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Outside Chengdu, China

The Forbidden City

Teaching Creative Writing in China

Third-year MFA poet Leah Soderberg traveled to China in the summer of 2009, where she taught creative writing to students at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China. She wrote the following essay following her fellowship.

On the first of many mornings that I would spend at the restaurant for visiting faculty during my stay at Sichuan University, I met David. A Fulbright Scholar and professor of law from the States, he had already been in Chengdu for three weeks, lecturing eager Chinese students on the American judicial system, the nuances and rewards of democracy at work. Over pickled vegetables and steamed dumplings, he gave me all the usual and expected tips: that I should learn a bit of Chinese to impress the people I meet, ask a student to show me around to the sights of the city, and that I should get used to having tea with my breakfast—a good cup of coffee would be both an anomaly and a luxury. But beyond the logistics of surviving a six week stay in a foreign city, he also shared with me his experience teaching in a country so vastly different from our own. The biggest challenge, he had said, was relativity.

“The students,” he explained, smiling in amusement, “are so eager to learn. They’ll work as hard as you ask them to, but they’ll want you to give them the answers. Their whole lives they’ve been told what to do and what to think. They’ll want you to tell them what’s right and wrong, truth and fiction.” I watched the thin, grassy leaves spin in my tea cup as I refilled it with water. I knew that he was right.

Walking into a classroom in this country also meant walking into a generation molded by the hands of the government. Mao might be dead, but from one’s very first moments in China, it is clear that his legacy has been carefully preserved. In the coming weeks my students would tell me about their classes spent memorizing Marxist theory, reciting the words of the Cultural Revolution. They were the generation of promise and progress—those who were able to choose their own careers, homes, and health care providers, but those without religions, siblings, or questions. As the generation who would carry China into a new era of prosperity, they had been gifted with more freedom than their parents and grandparents, but had seemingly no idea how to exercise or even just enjoy it. It quickly became clear to me that teaching these students creative writing would be a great, but certainly worthwhile, challenge.

As much as I hate to admit it, the lessons that I created for my classes each day were hardly enough preparation for the questions posed by my students: What is creative writing? What should I write about? What would I even have to say? Suddenly, my own education was on trial, and I was forced to examine everything that I had readily and without reservation accepted as fact. The truth is, as not just writers, but American writers, we are gifted with the often dismissed luxury of ego. From childhood, we are told that we are individually significant, that we should have something to say, and most importantly, that we should say it. Questions are encouraged, and individuality is expected. America, so often referred to as a “melting pot,” has always been less a solution than a mixture—although we are a union of people working together, each of us strives to claim an identity and a voice all our own. These ideas, although becoming increasingly more accepted and valued within Chinese society, were still quite new and strange to my students. Their writing was at first stilted and unimaginative, but I was pleasantly surprised to watch it quickly evolve. They began taking risks, thinking of the world outside the realm of what they perceived as the limits of its reality. Over the course of six weeks, I stood in amazement as they stopped simply observing the world that they thought they knew and began creating it with image and metaphor.

It was beyond rewarding to watch the perspectives of these Chinese students change and expand in regards to what they can create and project into the world, but even more so, this experience was a clear reminder of all the questions that we as writers must continually ask ourselves—what is creative writing? What should we write about? What do we even have to say? In this field, it is so easy to close oneself off from those to which we are accountable—our audience and our peers—but in order to really write about the world, one must be actively living in it—experiencing it in all its wonders and horrors and continually be challenging what we have so easily accepted as our right to write. For this life-changing experience, I would like to thank the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and especially Jewell Parker Rhodes. Not only do the global outreach programs of this organization educate those in other nations, but they continually challenge and strengthen the formative experiences of those in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University. Without these tremendous opportunities to travel the world and interact with those living and working in its far corners, we would never fully understand the value of our craft and the contribution to this planet that lies in our mere words.

Click here to learn more about Piper's Global Outreach initiatives.

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