Creative Writing in China

Creative fiction has a venerable history in the People’s Republic of China. Many would argue that the nation’s very foundations lie in its creative fictions. Nonetheless, one of the achievements of the post-Mao era is that the voices and stories of the many have challenged the previous monologue of the party-state, enriching or at least complicating it in the process.

There’s the saying that everyone has a book in them, but in Big Daddy Xi Jinping’s increasingly ideologically policed China, there is an unsettling possibility that everyone may end up writing the same tome. As the following essay by the noted Australian writer Nicholas Jose points out, independent creative writing has flourished in mainland China in recent years. It is hardly a surprise then that the pumped up decibels of the official China Dream as well as the crafted China Story of the party-state are being used to drown out the beautiful polyphony of the country’s graphomaniacs.

Will such renewed attempts to replace the many with the one enjoy success? It is worth noting that Chairman of Everything Xi recently led the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo in yet another study session devoted to Dialectical Materialism, and it is sobering to recall what Simon Leys said about this underpinning theory of the Marxist-Leninist state a quarter of a century ago (notwithstanding Slavoj Žižek’s witty defence of an ideal Marxism-Leninism):

Dialectics is the jolly art that enables the Supreme Leader never to make mistakes—for even if he did the wrong thing, he did it at the right time, which makes it right for him to have been wrong, whereas the Enemy, even if he did the right thing, did it at the wrong time, which makes it wrong for him to have been right.

When the leader is infallible, creative fiction flourishes.

Nicholas Jose is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide and a celebrated author, playwright and essayist. He was Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing in the heady years from 1987 to 1990. His most recent book is a collection of stories titled Bapo (Giramondo Publishing, 2014).—The Editors


Creative Writing in China
By Nicholas Jose

Last November, in an article titled ‘Creative writing is budding’, China Daily reported that ‘in the past five years, about a dozen universities and colleges have begun to offer creative writing degree programs or introduce similar units into traditional Chinese literature programs’.[1] Leading institutions such as Peking University are now jumping on the bandwagon. A couple of years ago Renmin University appointed high-profile author Yan Lianke to its faculty. Generally the American MFA provides the initial model, as Creative Writing continues its conquest of the world. How this has happened is fascinating, and a little hazy in China, as it is elsewhere, including all those English-speaking countries, including Australia, where Creative Writing programs are now entrenched, usually attached to English departments, from undergraduate through to Masters and PhD. An earlier report in Global Times (5 August 2013) gives a version of the Chinese history:

In the late 1980s, many universities in China introduced majors in writing, but all were later banned by the government. Fudan [University in Shanghai] held unofficial classes for writers without giving a diploma, but the practice survived for only three years from 1989 to 1992.Things started to change when the acclaimed novelist Wang Anyi came to Fudan to teach in 2005. It took another four years to get the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing approved by the Ministry of Education.[2]

This account overlooks the parallel emergence of Creative Writing programs in English departments in China, which have always been keen to follow the latest trends in literary studies. Now, from some perspectives at least, after Theory and after postcolonialism, this squarely includes Creative Writing (which is to ignore the fact that Creative Writing has also met resistance in English departments around the world, particularly when academics trained in traditional literary scholarship are asked to skill up to this new pedagogy.)

Dai Fan, pioneering Director of the Centre for Creative Writing in the School of Foreign Languages at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, notes that Renmin University in Beijing offered elective courses in Creative Writing in English at the same time as Fudan began its classes in Chinese. ‘Teaching creative writing in English has proved an effective way of teaching the language and also writing techniques,’ she argues, making the case for this new development on utilitarian grounds.[3] Dai and Li Hua, who teaches non-fiction and screenwriting at RenDa, both have American MFA qualifications in the field. Dai acknowledges that ‘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’ [sic].

