The Untold Story of Nanjing's bid for UNESCO Creative City of Literature

Dec 19, 2023

October 31st, 2019, UNESCO has designated 66 cities across the world to join UCCN, and Nanjing became the first ‘Creative City of Literature’ in China. Literature lovers in Nanjing, even China were cheering for this exciting news; they all believe that Nanjing fully deserves this honour. However, why is Nanjing well-deserved? How did Nanjing earn this honour? We usually have a lot of Chinese-styled imaginations toward international prizes like Nobel Prize, and ‘City of Literature’ was not out of this imagination as well. ‘City of Literature’ built its purpose, rules and values under the frame of UCCN. Nanjing was confronting challenging ups and downs during the bid process. The future construction of ‘City of Literature’, the systematic works for assessments…… All these hard works were drowned out by media and people’s ‘cheering’. Therefore, we are having a conversation with Yuan Shuang, director from Nanjing Literature Center who was fully in charge of the bid process.

There’s a Strong Connection Between Nanjing and Literature

He Tongbin:You were in charge during the bid process of ‘City of Literature’ ever since 2017; you are the one who is most familiar with the ‘City of Literature’ project. I think you have seen more misunderstandings regarding ‘City of Literature’ from media and public than me. Please introduced this project to all of us, including Nanjing’s bid process. It can help everyone to have a correct understanding of ‘Creative Cities Network’ and ‘City of Literature’.

Yuan Shuang: UNESCO ‘Creative Cities Network’ (UCCN) was established in 2004. It meant to promote creativity culture to become the strategic core of regional development, encourage international cooperation and emphasize the critical role that creativity plays during sustainable urban developments; it also encourages member cities to take actions for creativity. ‘Creative Cities Network’ has seven major categories, which include design, literature, music, crafts and folk art, film, media arts, and gastronomy. After the cautious reviews and examinations in 2017, Nanjing chose the most challenging and valuable ‘City of Literature’.

After we set our goal, we dug into the bid documents from past years. We found out that UNESCO not only examine candidate cities’ literature precipitation historically, they care more about cities’ current value and future development. Simply put, if Nanjing becomes City of Literature, what can it contribute to the Creative Cities Network, at the same time, what can the Creative Cities Network bring to Nanjing? Of course, Nanjing has rich literature resources with a profound historical and cultural background; the city gives out a great literary vibe. However, we had confronted an issue while introducing Nanjing’s history during the bid process; the maximum length of the introduction was 375 characters. The issue let us realize that we have to be ‘literary’ enough to be a part of ‘City of Literature’.

The first difficulty is to come up with a bid slogan, and this is the spirit of bid materials. Among all the ideas from scholars across the globe, we have chosen ‘literature for life, literature for all’. In this case, ‘life’ from the first half-sentence stands for two meanings. It not only emphasizes Nanjing’s unique cultural gene with literature immerse into every citizen ‘s life, but also represents this thousand-year ancient city’s vitality from literature. The latter part of the sentence emphasizes literature’s accessibility and fairness to Nanjing’s citizens. Based on this concept, we organized a writing group with top international experts. With dozen times of polishing and proofreading, we also invited experienced UNESCO experts and ‘City of Literature’ coordinators to touch up our draft. Our hard work has paid off, Nanjing’s bid report has received critical acclaim from the judges, and they gave the report a rare high mark. Moreover, based on the bid requirements, each city needs to submit a promotional video for their bid. With the options of various scripts and theme, we finally chose the form of documentary. Documentary requires a good story-telling ability, which means we need a touching content for it. Although it’s risky, but we want to show this world a real Nanjing. The basic concept for this video was ‘literature is an idea’. Nanjing’s representative writer Bi Feiyu was the main character; we also included the experiences and thoughts of a few amateur writers. From a unique perspective, we have demonstrated the literature’s nourishment to this city, and it is Nanjing’s particular genuine sentiments. Nanjing has a lot of amateur writers with different professions; they are teachers, farmers, officers etc. however, they share the same identity as writers. There’s a strong connection between Nanjing and literature; literature has been flowing inside the city over a thousand eight hundred years.

