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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 5 > From Iowa City to Kowloon Tong: On the Cold War origins of creative writing pedagogy in Hong Kong
From Iowa City to Kowloon Tong: On the Cold War origins of creative writing pedagogy in Hong Kong
Author: James Shea
James Shea scrutinizes the Cold War developments of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, its effect on creative writing pedagogy in Hong Kong and its unlikely links to the CIA.
Attachments: Shea References with Chinese.pdf


In the wake of Eric Bennett’s study Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (2015), a critical inquiry into the nexus between the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) and Asian writers has burgeoned (Chen 2017; Liu 2017; So 2017). The present case study extends this new area by examining the cultural history of IWP’s relationship to creative writing pedagogy in Hong Kong through the prism of Hong Kong poet Dai Tian who attended IWP from 1967–8. IWP played a crucial role in the development of Hong Kong’s first Chinese-language creative writing course (called “Poetry Writing Workshop”) and fostered a poetics that continues to flourish in Hong Kong today. As the primary course instructor, Dai adapted not only IWP’s pedagogical methods, but also its poetics of clarity, concrete language, and everyday experience. The evolution of Dai’s poetics and his enduring influence suggests that IWP’s efforts against totalitarianism and Communism during the Cold War met with a paradoxical twist in the case of Hong Kong writers who were resisting another form of hegemonic power, namely, British imperialism.


Keywords: anti-colonialism, Cold War, concrete language, Dai Tian, Hong Kong, International Writing Program, pedagogy, poetry, University of Iowa 


At the end of the city, in a garden house in Kowloon Tong, you hear the sound of poetry being recited, by men and women. You see a group of people with flushed faces debating; at times it is filled with the piano music of Chopin from next door. Sometimes you feel it is a magical evening. From leaves turning yellow to leaves falling, how happy you are. That is Thursday, that is the poetry writing workshop (Lee 1969: 6).[1]


Iowa in Asia, Asia in Iowa

The “poetry writing workshop” described above began in October 1968, and it was the first Chinese-language creative writing course of its kind in Hong Kong. Its pedagogical effects on poetry writing still reverberate in Hong Kong today. The cultural history behind this seminal workshop can be traced to the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) and the U.S. government’s collaborative efforts to resist Communism and totalitarianism through the promotion of literary aesthetics that advanced individualist values during the Cold War. The history of this workshop, however, complicates one-dimensional narratives about the IWP’s relationship with Asian writers during the Cold War, in that the poetry writing workshop’s instructor, Dai Tian, who attended IWP during its inaugural year, both embraced American poetics and opposed American foreign policy, and his poetry engendered an anti-colonial discourse among modernist poets in Hong Kong.[2]

Three interconnected figures illustrate the nexus between IWP and the American government’s support of individualism by way of literary culture in Asia during the Cold War. The first person may be the most important: Paul Engle, a self-styled Cold Warrior who became director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1940s, and later, founder of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) in 1967 (Bennett 2015: 87, 114). As Bennett documents in Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War (2015), the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and IWP were directed with explicit anti-Communist and anti-totalitarian objectives, in part, 1) to insulate Engle from charges of holding Communist sympathies in the 1950s, 2) to raise funds from regional and national donors, and 3) to reflect Engle’s genuine patriotic beliefs and faith in literature. In his attempts to raise money for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Engle cited in his fundraising letters the direct benefit of hosting international writers in the heartland of America, so that they can return “to their native lands with their view of the United States greatly enhanced” (Bennett 2015: 98). Engle sought “to make the Iowa Writers’ Workshop a bastion of anti-Communism” and “[b]y the mid-1950s he was actively recruiting Far Eastern poets and novelists for admission to the Workshop and finding the money to fund them” (Bennett 2015: 101, 93). Bennett further reveals that the Fairfield Foundation, a CIA front, gave grant money to IWP during its first year of operation in 1967. The grant was in the amount of $7,000 USD ($50,000 USD today) over two years. There is no evidence that the CIA or its proxies gave any subsequent donations. Bennett notes that this funding demonstrates less a conspiracy of influence at Iowa, and more a pattern of how Cold War ideology lay behind many cultural institutions and foreign policies at the time (2015: 112–113). Countless companies, funding agencies, and publications were in support of America’s Cold War efforts, directly or indirectly. As Dai explained in an interview, defending himself against the charges of working for American-backed organizations in Hong Kong: “…Such political sponsorship took on different forms, it permeated everything” (2014: 248–249, italics mine).

