TEACHING CREATIVE WRITING IN CHINA

Fan Dai, Director of the Centre for Creative Writing in the School of Foreign Languages at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, shares her insights into the new academic discipline of Creative Writing in China.

Creative Writing as a discipline is new in Chinese tertiary education. The first units were introduced in 2006 as part of a Masters program in the Department of Chinese at Fudan University, Shanghai, while, coincidentally that same year a teacher offered an elective course in English at Renmin University in Beijing.

In 2009, Shanghai University set up a Center for Creative Writing (in Chinese). The following year in Beijing Renmin University opened its International Writing Center.The former launched a Master’s program in 2011.

In spite of a debate about whether creative writing can be taught, in the past few years other universities, including Nanjing University, Zhejiang University, and Peking University, have introduced creative writing units or programs in Chinese.

Shanghai University has played a leading role in promoting the teaching of creative writing in Chinese programs. Their Center for Creative Writing has a strong focus on creative writing theory and works closely with the creative industry on various projects. The Center also runs extensive outreach programs, including an annual creative writing competition in Chinese and creative writing summer camps. The university works with Shanghai Cultural Bureau and has set up the Chinese Creative Centre, which aims to inspire individual creative potential.

The Chinese Creative Centre also organizes short online training courses open to anyone interested in writing. The Centre showcases the best student work and contracts writers with good potential to promote their writing.

writers visiting Sun Yat-Sen U

Fan Dai (with red and black suitcase, centre) leads a group of international professors of creative writing to teach at Sun Yat-Sen U, following an APWT conference in Hong Kong.

The Centre also runs what it calls Workshops for Creativelife. These are neighborhood public cultural activity centres, generally accessible to people living about five minutes away. The centers are funded by charitable people and served by volunteers, with the aim of enriching the cultural life of the community. So far eight centres are operating with 10 more expected to open each year in the years ahead.

Renmin University Of China Press is another institution working to promote the teaching of creative writing. It has published about 20 writing craft books since 2011, mostly translations from English. Among the books are Immediate Fiction: A Complete Writing Course (Cleaver 2002), Now Write! — Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers (Ellis 2006), and Teaching Creative Writing: Practical Approaches (Walker 2012). Twenty more will come out in the next two years, some will be translations, others will be craft-related books by Chinese writers.

Since there is no tradition of teaching creative writing in Chinese in the universities, research to date has focused on introducing components and teaching methods in the West. An Australian academic, Jeri Kroll, Dean of Graduate Research at Flinders University in South Australia, has a National Social Science Foundation grant to study the pedagogical framework for teaching creative writing in English as a second language in China. She is also working on a series of textbooks for Chinese students who write in Chinese, English or in both languages. She is using English texts by writers from different countries/cultures.

Renmin University Press has also organized events including a workshop by the American writer Jerry Cleaver (founder of Chicago’s Writer’s Loft workshops), a lecture by the American nonfiction writer, editor and teacher Jack Hart, and a creative writing seminar where teachers/writers from inside and China came to discuss the teaching and practice of creative writing. The majority of the participants were teachers of Chinese language and literature. As a result, the role of creative writing as a discipline in tertiary education has become better recognized.

Teaching creative writing in English has proved an effective way of teaching the language and also writing techniques. Only two of us teaching in English – myself and Li Hua – who teaches creative nonfiction and screenwriting at Renmin University– have MFA qualifications, gained in the USA, generally required as a minimum to teach Creative Writing in America.

Teaching creative writing in the Department of English has changed the former writing course that focused on pragmatic matters such as writing business letters and forming a persuasive argument. Now, students write stories from their Chinese perspective, largely missing in the currently available literature about China. At Sun Yat-sen University, we are also offering late in 2014 a bilingual creative writing course in which students will learn not only how to write but also address issues involved in translation, cultural differences, and language use. Therefore, creative writing becomes part of their wider education.

In terms of international writers, I have brought MFA graduates from the University of Iowa (USA) and the University of Pittsburgh to strengthen our teaching capabilities. We have also established teaching and research partnerships with the University of Glasgow, Miami University, and, in Australia, the University of Wollongong, and Flinders University.

Another activity at my university is our Book Club which runs once a month when the semester is in session. It aims to promote reading and writing of world literature, while creating an atmosphere on campus where close reading is encouraged and like-minded students would meet because of a book. The Book Club’s presence brings a missing element to the campus, so that students read for intellectual pleasure.

One other major activity by The Sun Yat-sen University Center for English- language Creative Writing is the International Writers’ Residency. This gives time and space to 15 writers a year to write their work, as well as to provide them with opportunities to get to know Chinese people and culture.

Fan DAIFan Dai was a 2012-13 Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar in the Nonfiction Writing Program at University of Iowa. She has published four collections of essays in Chinese, and a novel, Butterfly Lovers, in English.

 

 

 

 

 

MINDING THE GAP

East:west1

There’s a wide gap between the West and the East when it comes to creative writing programs writes Xu Xi ( 許素細 ) who established Asia’s first low-residency MFA in creative writing.

