Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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Animals and English Majors are Free: Teaching Creative Writing in the People's Republic of China
by Tom Bradley


One morning in the middle of my second year in China, the dean of the foreign languages department came tapping at my door with an ultimatum from "the leaders."  I was to surrender my students' fiction, and be quick about it.

Democracy, or at least the kids' notion of it, was all the rage. The whole country had been jostled the night before by several mild examples of the demonstrations that would eventually climax in the massacre in Tiananmen Square.  A lot of people in China were tense, especially my old dean, who'd lived through several political "movements" and bore the lumps and bumps to prove it.  The poor guy was on the verge of apoplexy at my vestibule.  I was his waiguoren, after all:  he'd been the one to invite me to this tenth-rate university in the frozen industrial wastes of the remote northeast, and he was supposed to have been keeping an eye on my comportment in the classroom.

Between workshops, a few select graduate students and I had been discussing our pirated offsets of 1984.  Intoxicated by the illusion of freedom that had briefly entered their lives, they'd been writing stories about fat, tyrannous bus conductors, and small-town party hacks lining their pockets in the name of the glorious revolution.  These stories, inept as most of them were, had now apparently become objects of intense curiosity for "the leaders."

The previous year I'd taught in the deep south, where the bare mention of "Marxism/ Leninism/Mao Zedong thought" could be relied upon to brighten a dull lecture with hoots of derision from the back row.  My subtropical undergraduates did have a party representative charged with their political and moral nurture, but he hardly ever showed his face.  Those two semesters in the sun had made me complacent, and it wasn't until the dean showed up at my door that I realized my seminars here in the north had been infiltrated by party spies, who held mere deans on a short leash.

The old man started moaning up into my face from the blackness of the corridor about us being colleagues and good friends, and about how much he suffered in the "so-called" Cultural Revolution.  The Red Guards made big-character posters about him, placed him under house arrest, burned all his poems, and forced him to write self-criticisms for a whole year.  He promised that none of the students would be persecuted in any way for what they had written.

I knew that last bit was an outright lie.  The leaders did not want to read the stories for their aesthetic value.  But I was never the less tempted to comply with the order.

I couldn't afford to be disassociated from the dean and all his editorial connections.  He could be a forest-flattening dynamo, despite his dynastic birth date.  We may have had our minor differences at the moment, but he and I both preferred collaborating on scholarly articles to doing just about anything else, except maybe attending banquets at the provincial wai ban.  Back in the good old days, we'd been quite a duo.  Of course, that was before the occidental aberration called democracy came along and spoiled everything.  That was before the young people's spirits were polluted with thoughts of Pepsi and Rambo and disco marathons on Stalin Square.

And now, if I failed to deliver up the stories and, along with them, in effect, my "pupils," my half of the by-line would be purged from all our pending publications.  I'd have to retract the fat vita I'd sent to every university and junior college in the free world, and trim it back down to a page and a half.  There'd go any justification for dragging my poor, blameless wife to China in the first place.

What would become of us?  Foreign experts detained in the People's Republic?  Interviews on Voice of America, maybe even the BBC World Service?  Book contracts?  Tenure-track appointments in major first-world English departments?  Before I knew it, I found myself praying that the communists would pack me off in chains for a brief but grueling stint at the Qinghai forced labor camp.  My wife could be re-educated in a stuffed toy factory.  Think how svelte and employable we'd be upon release!  Our deportation could be a big international incident.

Being a husky male WASP from a prosperous far-western community, and a late baby boomer to boot, I'd never had much experience with this sort of thing.  I was still in high school when the draft ended, and only got in on one anti-Nixon demonstration.  My experience with police officers was limited to the night I got stuck somewhere outside Provo and a highway patrolman gave me a can full of unleaded and five dollars.  So thumbing my nose at totalitarianism--or at least inciting my disciples to thumb theirs--was a new and exciting experience for me.

Occasionally, though, during those cold Manchurian nights, I'd calm down a bit and begin pondering the pedagogical questions which should have been my main concern all along.  For example, why had the grad students requested a course in creative writing in the first place?  China, after all, is a country in which most of the full-time novelists and poets are living on government salaries, and write accordingly.

This is not to say there weren't plenty of opportunities for free-lance fiction translators.  One publishing house after another was bringing out series like the highly successful Contemporary Masterpieces of American Literature, featuring Arthur Hailey and Sidney Sheldon and other artists of that caliber.  On Saturday afternoons my students would track me down for help deciphering lists of "culturally loaded" terms that had stymied their progress through such works as First Blood, Part II, Iacocca, and Nancy and Ronnie, a True-Life Love Story.

Cheap Mandarin versions of Freud's more titillating works were being hawked in street stalls, and Lady Chatterley could be had in Shanghai.  There was a corresponding flowering of literary magazines, which were responsive not only to the loosening of censorship but to actual market forces.  The formula at that time demanded just a little sex.  Some of my students were trying to make a few yuan on the side pitching stories to these magazines, and they needed to be coached in the techniques of the soft pornographer.  We devoted one whole class period to that very topic.