On a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1963, Engle travelled to Asia on a reconnaissance mission to find writers to invite to Iowa. He visited Pakistan, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Japan. Engle’s host in Hong Kong was Edmund Blunden, who was a professor of English at the University of Hong Kong and Engle’s former advisor at the University of Oxford (Bennett 2015: 105). Engle’s letters back home suggest that he imagined himself as something of an undercover agent filing field reports. In Pakistan, for instance, he recorded seeing “soldiers marching to planes to be flown to the Himalayan frontier, fine men, well set up, intelligent, marching well, and armed with single-shot, bolt-action Enfields from 1914” (Bennett 2015: 106).

The second figure in this transpacific network is Engle’s contact in Asia, Richard McCarthy, a fellow Iowan and University of Iowa graduate.[3] McCarthy eventually became an integral member of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in various Asian countries with Hong Kong and Taiwan as his longest posts (McCarthy 1998). His tours included China (Beijing) (1947–1950), Hong Kong (1950–6), Thailand (1956–8), Taiwan (1958–1962), and Vietnam (1965–6). He arranged meetings between Engle and Chinese writers, remarking in a 1962 letter to Engle, “As somebody who deals in ideas, I think it is frequently more important to bring one writer to the U.S. for exposure to us than to bring a dozen young scientists, educational administrators, or government officials” (1988: 103).[4] One example illustrates McCarthy’s integral role in supporting Chinese-language writers: after Dai and his classmates founded Modern Literature, a Taipei-based literary journal in 1960, and the journal ran out of money, the magazine nearly collapsed. McCarthy, head of the United States Information Services (USIS) in Taipei at the time, “was sympathetic and came to the rescue by ordering huge numbers of the magazine” (Ng 1999: 73).

Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh Engle constitutes the third point of this Iowan triangle in Asia that became a conduit between Chinese-language writers and the University of Iowa.[5] Born in Hubei province in mainland China and based in Taiwan during the 1950s and 60s, Nieh eventually moved to Iowa City in 1964, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1966 and married Paul Engle in 1971. She suggested numerous Chinese writers to invite to Iowa and hosted Chinese writers with dinner parties at her home. Often credited with co-founding IWP, she and Engle were nominated by fellow writers for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976. Upon Engle’s retirement, she directed the IWP from 1977 to 1988. There are two origin stories of IWP: according to Engle, Nieh gave him the idea while they were boating on a lake in Iowa – he was incredulous and said it would be impossible, but she persisted, and he ultimately started up the program successfully. Bennett speculates, however, that Engle was forced out of the directorship of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he was looking for a way to remain involved with the writing program (2015: 114).

These Cold Warriors and numerous American writers at the time valued the same literary principles, which can be summarized by citing a familiar credo: “Show, don’t tell.”[6] Mark McGurl links this axiom to Henry James’ “scenic method” and the principles of “discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique,” even as “self-expression” was the “end-point of it all” (McGurl 2009: 99, 147). Ernest Hemingway may be the best example of this aesthetic in fiction. Particularity, idiosyncrasy, personal experience – these were the values that mattered in the epic struggle between individualism and collectivism during the Cold War. Any creative writing handbook today still emphasizes the importance of concrete details to convey a story or poem, as opposed to abstractions or explanations. Bennett articulates this poetics embraced by Engle and the New Humanists by noting: “Only the embodied and the concrete would do justice to the peculiar dignity of the situated individual” (2015: 50). The “poetics of the day” were “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories; not philosophies” (2015: 97).[7]