What is more interesting, perhaps, is the way Creative Writing programs everywhere adapt to and are shaped by local conditions and needs. In Hong Kong and Macao, for example, innovative approaches are being explored in Creative Writing programs that reflect the cultural contexts and pressures of those societies (including the interplay of both Cantonese and Mandarin with English). That includes cross-border traffic, especially with Guangzhou. Eddie Tay (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Christopher Kelen (University of Macao) have each written about this in their contributions to Exploring Second Language Creative Writing: Beyond Babel, edited by Dan Disney (John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 2014). A celebrated example is the low- residency Asian MFA in Creative Writing developed by Hong Kong writer Xu Xi at the City University of Hong Kong where students of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, including from the mainland, experience a shared workshop, with English as the lingua franca.[4] One graduate of City’s Asian MFA, Adnan Mahmutovic, a Bosnian who writes in English, is currently developing a Masters program on a similar model for a mix of local and international students, all writing in English, at the University of Stockholm where he works—and there too the class includes Chinese students.

Part of the point here is that English can become the language of choice for emerging writers wherever they are and whatever their first language background—a language of convenience in a globalising world. In that sense in China too, English can be thought of as less a foreign language than a second and widely shared language for many, with its own uses and spaces. As Eddie Tay writes in the context of contemporary Hong Kong, rather than being stigmatised as imperial these days, ‘the English language is viewed as a space of possibility and emergence’.[5] So too in mainland China, to write creatively in English offers the prospect of doing (or saying or being) something different. That partly explains the enthusiasm for this new area. It is driven not only by academics wanting to engage with the latest fashion, but also by students who aspire to be ‘creative’ and find new ways to express themselves.

Often this means making themselves the subject of their writing. Dai Fan reports that what students wrote about in her courses at Sun Yat-Sen University ‘generally fell into one of four categories: first, their relationships with parents, relatives, and friends; second, their high school experiences; third, love stories; and fourth, reflections on life in general.’ This can pander to narcissism, of course, but in a Chinese context can also be revealing. In one class I observed at Renmin University students were asked to write about their grandparents. This produced some fascinating exercises in oral history: students had talked to their grandparents, or to their parents about their grandparents, touching on painful and difficult historical experiences in earlier phases of the PRC that this new generation, born in the 1990s, barely recognised. The students had then translated and adapted what they heard into English for this Creative Writing exercise.

The process underlines the close relationship between Creative Writing and literary translation. Just as a literary translator deserves to be regarded as a creative practitioner, working under particular constraints, so a creative writer can be inspired and guided both by reading work in translation and by understanding the broader, or less visible, translational transactions that are at work in almost all imaginative writing.

Literature is a conversation, across languages. Nowhere is this more evident than in modern Chinese literature, where so many of the key figures were also translators, of foreign literatures, of Chinese literature, of their own writing: the list includes Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Lin Yutang, Bing Xin, Zhang Ailing, Yang Jiang and many more. Unsurprisingly then, creative writing workshops are contributing to the training of literary translators in China, and no doubt there are translators who will become writers too. The Chinese English Literary Translation (CELT) courses run in China in association with the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) and Penguin China last year included such workshops for the first time, as BCLT routinely does now in its international summer schools back in Norwich, bringing writers, translators and editors together for translation in both directions to produce work that has a chance of succeeding simply as good writing. The writing produced from such an environment can be read as transcultural, meaning that it has the potential to travel. The work of two of the most widely admired contemporary authors, JM Coetzee and Haruki Murakami, is exemplary here. Both are translators, and both produce work that translates successfully. The 2013 China Story Yearbook reported that Murakami was China’s fifth-ranked bestselling foreign author that year.[6]

It is nothing new for writers to study writing. But as an academic discipline Creative Writing is relatively recent. It can trace its lineage back to the early versions of today’s Freshman Composition that students like TS Eliot took at Harvard at the beginning of the last century. The most prominent American school is the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1922 and run from 1941 by Paul Engle, who later married Chinese novelist Nieh Hua-ling. Together Engle and Nieh went on to found Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1967, for which they were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. The couple met in Taiwan where Nieh had fled with her KMT family in 1948. Her father, who worked for Chiang Kai-shek, was executed by Mao’s forces. Iowa’s international program ‘was funded in large part by the United States Information Agency as one of its many Cold War propaganda initiatives’, writes Mark McGurl in his probing history of American Creative Writing programs, The Program Era (2009). The program enabled many foreign writers to come to Iowa and, with the help of the related Translation Workshop, have their work disseminated in English.[7] Wang Anyi attended in 1983, and other Chinese writers would follow.

