, they don’t know what to say, and they will ask: Is this the best poem in China?
This is a very important poem in Tang poetry, which was written shortly before Du Fu’s death. If we look at it from the perspective of experience, it will be strange. This poem doesn’t say anything about experience, it doesn’t seem to be to present any experience to everyone. On the contrary, the author wants to hide the experience and keep you from knowing it.
From the literal aspect of this poem, you have no experience, nor can you see the life and experience of the poet. But it is not easy to analyze this poem. You have to understand the Anshi Rebellion, and you have to understand that Du Fu could not return home at that time, and he had a premonition that he was going to die in a foreign country. At this time, his memory of his hometown was suddenly drawn out by his deceased Li Guinian. If we understand this poem after understanding such a background, the hidden things behind it will be revealed.
This situation is very common in literary works. Does the author present the experience or hide it? What does he want us to see? These are very puzzling questions in literary works.
Everyone also knows Bai Juyi’s “Flowers are not flowers”: “Flowers are not flowers, fog is not fog, midnight, and daybreak. How long will it be like a spring dream, but there will be nowhere to look for clouds.” After reading this poem, Knowing what it says is like a riddle. What is “flowers are not flowers”? The flower is not a flower, and the fog is not a fog. You can’t find it when you come and go. What is this? Without saying anything, the poem is over. The relationship between this thing and the things that make up our experience is very complicated.
So, this also reminds us that experience is definitely not a simple thing. So do we really have experience? My answer is: not necessarily. You may have experienced many things, but these things may not have any relationship to your mental state, to your writing, and to your imagination about the world.
Of course, we can also mention one aspect in passing. We can’t say that I experienced one thing and can write it as a novel right away. Experience is generally stored in your memory. When we talk about experience, we must talk about memory. The experience is stored first. You can’t say what happened today. I will write it today. This is impossible.
The process of storing experience in memory is very delicate. For example, when we were young, we went fishing with our father. If you catch a fish, you will be very happy. The next day at school, you will tell your classmates how big this fish is. When I was a child, a classmate caught a fish weighing 11 kilograms. He talked about this all his life. It was the most beautiful thing in his life. He has been talking about it all his life, and once when I returned to my hometown, he was still telling me about it.
I think he is very sad, but I understand him completely. This was an unusual thing, because it was too big, and only the weight of this fish was left in his memory, which he remembered as a miracle.