IWP Alumnus: Dai Tian

Dai Tian’s nexus between the U.S. and Hong Kong is best understood in the context of the U.S.’s larger foreign policy strategy in the region, including its encroachment on the U.K.’s control of Hong Kong. During the Cold War, “containment” of the People’s Republic of China was the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy in Asia (Cull 2008: 146).[8] Frances Saunders’ phrase “cultural Cold War” indicates the U.S. government’s propaganda campaign to “nudge” intellectuals away from Marxism and Communism and toward “the American way” of life (Saunders 2000: 1). Saunders was referring to Western Europe, but the term applies equally well to Hong Kong and greater Asia. The strategic importance of Hong Kong can be seen in the words of Frank Wisner, head of the covert Office of Policy Coordination, who once revealed, “Whenever we want to subvert any place, we find that the British own an island within easy reach” (Mark 2004: 223). According to historian Chi-Kwan Mark, Hong Kong during the 1950s served American interests in three primary ways: 1) it was a “strategic location for ‘China watching’”; 2) the United States Information Service in Hong Kong provided “useful materials for psychological warfare”; and 3) U.S. personnel in Hong Kong “oversaw the enforcement by the colonial authorities of export controls against the mainland, so essential to the success of the economic containment of China” (2004: 223). By the mid-1960s, the U.S. had surpassed the U.K. as Hong Kong’s largest trading partner, and the U.S. led every other nation in the number of its tourists visiting Hong Kong (Mark 2016: 163). After China joined the United Nations in 1971 and President Nixon visited China in 1972, the U.S. soon accepted China’s removal of Hong Kong from a list of colonies entitled to self-determination in 1972 (Tucker 1994: 216).

The policy of containment was matched by an equally powerful strategy of “integration” as described by Christina Klein in Cold War Orientalism (2003). Through a model of “sentimental education,” integration was prioritized alongside “containment” as twin foreign policy strategies by the U.S. State Department (Klein 2003: 23). In Hong Kong, integration took the form of “greenback culture,” i.e. American-financed literary organizations in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s that supported the translation of American literature, publications dedicated to literature and culture, and employment for anti-Communist Chinese intellectuals. Elaine Ho, who marks the origin of the Cold War in Asia as the start of the Korean War in 1950, describes the U.S. government’s purpose:

Much of the American money was channeled into setting up magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses which published translations of American “great works” and pro-western articles on current affairs in order to generate an interest in American culture and ways of life and, indirectly, to disseminate the values of freedom and democracy that were identified with western culture (Ho 2009: 88).

Another avenue of persuasion took the form of cultural exchanges with Asian writers visiting the University of Iowa. The first Hong Kong-based writer invited to attend Iowa’s International Writing Program was Dai Tian ([9]), who joined the first cohort of writers in 1967. During his 1963 visit to Hong Kong, Paul Engle had met Dai and other local literati over drinks at a hotel in Central (Dai 2016). Four years later, Dai received a “research grant” from the U.S. State Department to attend the International Writing Program from 1967–8, and this scholarship was “crucial to his transformation into a major poet” (Ng 1999: 155). As an indication of Dai’s close ties to Iowa, in Ming Pao Monthly (July 1968), Dai published a cycle of poems about a trip to Kyoto, which was “dedicated to Professor Paul Engle, a well-known poet and educator” (Ng 1999: 95).

Born in 1935[10] in Guangdong, China, Dai moved to the island of Mauritius with his grandmother at the age of 12 (Lau and Goldblatt 2007: xxxi). (Mauritius had been a Dutch colony, a French colony, and, eventually, an English colony at the time of Dai’s move. It finally became independent in 1968.) In 1957 he received a scholarship from the American government to study medicine in Taiwan, but he soon transferred to Western Languages and Literature at National Taiwan University. He settled in Hong Kong in 1961, working for the U.S. government from 1961–1982, and later the American company Reader’s Digest from 1982–1990. In the early 1960s, he also worked part-time for the Voice of America, and his duties included news “monitoring” of English and Chinese radio broadcasts from mainland China (Ng 1999: 30). When he received his State Department fellowship, he was granted a two-year leave from the USIS in Hong Kong. He arrived in Iowa City in the fall of 1967 and he returned to Hong Kong on 10 July 1968 (Ng 1999: 47). At the USIS, Dai had wide latitude for expressing his views, such as when he protested the U.S. government’s return of the Diaoyu islands to Japan. He and a colleague left their offices during their lunch break on 18 February 1971 to demonstrate against the U.S. policy. As Ng notes, however, “from time to time, Dai Tian’s supervisors in the USIS threatened to refuse Dai Tian permission to continue his newspaper column as an outside job unless he was prepared to conform, Dai Tian had to change his pen-name [for his column], the name of the column and even the layout and position of the column altogether” (1999: 48). Currently, Dai resides in Canada, where he relocated after the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China.

