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.
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 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.