With Chinese Characteristics

In the fall of 2010, Fudan University in Shanghai announced that its Chinese department was about to revitalize the country’s literature. Creative writing was getting “a new face.” But rather than announcing a new faculty member or the winner of a literary prize, Fudan was planning the establishment of mainland China’s first MFA program in creative writing.

One might wonder what took them so long. The graduate creative writing program—and its attendant phenomena, from the undergraduate workshop to the small-press book deal to the degree-carrying poet who lives off untenured teaching jobs—has become a central feature of a contemporary American literary education. The idea of a degree in creative writing is less than a century old; the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which is the oldest and most prestigious MFA program in the country, began in 1936. To reverse the national seal’s dictum: from one, many. Today it’s nearly impossible to find a major U.S. research university that doesn’t teach creative writing. 

Chinese universities have been openly emulating American universities at least since the Reform and Opening in the late 1970s. Coinciding with Deng Xiaoping’s promulgation of a more liberal national political ideology, so-called “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” this series of policies increased China’s economic and political openness to the outside world. Law schools, business schools, courses teaching leadership skills—the Chinese academy now has it all. But an MFA degree in creative writing is something different. Certainly, Fudan sees it that way: the program’s detailed and somewhat extravagant syllabus describes the university’s ambitions as nothing less than transforming contemporary Chinese literature into a thoroughly “international and scientific” practice.

But all is not quite as it seems. The syllabus, even with its vague goals like “expanding students’ artistic consciousness,” mirrors in almost every way what one might see at Iowa or another American MFA program. Novel writing, the art of the essay, rediscovering the classics, interdisciplinary film studies—it’s all there, with one glaring exception. Fudan has completely omitted poetry from its scheme to revolutionize contemporary Chinese literature.

Of course, the Chinese are writing poems, and have been for thousands of years. Tradition credits Confucius with compiling hundreds of Chinese folk songs and poems into the Shijing *or *Classic of Poetry. This text forms the core of a canon—parts of which are memorized by every elementary school student—that also includes Tang poets like Li Bai and Du Fu, as well as latter-day literati like the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong. Mao, a prolific writer in the classical style, is perhaps the bestselling poet-politician in world history—and certainly the only poet whose image watches over his nation’s capital, as Mao’s portrait hangs above Tiananmen Square.

In many ways, Mao the Poet can coexist with Mao the Chairman because of a long Chinese tradition of the scholar-official (the shi class). Many canonical poets, like Qu Yuan, Wang Wei, and Su Shi, served in government. The imperial examination, a requirement from the Sui to the Qing dynasties for those who wished to join the national bureaucracy, focused on literary skills. Academic, poetic, and political success often intertwined.

But the tumult of twentieth century Chinese history created deep discontinuities between present and past. Poetry in China today is no longer a province of the ministry or the academy. China has not taken the path of the West, where the poète maudit, outside of society or outcast from it, dominates our cultural image of the literary artist. Instead, as poetry has dissociated itself from its historic affiliations, it has found a new territory to colonize: the Internet.

In a way that may be difficult for Americans to imagine, for young Chinese writers the poetry world now largely centers on decentralized online communities of non-professional, often anonymous writers. Forums like bbs.chinapoesy.com and poem100.cn allow poets to publish themselves, reaching large virtual audiences. There is no one authoritative site, no sole locus for this activity. Xiaofei Tian, a Harvard professor and scholar of Chinese poetry, calls these websites the “real world” in contemporary Chinese literature, in contrast to traditional venues like the universities and the publishing houses. Of course, as in any democratic literary model, quality varies widely. But, Tian argues, “Many of these online communities are actually very good.”

Some respond more critically to the content of the sites. Chinese poet Wang Ao acknowledges the creation of  “more channels” and “more opportunities for readers to have access to more new poems,” in a country where book numbers (shuhao, like ISBN) and publication opportunities are closely controlled. But he criticizes the tone of complete egalitarianism that dominates these sites, where “everybody can post their poems online and call themselves poets.” The Internet, he stresses, cannot itself produce a new Li Bai or Du Fu—the poems will have to speak for themselves.

At the least, contributions to these open poetry websites are remarkably dynamic and diverse. They range from strict classical exercises to elliptical free verse. Some poets, especially frequent contributors, gain large followings. Others respond to the work of their peers on these sites—a virtual reenactment of the idea that poetic history is a kind of conversation among poets. Indeed, perhaps it would be most accurate to say that a great deal of the most vital activity in Chinese poetry today closely resembles a web chat, a blog.

The diffusive effect of the Internet seems designed to compete with what still exists of a Chinese literary establishment. The new “old guard”—popular middle-aged poets like Xi Chuan and Yu Jian—belong to national writers’ associations, publish with official presses, and win state-sponsored literary awards. And they fight their own battles: the schism between classical and vernacular styles, for example, remains a contentious topic.