In the years after returning from Iowa, Dai wrote some explicitly anti-Communist poems, such as “This Is a Rotten Apple” (1969), which describes “Russian tanks” in a reference to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Prague in 1968, and the poem “Portraits of Moustache Fleas” (1985), which mocks and condemns political figures from the Soviet Union. He also wrote poems critical of the United States, including “Political Linguistics” which denounces the American involvement in Nicaragua in the late 1970s (Ng 1999: 118, 146). During his time in the U.S., Dai was deeply stuck by the mass student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. He has cited Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Simon and Garfunkel as having changed the rhythm in his poetry. Dai also described his experience at IWP by emphasizing the egalitarian relationship between students and teachers, which was relatively unusual in Hong Kong. In an interview, he noted:

The class meetings offered guidance rather than teaching, where everyone was equal, just like the way you and I are chatting now, “I wrote a poem, let me show you”, and you also show me your poem. I read two stanzas, and you read two stanzas, and we talk about whether the rhythm isn’t working well, if the diction can be revised, if the imagery is apt, if the meaning can be fully realized on its own. We “transposed” this format to Hong Kong (Dai 2016).

Dai also claimed that he didn’t write much poetry:

At Iowa I spent all my time hanging out, going to dinner and drinks with people. It was the atmosphere in the society that inspired us to write – every day there was something new to experience, anti-war sentiments, continental European Marxism, New Leftism… but mainly I had a good time drinking (Dai 2016).

Dai’s remarks indicate the extent to which IWP created an atmosphere of freedom: there were no exams, no formal courses, and no requirements to fulfill. Upon his return to Hong Kong in 1968, Dai co-founded “The New Experimental College” (Chuàngjiàn shíyàn xuéyuàn), known by its shortened form as “The New College” (Chuàngjiàn xuéyuàn), which was inspired by the “free university” movement in the U.S. that overlapped with the rise of experimental colleges in the 1960s. The term “new” in this English translation attempts to capture the Chinese word chuàngjiàn (or chonggin in Cantonese) in the school’s name which means “to create” or “to establish,” implying the formation of a new entity; it also evokes the Students for a Democratic Society’s “New School” in San Francisco that arose by 1965 and the New Left movement in general (Chiolak). The college was an inexpensive,[11] community-based learning centre that offered informal study in the liberal arts, including courses such as “Semantics,” “Existentialism and Life,” “Appreciation and Critique of Modern Western Literature,” and “Poetry Writing Workshop” (“The New College” 1969). Dai’s main co-founder was Hu Juren, who worked for Union Press, an American-backed publishing house, and was publisher of The Chinese Student Weekly and the book editor for the USIA’s World Today Publishing House. Other co-founders included an array of “liberal intellectuals”, such as Bao Cuoshi, Law Kar, a former editor-in-chief of The Chinese Student Weekly), Lin Yueheng, who also worked for Union Press, sculptor Van Lau, and architect Chung Wah-nan, among others. The school was in a “two-story house owned by the Union Press on Dorset Crescent, Kowloon Tong,” part of the greater Kowloon City district (Tu 2011). Hong Kong poet Kwan Mung-nan notes that the Poetry Writing Workshop moved eventually to Dai and Hu’s house on Prince Edward Road in Kowloon.[12]

The Union Press in Hong Kong received funding from the USIA and the Asia Foundation. In 1967, news accounts revealed that the Asia Foundation received funding from the CIA, and the organization claimed that it would no longer receive “hidden Federal subsidies” (Turner 1967). It is unclear whether the Asia Foundation was still subsidizing Union Press after 1967. Nonetheless, as an employee of World Today Publishing House, Dai received his salary from the U.S. government, and the school’s building, owned by Union Press, was also in American hands (Dai 2014: 245). The entire enterprise was run by Hong Kong intellectuals employed by anti-Communist literary organizations supported directly by the United States.[13]

The college was short-lived: it folded sometime in 1971, shortly after Union Press started to struggle financially. Students keen to continue meeting gathered informally in To Kwa Wan, a working-class part of Kowloon, in contrast to the comparatively affluent Kowloon Tong (Tu 2011). In Ming Pao Monthly (June 1971), The New College is listed as one of the founding organizations behind the Hong Kong Action Committee in Defense of the Diaoyutai Islands, established on 14 February 1971 (Wu 1971: 83). Four days later, the newly formed organization held its first demonstration against the U.S. government’s decision to return the Diaoyu Islands to Japan. The college’s membership in this political body illustrates its active resistance to U.S. foreign policy, and by extension, the United Kingdom, which ran the Crown colony.  In reaction to public unrest during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the British authorities began a series of social reforms to improve education, health services, housing conditions, and social welfare services (Yep 2010).

