[Transcribed from a talk between Mo Yan and Chen-ning Yang, moderated by Fan Zeng, that took place Wednesday May 15th at Peking University.]
Fan Zeng: Chen-Ning Yang once said, “Scientists have never been able invent anything, all they are doing is discovering [that which already exists].” I want to ask Mo Yan, is your writing an act of invention, or do you use another method [to create your work]?
Mo Yan: I think the creation of literature and discovery of [new] science have a lot things in common, and they also have some differences, too. Writers pay attention to people, scientists pay attention to things; writers delve into human emotions, scientists pay attention to the principle of matter, I suppose. So it’s possible that the same object viewed through the eyes of a writer and a scientist doesn’t [appear] the same. I remember Lu Xun once said, “When most people look at flowers, all they just see are beautiful blossoms. But through the eyes of a botanist they become the reproduction organs of plants.”
But in the process of creation they also have a great deal of things in common. Strictly speaking, writers don’t ‘create life from nothing’, [because] all of the characters that a writer gives form to in his works are composites of real people who have been passed through [the writer’s] imagination and embellishing, but they really can’t be matched to the name of any living person, either. They belong the writer’s act of literary creation. So to my way of thinking, in this literature is somewhat freer than physics or chemistry.
Fang Zeng: I think it is much freer, especially [the writing from] your pen. [Your pen is] like a magic pen, it affects miraculous transformations while giving people a even more realistic feeling. That’s my impression [at least]. So, while we are on the subject of style, [the fact that different] writers have [distinct] styles goes without saying, [but what about] a scientist’s style? What is stylistic differences exist between scientists and writers?
Chen-Ning Yang: I think that there are differences. This is closely related to the question you asked a few minutes ago, regarding the relationship between invention and discovery. It doesn’t matter if you are a scientist, a writer, an artist, the boundary between discovery and creation isn’t fully apparent [in any of these fields]. But I think the following makes a lot of sense: the amount of discovery that occurs in science is slightly less than in literature. To approach this idea from another direction, I know that Mo Yan likes to write ‘fantastic tales’, is there such a thing as
‘fantastic science’? I don’t think there is, [because] science as a branch of learning is based on conjecture and not fantasy. I think fantastic science is a dead end, because what science wants to understand is phenomena that already exist. Before humanity existed, there was already electricity, magnetism existed [too]. Scientists want to understand the structure of the universe [and] you need imagination for this, you need conjecture, this is really different from the fantasy [employed] in literature. I don’t know if Mo Yan agrees with my opinion on this or not.
Mo Yan: Of course I agree. Writers really do need fantasy, we also know that there is a significant genre of literature called ‘science fiction’, with a large number of readers. Actually, many writers really don’t know anything about physics or astronomy, but they can still describe [these things] in their novels. I remember reading Pu Songling’s short story ‘Conductor of Thunder’ a long time ago. It’s a story about a scholar who plucks the stars [down from sky]. There are a lot of these sorts of descriptions in literature. Really, works of literature are built on the foundation of one’s experiences in life, and so science fiction authors build atop a certain amount of scientific knowledge. The difference between literary fantasy and the conjecture of scientists is larger [because literary fantasy] is built atop a certain amount of life experience, followed by [the addition of] imagination and analogy.
[Source: http://edu.people.com.cn/n/2013/0516/c1053-21498137.html, accessed 18/5/2013]
Apparently just after this transcript cuts out, Mo Yan mentions Liu Cixin. The best I can find is the following snippet from an article on China Daily:
The amount of discovery that occurs in science is more than that which occurs in literature, [and] the amount of invention which occurs in literature in more than that which occurs in science,” [Chen-Ning Yang] said.
In response Mo Yan talked to Chen-Ning Yang about science fiction. He told Pu Songling’s story ‘Conductor of Thunder’ and he also complimented Liu Cixin’s _Three Bodies_, [saying that] it was well written. Mo Yan had already talked about the influence and inspiration Pu Songling[‘s writing] gave to his writing during his acceptance speech in Stockholm last year.
[Source: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/dfpd/2013-05/16/content_16503195.htm, accessed 18/5/2013]