In Britain, Creative Writing programs came later, beginning in the 1970s and through the 1980s, mostly in new universities, led by the University of East Anglia, which counts Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro among its many illustrious alumni. UEA is now one of Fudan’s partners in developing the program there. In Australia, University of Technology Sydney led at undergraduate and Masters level in the 1980s. The University of Adelaide established the first Chair of Creative Writing in 1997 and was early to offer a PhD in the field. The University of Wollongong has shown the way in research projects on Asian Australian writing, with links to Creative Writing at Sun Yat-sen University in China. The University of Western Sydney has collaborated with the Chinese Writers’ Association on two China Australia Literary Fora in which Mo Yan and Coetzee have participated. Chinese students take Creative Writing courses in English abroad, and can make a rich contribution to the class, drawing on the wealth of story material that China’s recent and not-so-recent history and literary traditions provide, including a predilection for the supernatural and a taste for the grim.

In China the study, copying and adaptation of esteemed examples has been integral to artistic practice for centuries, often obligatory, often formulaic. At what point does such writing become ‘creative’? It is in part the implication of ‘originality’ that makes ‘creative writing’ seem problematic in a Chinese context, though it is problematic in the West for similar reasons. China’s academies of creative arts exist as much to discipline and channel originality as to let it flourish unchecked. Aspirant writers compete across China to be handpicked for admission to the opulent Lu Xun Academy. There are considerable benefits for those who can walk the walk, or even just toe the line. But eligibility and assessment criteria are surely different in a university, especially in an English department, where Creative Writing is ostensibly an adjunct to language acquisition and not such a focus of scrutiny in its own right. Will a new kind of writing and writer arise?

Creative Writing programs in China have grown up in part in collaboration with international partners. Their thwarted beginnings in the 1980s happened during a brief time of openness to experiment with new ideas. There’s more flexibility now, and also more filtering and adaptation, as China articulates its own reasons and methods for going down this popular path. It’s not just so China can offer copycat MFAs in Creative Writing too, whether in English or Chinese or any other language. The sanctioned workshop model that derives from Iowa has reportedly proved awkward to implement in China, because of a reluctance to engage in robust face-to-face criticism—though personally I find that hard to believe of a society that invented public self-criticism.

Dai Fan praises the approach of Shanghai University’s Center for Creative Writing which connects students with creative industries, ‘runs extensive outreach programs …, short online training courses open to anyone interested in writing … [and] Workshops for Creative Life … in neighborhood activity centres … with the aim of enriching the cultural life of the community’.[8] It will be interesting to see where China’s next generation of creative writers come from: cosy elite academies, wrangling writers’ workshops or the good ol’ grassroots.



[1] ‘Creative writing is budding’, China Daily USA, 19 November 2014, accessed 21 January 2015.

[2] Huang Yuanfan, ‘Writers’ dreams certified’, Global Times, 5 August 2013, accessed 21 January 2015.

[3] Fan Dai, ‘Teaching Creative Writing in China’, LEAP+,, accessed 21 January 2015. See also Fan Dai, ‘Writing, Sharing and Growing: Creative Writing in English at a Mainland Chinese University’, Jane Camens & Dominique Wilson, eds, TEXT Special issue, Creative writing in the Asia-Pacific Region, April 2011, for a more detailed and slightly different version of this history.

[4] For a discussion of the impetus behind this course, see Xu Xi, ‘Minding the Gap’, LEAP+, accessed 21 January 2015.

[5] Eddie Tay, ‘Curriculum as cultural critique: Creative Writing pedagogy in Hong Kong’, Dan Disney, ed, Exploring Second Language Creative Writing: Beyond Babel, Linguistic Approaches to Literature 19 (John Benjamins, Amsterdam 2014), p.103.

[6] Geremie R Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn, eds, Civilising China, Australian Centre on China in the World, Canberra, 2013, pp.414-415., accessed 21 January 2015

[7] Mark McGurl, The Program Era: post-war Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press, 2009), p.178. See generally ‘Iowa Unlimited: The Cold War Concentration Camp’, pp.171-179, for this intriguing story.

[8]Fan Dai, ‘Teaching Creative Writing in China’, LEAP+,, accessed 21 January 2015.