Since his student days in Taiwan, Dai was well aware of the United States’ efforts to use the financial support of Chinese intellectuals to “contain” China. In a 2002 interview, he addressed the question directly about whether The New College received American funding:

No funding, ha! The venue belonged to Union Press. It was vacant… Lin Yueheng was the head at the time—he thought we could use it, and so we did. We weren’t funded by the Americans, though the Union Press was. Subsequently people believed “The New College” also received funding from the US, but it wasn’t the case at all. At the time, the Nationalist Party, the Communist Party, especially the supporters of Nationalist Party, they all blasted the “The New College”; they spread a lot of rumors about us… (Dai 2014: 260).

In the same interview, Dai discussed the larger question of American support for cultural activities in Hong Kong (i.e. “greenback culture”): 

For starters, did the “greenback culture” have any contribution? It depends on your perspective, everyone has different views on this. You can say that it was cultural invasion. It depends on your views. But one thing is for certain, that it had a certain impact. Because the US policy at the time was to advocate democracy and freedom… to the general public, even to the lower classes. Many Hong Kongers were influenced by The Chinese Student Weekly during their school years, and so they have the ideologies and actions that they do today… Was the impact positive? It depends on your views. It might be positive, or negative, from different perspectives. What I don’t understand is how some people benefited from the “greenback culture,” but they criticize it now. Why? You can’t wipe out that period of “greenback culture” from your history, unless you’re repenting it, in which case that’s fair enough. Many people want to wipe out this period [from their history] and think they’re on some moral high ground; they think they can move to Singapore to become the editor-in-chief of some paper and there they’ve evaded the “greenback culture?” But that paper might be supported by the Americans […] Such political sponsorship took on different forms, it permeated everything (Dai 2014: 248–249).


“Do not let your mind be someone else's colony”

Dai describes his American influences explicitly (Allen Ginsberg and folk songs, for instance) and upon returning to Hong Kong, he continually employed concrete language and personal experiences in his poetry, sometimes taking direct aim at British colonialism. His poems, written in literary Chinese, were intended to be read primarily by a Hong Kong and Taiwanese readership. In reference to the modernist poetry movement in Taiwan, Dai has referred to his poetics as valuing “Language that was lucid and close to spoken language, unlike the ambiguous and contrived poetry that had come before” (Dai 2016). Kwan has noted that Dai’s poems before Iowa were more ambiguous and his time in the U.S. “probably did have a significant impact on him” (Kwan 2016a). Dai’s best poems are widely considered to have been written in the years after he returned from the University of Iowa (Ng 1999).

Although IWP’s objectives were to encourage fellowship among international writers and to promote a positive image of the United States during the Cold War, the same critical view toward totalitarian hegemony and the promotion of individualist values that Iowa fostered could be applied just as well to colonial rule. Resisting British imperialism in Hong Kong appears to have been an inadvertent byproduct of Engle and Nieh’s invitation to Dai, although it remains ambiguous whether the inclusion of Hong Kong, the only active colony represented during IWP’s early years, was consciously intended to question Britain’s colonial position. Scholars such as Priscilla Roberts have documented examples of long-standing friction between the British and Americans in Hong Kong, claiming, “A certain competitive element always characterized Britain’s dealings with the United States in Hong Kong” (2017: 44). In May 1967, after the start of left-wing riots in Hong Kong, for instance, the U.S. State Department informed the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong that Britain would be on its own in the event of a major attack by the Chinese: “The United States would not expect to defend Hong Kong for the British, nor do we expect British [sic] to ask for this support” (Dimitrakis 2012: 14).

IWP’s promotion of New Humanism and its attendant values of individualism and freedom of expression led partially to Dai’s transformation as a poet and the larger turn toward clarity and personal experience found in later modernist poetry in Hong Kong. His post-Iowa poems illustrate his change in direction, and, as an instructor of the Poetry Writing Workshop, he advocated Iowa’s poetics among his students. Below are two examples of his pre-Iowa poems:


Wind (1959) (1st stanza)

My heart is hanging on a palm tree     alone
like a freshly born     green fruit
In the cradle of the universe    your slender hand
faintly     indistinctly     following the rhythm of the tides
an unfamiliar touch rousing prickly emotions
Quietly     softly     like a deer
stepping into an unknown and wondrous land
Also like the murmurs of the soul
audible yet intangible     brushing trembling branches
Longing to fly     to dance     to climb to the rainbow    
gesturing          the slipping into a pure blue sky