These poets are unabashedly internationalized, even as they remain committed to writing for and about China. Robert Hass, the former U.S. poet laureate, recounts a recent trip to Beijing, where he met with a range of established Chinese poets. He asked them about their influences. “Yu Jian said that it was Walt Whitman, presumably in Chinese translation, who opened up poetry for him,” Hass remembers. Xi Chuan, meanwhile, reported that he had studied Borges, Pound, Milosz, and others. “It does look like this is a poetry that’s in conversation with the rest of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry around the world,” Hass says.

Wang Ao, who has won several major Chinese literary awards, agrees: “We all read foreign poetry, in all different languages, not just the major Western languages.” He remembers, “When I was in college we had some poets meeting with each other to discuss foreign poetry and also, at the same time, discussing classical Chinese poetry.” These multiple, multivalent influences have formed China’s establishment poets.

These figures, despite their success, often use their poems to express dissatisfaction with contemporary Chinese poetry. Xi Chuan, in his poem “Nightfall” (mu’se), writes,

You the dead, appear

All the living have shut their mouths

You the dead, where are you?

Nightfall invites you to speak

Then, in the final stanza of the same poem:

And nightfall spreads over the earth

Extends its grasping hand 

Nightfall windowlight, and always someone

Taps gently at my door

The poem enacts many of the concerns of China’s establishment poets. The voice and imagery show the influence of the Latin American tradition, while at moments evoking W. S. Merwin’s early writing (the poem “The Hydra”  comes to mind with Xi Chuan’s address to the “dead” and the “names”). The speaker critiques the present—“all the living have shut their mouths”—but understands that even the invitations of nightfall cannot resurrect poetry’s past. The ambiguous “someone” of the poem’s last stanza exists in a state that is not only liminal but also temporally dislocated: is this one of “the dead” or “the living”? The poem’s achievement is to make nightfall itself atemporal and nonlocational. Xi Chuan expresses a dissatisfaction that is both local and global; he combines Chinese and international approaches in a poem that addresses both the past and the present.

“Internationalization,” then, means many things  as a priority of Fudan’s MFA program. Tian argues that “this creative writing program is almost reactionary” in light of literary developments on the Internet. She adds, “They claim they want to train writers in not only Chinese but also international perspectives, which makes it seem like they are trying to train writers who will produce Nobel Prizes for China.” Indeed, establishment writers in China cannot be happy that the only person writing in Chinese to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature is Gao Xingjian, a French citizen who has lived in Paris for over twenty years. When Gao won the Nobel, China’s then-premier Zhu Rongji responded firmly: “I trust that in the future there will be other Chinese works to win the Prize.”

Online poetry communities, despite their inherent openness to the world, are inward-looking in many ways. “The writers hardly care about what’s going on in the United States,” Tian says. Many of these writers, particularly those who write poems in classical forms or with dense, obscure classical allusions, are certainly nostalgic and perhaps even implicitly nationalistic. In a way, their attitude toward poetry—their faith in the Chinese language and tradition and their desire to stake a broad claim on the future direction of their art—mirrors larger social trends in China today. A wide variety of important reformist, critical, and experimental subject matter finds its favored home in Chinese cyberspace. For example, much has been written in the Western media about China’s “angry youth” or fenqing, whom the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos describes as “the new generation’s neocon nationalists.” The fenqing use the Internet—in particular, online forums and other communal digital spaces—to find each other and promote their views. Perhaps some of China’s online poets are this population’s literary analogue.

In any case, online poetry communities occupy an important political position. Wang Ao observes, “There are many things on the Internet in China now—political protests and poetry and music. It’s part of the character of our times.” As the “angry youth” phenomenon has demonstrated, the Internet in China allows public dialogue on controversial topics to occur before the government can catch up. “Poets now do not need to rely on the traditional venues, which have been censored,” Ao says. “‘Online police’ often do not understand poetry, so poets can write political protest in a metaphorical way.” Even though the establishment of an MFA program could be thought of as a step forward, legitimating and strengthening creative writing in China, these broader developments indicate a more problematic possibility: Fudan’s program opens up opportunities for control by bringing art within the purview of the academy.  Chinese universities certainly do not yet have the traditions of academic freedom of their American counterparts. In a setting where successful professors are very careful about departing from the party line, and every school has a both a dean and a party secretary, an MFA program could potentially subvert the political and literary openness that online literary communities foster.

To Tian, Fudan’s aims are problematic, even “illusory.” She says, “I don’t think the university matters all that much” for the future of creative writing in China. Even Fudan seems to understand, reluctantly, some of its limitations. A founder of the program, a Chinese literature professor named Chen Sihe, offers one reason for Fudan’s lack of poetry offerings: “We don’t know how to teach poetry,” he says. “It’s too complicated.” As strange as this may seem to someone from a country where poetry workshops are a staple of the MFA diet, perhaps it makes sense for Fudan. Perhaps the academy will never be able to provide a meaningful alternative to the freewheeling dynamism of the online poetry world.

And perhaps this is not China’s loss. In the United States, poetry’s longevity as a medium seems, at present, to be inextricably tied to the patronage of universities. But China may offer another model. Xi Chuan expresses his dissatisfaction with contemporary Chinese poetry by suggesting that today’s writers “have shut their mouths.” But even now, above Beijing’s noisy streets or in the hush of a college library, China’s poets are opening their laptops.