But was it possible the kids had somewhat purer motives for asking me to supply them with fiction workshops?  Did they actually have something they wanted to say?  I considered this possibility with dread, having been indoctrinated in American creative writing programs where form equals content and preferably replaces it.

And I wasn't the only one reluctant to deal with kids with a message.  The same dean who was now twitching at my door had earlier that year asked me to "introduce Derrida to China" by writing an article for the university journal.  Nothing would have pleased his tired soul more than to see English majors all across China safely off the streets, wrapped up in fluffy hermeneutic conceits, penning unintelligible, therefore apolitical, vignettes about their tiny navels.

I obliged him with a dozen or so pages of nonsense, just for the vita-stuffer.  But somehow my article did not generate much interest among the students.  The babblings of lit-critters have little pertinence under conditions of actual political oppression.  The inscrutability of texts is nothing but a non sequitur to young people whose heart and respiration rates can be visibly quickened by reciting Orwellian mottoes about Crimethink.  They openly scoffed at the notion that all language is inherently repressive.  How could something so exhilarating be repressive?  They'd laugh in the face of their dorm monitor, and misquote Orwell loudly in one voice:  "Animals and English majors are free!"

They said dangerous things out loud, right in class: anon-revisionist history of the party is impossible to get in China, but, in Hong Kong and America, books as true as Emanuel Goldstein's are openly distributed; the insidious processes of Newspeak are recognizable in Mao's attempts to "de-feudalize" Chinese characters; and a whole catalog of other such oral braveries.  In the halls and the dorms, even in the restrooms, big-character posters suddenly appeared in English, Chinese, Japanese, Russian--


I knew exactly who'd painted and posted these incendiary dazhibao, and I was delighted to have been taken into the confidence of such stout freedom fighters.  I felt like one of the boys.  So, obviously, I burned their stories in my bathtub and invited the old codger to come on in and stir the ashes with the toe of his rubber galosh.

But, in this far corner of China, it didn't require the People's Liberation Army to put the kibosh on such counterrevolutionary highjinks.  Northeasterners might come on strong at first, but they roll over easily, for they're accustomed to being pushed around by bullies.  Russia, Japan and the Guomindang each occupied that very town in living memory.  Almost overnight the jackboot came down on my kids' faces, but so subtly that I didn't even notice.

Immediately after the conflagration in my tub, their stories began mysteriously to depoliticize, their persuasive essays to sink to innocuous topics like child rearing, and to be accepted for publication by the op-ed folks at China Daily, where they'd formerly been rejected with indignation. By the beginning of the second semester, their creative work had completely dried up.  To pound the final nail in the coffin, our supplementary reading moved on from twentieth-century dystopias to contemporary novels in verse, as my syllabus had given ample warning it would.  Our mimeographs of the equally verboten Pale Fire turned out blurry, and the class flopped.

Unfortunately, I wasn't imprisoned or tortured or deported.  All that happened was that I served out my appointment, and was unable the next academic year to find another job anyplace in a country where, only two semesters before, department chairmen had been writing me flattering letters and even traveling hundreds of miles by hard-seat to recruit me, as one of the few renegade American Ph.D.'s in the Middle Kingdom with absolutely nothing to go back to in the States.  By the time the tanks rolled out onto Tiananmen Square, I was comfortably ensconced in the suburbs of Hiroshima, gaining weight and teaching Business English Skills to the grandsons of Hirohito's baby-impaling imperial troops.

The magazines that once held out hopes of artistic fulfillment to my students nowadays devote most of their pages to articles on how to pass TOEFL.  I hear that English majors have become a rarity, and MBA's are crawling from under every rock.  Nobody mentions the D-word anymore, but no matter: the economy is fattening like a pig.  They're even developing an illegal alien problem with their unhappily democratized neighbors to the north: for the first time in history, ice people are waiting tables and mopping up and spreading their thighs for sun people.

If the twenty-first is to be the Pacific Rim Century, it will also be a golden opportunity for American creative writing programs to finally justify their existence.  Now's the time to send entire regiments of fresh graduates to proselytize the Middle Kingdom: metafictionists and lyric poets marching as to war.  I'm sure that, given an adequate grounding in deconstructionist theory, the future compradors can be relied upon to write nothing incorrect enough to unsettle their deans or incite their classmates to misbehavior.  Thanks to Creative Writing, China's MFN status will never again be jeopardized by unsightly videotapes of students squashed on the cobblestones, and our economic wagon will remain guiltlessly hitched to the red star that rises from the far shore of the only ocean that matters anymore.

Besides, with all the MFA's gone among the heathen, their professors back home will no longer be troubled in restaurants and taxis by that embarrassing question: exactly how much do you tip someone whose graduate committee you served on?



Books by Tom Bradley available at Amazon.com (click on title for reviews and ordering information):

Acting Alone (Hardcover)
Acting Alone (Paperback)
Black Class Cur
The Curved Jewels
Kara-Kun, Flip-Kun
Killing Bryce



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