Parinirvana (1963)

Vaguely, a complete
Unclothed desire
Treaded upon ruthlessly yesterday
A restless body

It flew, it bounced
It cried at the end of the rails
And even opened hundreds and thousands of doors
It breathed mouldy knowledge
And now it surrounds
“I” and “me”
Very feminine, very sexual

It may be a mountain
Steady, and also like a knoll
On its shoulders the sun discharges
A river of blood
In its forehead the moon fumbles
The road of Zen

History is written
In our classical faces
As the waves rise and fall
Before our eyelids
Roll out eyes that will not shut
Still yearning
Still craving the earthly realm


In contrast to the poems above, which contain clichés (“the murmurs of the soul”, “brushing trembling branches” in “Wind”) [14] and abstract concepts (“Unclothed desire”, “mouldy knowledge” in “Parinirvana”), Dai’s most well-known poem, “The Story of the Stone,” which he wrote on 22 October 1969, one year after returning to Hong Kong, exhibits concrete language and particularized experience married to anti-colonial sentiments:


The Story of the Stone (1969)

The time is the year 1969
The place is a colony
The character is me
The event is
in my heart
a piece of stone

It is a kind of
duskless night
It is a kind of
to hit the breaks
It is a grain of sand
not in
the eye

About the seed
what people fear most
is dying
About the dream
it is waking up
About the stone
it is the ceaseless

If in the eye
stands Mount Tai  
that verdancy
that magnificence
in a moment
is but
jade ball

If in the veins
a big river
Ah, the Yellow River carp and the Yangtze carp
all stop
and turn frozen
right there

So like the veins of a leaf
the hand
is eaten
by a small insect
So sound
is alien
like a cry
from across the river

A child
in my face
and says:
“I’ve never seen
such an ugly stone statue”



According to Ng, “before 1969, few poets touched on the theme of anti-colonialism” and Dai’s poem “made him the most talked about poet in Hong Kong” (1999: 160). Ng goes on to say: “Dai Tian is the first poet who blatantly denounced the colonial nature of Hong Kong” (1999: 160).[15] Note the poem’s use of plain diction, concrete images, and the lack of overwrought adjectives, which Dai often employed in his earlier poems. Despite the flights of imagination, the poem begins and ends with a speaker rooted in the actual world (“The time is the year 1969 / The place is a colony”), attentive to his individual experience (“The character is me”). The final stanza (“I’ve never seen / such an ugly stone statue”) may evoke the statues of colonial figures erected around Hong Kong at the time, and in this way, Dai presents a speaker alienated both from his former homeland and his colonial present (Ng 1999). The child’s spit and critical remark suggests a self-flagellation that complicates an easy critique of the British colonizers, given that Dai was working so closely with their primary ally, the United States.

Literary scholars such as Tu Chia-Chi and Chan Chi-tak have described this poem as explicitly critical of colonialism. Chan, for example, notes that the poem “depicts the growth of colonialism within the subject…and the consequence of losing one’s identity at the end as a strong warning: reject being colonized, and be more alert to self-colonialization” (Chan 2012: 31). Although Dai embraced elements of American poetry and folk songs, he never abandoned Chinese literary values and culture. The poem’s title “The Story of the Stone,” for example, is an allusion to the Qing dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber, which is also known as The Story of the Stone. In fact, in 1970, two years after returning from Iowa City, Dai had admonished Chinese writers who forgot their own literary traditions, using the rhetoric of colonialism as a warning to fellow poets: 

“They write in Chinese. Yet the structure, language and thinking in their writing isn’t Chinese. Can this be called Chinese literature?” He urged them, “Do not let your mind be someone else’s colony” and to think about the Chinese style while being innovative in their language and technique (Tu 2011). 

Dai and his fellow poets valued classical Chinese literature, or rather, as Tu observes, their imagination of the Chinese literary tradition, and grew to identify more closely with mainland Chinese culture; Dai believed that imitating Western literary values was a “dead end” for contemporary Chinese language poets who hoped to renew their poetics (Dai 2009: 409).


