I’m still buzzed after teaching Elizabeth Bishop to my fab fab grad students. They have spent their lives studying for highly competitive standardized tests: no drama club, no organized sports, no smoking in the parking lot. Before I came here I assumed that Chinese people were not trained to think creatively, but the fact is that they are the most engaged, curious, and, yes, creative students I have ever taught. They totally fly in the face of stereotypes about Chinese students as benumbed technocrats. The problem is not a lack of creativity on the part of Chinese young people; the problem is that their society offers so few outlets for creativity. I never really understood the serious value of “bohemia” as a state of mind (and a network of people and neighborhoods and lifestyles) until I arrived in a place that squelches it.
My students are amazing readers of poetry but when I ask them if they write poetry, they titter nervously and say, “No one does anymore.” By “anymore,” they mean “since 1989,” but I don’t think they know this is what they mean. The date does not loom large in the Chinese collective imagination, the way it does in the West. Before 1989 there was a resurgence of poetry on Chinese campuses, so the medium does have a fairly recent history as a relevant art form. My sense is that China has tremendous literary and artistic potential. Is it possible to educate people beautifully while simultaneously constraining their imaginations? The evidence I’ve seen says: no. Education makes people think (even when it’s not designed to), and thinking makes people creative. People here are creative. All they need is a bohemian infrastructure. Or rather, “bohemia with Chinese characteristics.” But that’s easier said than created (or even imagined) in a country that fears–with good historical reasons, mind you–dissenting subcultures. But then again, who knows? This is also a country where anything could happen; indeed, that’s why people burn so much fake money and incense trying to keep the Fates on their side.