Hannah Treasure: Creative Writing in China

Shanghai University exterior

Hey everyone! My name is Hannah Treasure, and I’m a rising Gallatin senior concentrating in education, creative writing and social justice with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. This summer I’m researching the recent emergence of creative writing programs at Chinese and Hong Kong universities, and what this classroom pedagogy can tell us of free expression.

I developed this project after reading Workshops of Empire, which suggests the emergence of creative writing MFA programs in the US was a means of protecting and cultivating individuality during the Cold War. As China and Hong Kong’s MFA programs all popped up around the early 2000s, I was curious if there was a larger political or cultural phenomenon as to why this was China’s creative writing moment.

For June, I was based in Shanghai, conducting interviews with professors and students at creative writing programs. Immediately I saw many positives to workshops, such as creating a community of trust within the classroom, increasing one’s confidence through close readings of their work in class, and leadership skills from the horizontal structure of learning where the students lead critiques rather than professors leading a lecture.

I was initially discouraged by the lack of collaboration in mainland China between creative writing programs, as well as lack of opportunity for students to engage in a creative writing community outside of the university. Public readings and open mics were very uncommon, which I think can be attributed to language barrier. Because these creative writing classes are happening at city universities, the larger community also engulfs a portion of expats. Reading groups I discovered were either all older, experienced Chinese poets (not so many younger student poets) reading all in Chinese or expat groups reading all in English. However, NYU Shanghai as well as Fudan University were able to host bilingual readings, where a translator was able to work with a local poet for the event.

Overall in the first month I saw these classes change the narrative of both Chinese education and of China as a country. In the West, we often only hear stories about standardized testing pressures and STEM-crazed teachers. Focusing on a non-traditional classroom like that of a workshop shows that creative communities and their career options exist in China! Additionally, as some of these programs as taught in English or are bilingual, it gives students a chance to write their experience growing up in mainland without the third party of a translator or a foreigner writing about them.

Students peruse a bookstore in Shenzhen specializing in poetry, film, and art history books
Students peruse a bookstore in Shenzhen specializing in poetry, film, and art history books
Shanghai University on a cloudy day.
Shanghai University on a cloudy day.
NYU Shanghai's bilingual reading series lineup, after their Creative Writing minor was approved.
NYU Shanghai’s bilingual reading series lineup, after their Creative Writing minor was approved.

One thought on “Hannah Treasure: Creative Writing in China

  1. Hey Hannah, I think these are all really great observations about Chinese creative writing programs and communities of free expression that may be able to lead you to further conclusions about Chinese culture in general. I’m interested to hear what you thought were the major differences between Chinese and expat reading/poetry groups. Although I don’t know a word of Chinese, I know that Chinese writing systems are logographic as opposed to alphabetic, like written English. I wonder how this affects creative writing and poetry writing in these respective languages, and if this leads to big stylistic differences that could explain the lack of bilingual writing groups and communities. I also like how you addressed Westerners’ impressions of “standardized testing pressures” in China and other Eastern countries. The little that I have learned about Eastern education systems in countries like China, Korea, Vietnam, etc., has been mainly focused around these pass/fail all-or-nothing standardized exams. It’s nice to read about the emergence of communities and programs like the one’s you have been researching, that encourage students to pursue careers in less standard fields like creative writing and poetry.

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