Dai Tian’s Legacy

Dai’s Poetry Writing Workshop borrowed pedagogical methods from the University of Iowa, in that students shared their work for critique by the instructor and classmates, and were free to raise questions, express their feelings, and respond as they liked. A promotional article for the course in The Chinese Student Weekly underscored this link to Iowa:

The “Poetry Writing Workshop” drew its inspiration from the Poetry Workshop at the University of Iowa, where some poet brought a snake to class and released it to scare everyone else when he received negative comments on his work. Fortunately, there haven’t been such weirdoes in our poetry writing workshop (Lee 1969: 6).

Sitting casually, students took turns writing their poems on the board or reciting them for critique. After class (and perhaps during class: “flushed faces”), students drank and socialized (Lee 1969: 6).

Dai’s pedagogy emphasized explicit language, sincerity, genuine feelings, originality, and personal, everyday experience (Tu 2008: 428; Dai 2014: 241). Perhaps his most influential student, the poet Kwan Mung-nan embraced these poetics to such an extent that years later, Kwan created his own version of the Poetry Writing Workshop modelled on Dai’s lessons.[16] Kwan taught his community-based course in creative writing from 1992–2008, focusing on concrete language, everyday life, and individual experience, which he learned from Dai (“starting with one’s everyday life, and using everyday language to write”) (Kwan 2011: 68). Kwan has described the strength of Hong Kong poetry as a focus on everyday experience: “[T]he best Hong Kong poetry is about daily life, not about war or history…That’s the characteristic of Hong Kong poetry” (Kwan 2016b).

One of Kwan’s publications is Kwan Mung-nan’s Ten Lessons on New Poetry: A Crash Course in Writing for Secondary School Students (2010), in which he describes the value of “concrete expressions” over abstract poetry that “tends to be one-dimensional and conceptual, as it is not born of independent thinking or the imagination” (2010: 44). In addition to Dai, Kwan cites other influences on his poetics, such as classical Chinese poetry and Rainer Maria Rilke, yet, his pedagogy can be traced, in part, to the Cold War imperatives of the International Writing Program (Kwan 2016b). To understand how Hong Kong poetry has evolved, especially its turn toward the “local” and “everyday language” in the 1970s, it is important to consider the Cold War context in which influential poets like Dai were writing. Dai’s politics were never easy to pigeonhole: he was critical of the People’s Republic of China, critical of U.S. foreign policy (e.g. the Vietnam War; Diaoyu Islands), and critical of British colonialism, even as he worked for the U.S. government in Hong Kong and promulgated a poetics rooted in individualism encouraged at IWP. Dai’s evolving poetics also raise larger questions: to what degree can a writer animated by personal experience and particularity make a work that marshals a communal spirit? Conversely, how does a writer committed to collectivist principles find value in individuated experience? As the complexity of Dai’s experience at IWP and later in Hong Kong suggests, there’s no simple answer to these questions, however, it remains clear that one’s poetics arise from specific cultural and historical contexts and freight political implications that deserve our examination.



[1] Grateful acknowledgement is made to the author’s Research Assistant Nicolette Wong for her translations of the Chinese material, including the poems, in collaboration with the author and verified for accuracy by a bilingual Research Group at Hong Kong Baptist University.

[2] Chen recognizes that “Despite institutional attempts to interpellate them [Third World writers] within American anti-communism, the Cold War nature of the IWP did not necessarily reduce its participants to mere passive receptacles of American values” (2017: 54). Indeed, the example of Dai Tian illustrates the nuanced experiences of writers who were both sympathetic and resistant to American ideology.

[3] According to his obituary in The Washington Post, McCarthy “attended the famed Iowa Writers [sic] Workshop”, but I have not been able to corroborate this claim (Schudel 2008).

[4] McCarthy claimed to have “discovered” Eileen Chang and gave her employment at the USIA in Hong Kong (McCarthy 1988: 5).

[5] Wilbur Schramm, co-founder of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1936, is another link between Iowa and Asia. Regarded as the “father of communication studies in America”, Schramm and his mentor at Iowa, Norman Foerster, Director of the School of Letters, were New Humanists who believed that literature should affirm universal, moral values (So 2013: 726). Under Foerster and Schramm, “Creative writers were to be stewards of the wholeness of the person,” and whereas New Criticism “emphasized the formal properties of literature...the New Humanism, on the other hand, began not with form but with ethical orientation, with the question of the relation of the goodness of the writing to the goodness of the person” (Bennett 2015: 27, 29). Schramm later worked closely with the USIA, where he “was at the forefront of reviewing and creating new practices for the USIA” and he had a “particular interest in Asia.” He conducted research on propaganda in South Korea and eventually worked as a member of the East-West Center in Hawaii (So 2013: 728).