In April this year Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Díaz published an essay in The New Yorker entitled ‘MFA vs. POC,’ (‘person of color’) in which he recounted his experience as one of the only writers of color enrolled in his MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) program in the 1990s. As an Asian writer who did both her MFA in the 1980s, much of this resonated.

Here in Asia, there are hardly any longstanding MFA programs – the exception being in the Philippines. Communities of writers are primarily local or national, with much smaller global readership or recognition. Junot Díaz’s contention that: ‘These days, you got fifth graders that can talk your ears off about MFAs. This is the Age of the Writing Program,’ may indeed be true in North America, and perhaps also in the UK, given the proliferation of MA’s and PhD’s in creative writing in those places. But in Asia (though I cannot speak for South Korea or Japan), the study of creative writing is still perceived as a kind of recreational pastime for children or the dilettante with too much time on his or her hands.

In Hong Kong, the MTR subway system still reminds riders to ‘mind the gap’, a quaint hangover from a British colonial past. Minding this gap should be the job of writers and translators here if we are serious about what we write and the influence we wish our work to exert. In other words, it is high time our part of the world played catch up to the world in the writing game.

Oddly, this is also a time when all of Asia seems obsessed with the idea of creative writing. Literary festivals are springing up throughout the region and workshops by the invited writers are constantly over-subscribed.
Everyone and their dog wants to be a ‘published author’, and given the ease of self-publication these days, and the long-standing practice in Asia of author-subsided publishing, a dog could easily be an Asian author today (and even a best seller).

Author Junot Diaz says that in North America this is the "age of the writing program".

Author Junot Diaz says that in North America this is the “age of the writing program”.

There are writer groups and informal workshops, retreats and residencies where you can couple yoga or travel with writing, and generally a lot of pent-up desire among young people to ‘be creative’ – writing being one of the obvious paths.

Yet the universities in Asia have been slow to respond to the interest in creative writing in terms of offering courses and programs that are not just electives or additions to a ‘real’ degree. The MPhil in English, for example, is one way some aspiring creative writers are allowed to do a creative submission as partial fulfillment for their degree. However, the serious academic work is still the ‘lit-crit’ (literary criticism) dissertation-cum-thesis. Having been an external examiner for such creative submissions, I can attest to the limited value for the writer if she is not able to focus on the creative work in a serious way other than to obtain limited feedback on a final product.

This is perhaps another hangover of colonialism, manifest in the British post-colonial world of much of Asia. The MFA, which is the writing game for a great deal of the English language writing and publishing in the world is, unfortunately for Asia, an American invention. Most of Asia is still beholden to the English university system that does not recognize the MFA as a terminal degree. Consequently, the trend in the UK and Australia has been towards the PhD in creative writing as a way to allow writers to work in the academy.

Most undergraduate creative writing teaching in Asia is still at only a very rudimentary level, some courses accepting students who have never read a book.

Yet, even in the UK, any writer knows they’re better off in one of the credible MAs in creative writing if they want to actually write.

Universities in Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia regularly invite international authors for conferences or readings, or to conduct workshops. The Chinese poet Bei Dao, who is based at Chinese University of Hong Kong, stages bi-annual International Poetry Nights, with poets invited from around the world. There are also now a few creative writing courses at the undergraduate level, but this is only the beginning of creating a writing culture.

Most undergraduate creative writing teaching in Asia is still at only a very rudimentary level, some courses accepting students who have never read a book.

The five-year old low-residency Asian MFA I helped to found at City University of Hong Kong has begun to contribute to the writing game in Asia, but I am daily reminded of how new that culture is here. It is not at all unusual to encounter interested applicants who are horrified to learn that a writing sample is required for consideration!

Unless there are more quality writing and translation programs in South East Asia the writing game in this part of the world will be limited to work distributed only at local or national level, written for the most part in South East Asian languages and remaining un-translated for the global marketplace.

Despite this slow development of quality creative writing and translation programs in universities in this part of Asia, I remain hopeful. Baptist University in Hong Kong introduced a BA major in bi-lingual (Chinese-English) creative writing as part of their Humanities curriculum, and brought onto their faculty the poet James Shea. James previously taught in a MFA program and holds an MFA from Iowa. And, despite the limiting self-financing strictures imposed by the Hong Kong Government on all Masters programs, both the MFAs in Hong Kong are still in existence.

Another positive step is the new Yale-NUS college in Singapore which has a visiting writer program and offers some creative writing to its students. The Singapore Government sponsors a significant amount of literary activities and, perhaps, will direct some of that funding towards creative writing education in the universities.

Asia also has the advantage of creating a writing culture in its universities with the benefit of the pedagogical models in the USA, Australia, the UK and elsewhere. They also offer lessons in what to avoid. The MFA is certainly not the only answer to becoming a successful writer.

Xu Xi 許素細 is the author of nine books of fiction and essays. The most recent titles are Access Thirteen Tales (2011), the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and an essay collection, Evanescent Isles (2008). A novel-in-manuscript, That Man in Our Lives, and an essay collection, Typhoon Mum, about living with her mother’s Alzheimers, are currently represented by the literary agency Harold Matson. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English.