A friend of mine asked, "Can you write stories about the proletariat?" I thought it over and replied, "No. Except perhaps about amahs, because I know a little something about them." Later, I looked into the matter and discovered that amahs don't count as proletarians, anyway. It's a good thing that I'm not planning to change my style, since it would only result in disappointment.
The discussions taking place among writers as to our present course and our path forward seem to me an unimaginable liberty—as if there were any choice in the matter. No doubt the garden of literature is broad and inclusive: when visitors buy their tickets and enter its precincts, they can have their pictures taken on the Nine-Bend bridge, swarm over to the zoo, or roam as they wish across the grounds. Their freedom of movement is truly enviable. But I believe that writers themselves should be like trees in the garden, growing naturally within its confines, with their roots extending deep into the ground below. As they grow, their viewpoint will begin to grow wider, and as their field of vision expands, there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to develop in new directions, for when the wind blows, their seeds will disperse far into the distance engendering still more trees. But there is the most difficult task of all.
When I was first learning how to write, I believed that I could write whatever I pleased: historical fiction, proletarian fiction, modernist fiction, even the relatively vulgar genre of "family ethics" fiction, not to mention social expose and martial arts novels or decadent stories of romance and seduction. The sky really was the limit. But later I felt more and more constrained. Here is an example. I have at present enough material assembled for two stories. Not only do I have outlines of the plots and all the characters; even the dialogue has already been prepared in advance. But the stories are set in the interior, and that is why I cannot write them, as least for the time being. And even if I could go there, it wouldn't really be any use. If I were to take a hurried look around, I would be no better than a news reporter on assignment. Perhaps it's true that first impressions are the most important. But while a foreigner might well take away extremely vivid impressions from a visit to a "swallow's nest," his perspective won't necessarily reveal very much about the psychology of those who frequent it.
"Observing the flowers from astride a horse" will only take you so far. But even if you were to live someplace for a few months, searching high and low for dollops of local color, you might well fail to achieve your objective. True immersion in the atmosphere of life usually takes place spontaneously. It isn't something that can be forced or willed into being. All a writer can strive for is to live with integrity. A real writer can only really write about what he himself thinks. He will write about what he can write; what a writer should or should not write is ultimately beside the point.
Then why do we often feel that we need to change the direction of our literary work? Because a writer will often make the same technical mistakes over and over again and come to abhor the constant repetition. If there is no way to treat the same material with different techniques, might there be a way to apply one's old techniques to new material? This second option is almost impossible to achieve, because of the limits of individual experience. How many people are like Gorky or Shi Hui, wandering the world throughout their lives and seasoned in any number of different professions? Perhaps in the end these anxieties about what and how to write are merely superfluous. As long as one's subject matter isn't too specialized, one can write about common experiences—love and marriage, birth, growing up, growing old, getting sick, and dying—from any number of disparate angles and never lack for material. If there came a day when an author could no longer write anything about such things, I imagine it would be because he had nothing left to say, even for himself. And even if he came across some brand-new subject, he would still only be able to produce cliches.