[6] The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen described his frustrating experience as a creative writing student at the University of California, Berkeley, stating that minorities in the U.S. have the “desire not just to show, but to tell”: “But what is that art that is also political, historical, theoretical, ideological and philosophical? How is it to be taught? It must be taught not only as an isolated craft or a set of techniques. It must be taught in relation to, or within, courses on history, politics, theory and philosophy, as well as ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies and cultural studies” (Nguyen 2017).

[7] It may seem contradictory that Abstract Expressionist painters (e.g. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning) were used to promote American values overseas during the Cold War, while American poetry valued concrete imagery, however, the shared trait between Abstract Expressionist painters and mainstream American poets was the importance of expressing individual experience, whether it be in the form of splashes of ink or concrete language.

[8] As Cull notes, “The USIA’s output in Asia focused on the containment of China” (2008: 123).

[9] Dai Tian is the pen name of Daai Shìng-yih (in Cantonese) or Dài Chéngyì (in Mandarin). The name “Dai Tian” is a reference to the Chinese phrase bù gòng dàitian, which means “refusing to live under the same sky.” According to Ng, the pen name can be taken as an anti-Communist gesture (1999: 45).

[10] Contrary to sources that give 1937 or 1938 as Dai’s year of birth, the scholar William Tay confirms that Dai was born in 1935, based on conversations with Dai’s wife and Dai himself (Ng & Tay: 2018).

[11] The cost was $40 Hong Kong dollars for each course. As a comparison, the average daily wage of a government-employed electrician in 1969 was about $20 Hong Kong dollars. One ad mentioned that “persons of scanty means may apply for an exemption” (The New College 1969; Census and Statistics 1978: 54).

[12] The New College itself moved to 11/F, No. 84, Tam Kung Road, Hung Hom in 1970. (Lin 2014: 212).

[13] Translation played a critical role in the formation of pro-American literary organizations: “Hong Kong in the fifties witnessed a flourish of some anti-Communist literary magazines and publishing companies, such as Asia Publishing Company, Union Press Publishing, Zhongguo Xuesheng Zhoubao (Chinese Student Weekly), Daixue Shanghuo (University Life) and so on. Translation, playing a dominant part in these publications, was to perform an important function as a tool of political and social propaganda. These anti-Communist publishing companies were subsidized by Asian Foundation Association in America” (Lo 1990: 154).

[14] Composed when he was 22, the poem “Wind” is omitted from The Moans of Bones: The Collected Poems of Dai Tian (2009).

[15] Discussions of Hong Kong poetry often elide writing by left-wing writers. In fact, left-wing poets wrote numerous poems against colonial rule, such as the poem “Condemnation” (“Like that resilient woman comrade, / Let us / Turn the tears that coalesce in our eyes / Into a spring of vengeance,”) that appeared in the 27 May 1967 edition of Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, during the height of the 1967 leftist riots (1967: 9). Nonetheless, Dai Tian’s poem marked a turning point among the strand of younger “modernist” Hong Kong poets. Left-wing poets and traditionalists constituted the two other major camps.

[16] According to Tu (2011), “There were many followers of Dai Tian who tried to imitate his style. I also heard that Kwan Mung-nan said when he was young, he worshipped Dai Tian; he and his friends often lingered about the building Dai lived in, and waited for his return.”



(Please note: An alternative version of the references and bibliography which includes Chinese translations of certain items is available via the attachment at the head of the article.)

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Dai, T. 2016, interviewed by N. Wong on 7 November, Hong Kong.

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James Shea is the author of two books of poetry, The Lost Novel and Star in the Eye, both from Fence Books. His poems have appeared in various publications, including Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, and The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. His translations of Japanese and Chinese poetry have appeared in Circumference, Gin’yu, The Image Hunter (The Chinese University Press), and The Iowa Review. He has taught for the University of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago’s MFA Program in Poetry, and as a poet-in-residence in the Chicago public schools, where he received The Poetry Center of Chicago’s Gwendolyn Brooks Award for Excellence in Teaching. A former Fulbright Scholar in Hong Kong, he is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.