The Untold Story of Nanjing's bid for UNESCO Creative City of Literature

A Thousand Year Span from Literature Centre to ‘City of Literature’

He Tongbin: I participated at the beginning of the bid process, and I know ‘well-deserved’ is too general for Nanjing’s successful bid result. Based on what I know, the bid process is very similar to Beijing’s bid process for the Olympics; it was tough with a lot of domestic and international challenges. After uncountable examinations, arguments, meetings and risks. I wonder if you could briefly describe your greatest ‘challenge’?

Yuan Shuang: Based on the judgement rule, every city of literature has the right to vote, and it’s vital for the bid process; it is the greatest challenge during the bid process. The City of Literature is different from the other categories since it involves international discourse power regarding political correctness. Among 28 Cities of Literature, 21 of them were from European or American countries.

After visits and communications, we have realized a severe problem that these world cities of literature did not really have enough information regarding China and Nanjing’s culture. They cannot understand the culture due to lack of knowledge, therefore, they won’t like the culture or identify with it. The barrier of cultural understanding was just one perspective. The problem would become even more complicated if we consider the factors of countries’ positioning, interest-driven and history. Every culture is desperate for appreciation; for all these years, western countries have exported their values to the outside world, and this type of exportation has become an internationalized measurement for cultural expression. Letting the outside world understand and accept our cultural concept and connotation is our greatest challenge during the bid process. I have visited 21 cities of literature; my introduction about Nanjing always shocked and impressed the audiences. Indeed, Nanjing has always been outstanding in terms of historical status, literature accomplishment, city scale, education quality and innovative development. However, the outside world has a minimal understanding of China and Nanjing. I still remember my visit in Barcelona, the host showed us their precious Chinese book collection to impress us, and we were really ‘impressed’: As a publication centre of Europe, the most popular Chinese book is an ‘avant-garde’ art magazine with smoking young women having tattoos all over their bodies. In their mind, China is still a mysterious and distant nation. All right, this experience made us genuinely believe that we should have built a communication bridge called City of Literature earlier.

The Untold Story of Nanjing's bid for UNESCO Creative City of Literature

It was the ‘darkest time’ while waiting for the bid result; over 20 candidate counties were trying their best to scurry around for opportunities. We understood that the real competition was hiding inside the darkness; we cannot see or approach it, but we sense a fierce battle loomed in the atmosphere. As we expected, there were objections from UNESCO officers. We understand that the most significant challenge for cultural exportation and confidence set up has always been – cultural identification. How to change these deep-rooted misconceptions? Nanjing has confronted another challenge. During the very trying time, French Nobel Prize winner Mr Le Clézio accepted our invitation. Ever since 2011, Mr Le Clézio has become an honorary professor at Nanjing University, and he would spend a short period of time in Nanjing every year. He wrote a recommendation letter to UNESCO for Nanjing; the letter has mentioned ‘Nanjing promotes the development of literature with its profound history and reading encouragement actions. Any group, both local residents and newcomers, can find suitable literature works, and it inspires the next generation to continue reading. As a writer, I believe Nanjing is perfect for City of Literature.’ Le Clézio’s opinion convinced UNSECO and indecisive city represents. After overcoming all the challenges, including the judgements from international experts and the voting from cities of literature. Nanjing has finally accomplished a thousand year span from literature centre to ‘City of Literature’.

The test on “Nanjing, City of Literature” just started

He Tongbin:As I know, you and your team have visited many Creative Cities of Literature across the world, and the literary atmosphere of these cities, the function of literature in urban development, and the construction and operation of related institutions of the "Creative Cities of Literature"? Where could we learn from them? What are the important plans and tasks that Nanjing has already carried out or will carry out before and after joining UCCN? Because as far as I know, UNESCO will examine the construction of designated creative cities every few years.

Yuan Shuang: Such “point to point” visits are only choice for us, luckily, we achieved a lot, and learned a lot. I’ll take several examples, when we visited Norwich, UNESCO Creative City of Literature in United Kingdoms. We can not find out the location of their office, but when we got off the train, we found out the way to the office by asking pedestrians. Most of residents know where is the office of Norwich, UNESCO City of Literature, and they pointed out the direction, and it just took us 15 minutes, we arrived there. how familiar and loving the citizens of this city are, it is really not easy to achieve this. Citizens are so familiar with Creative City of Literature and loving it, and this surprised me a lot.

I also remember, when we visited Cork in Ireland, the first stop was not having a meeting in conference room, but directly went to the library and watched a drama. It was a performance lasting one hour played by 3 professional actors in 6 scenes, showing a retired aged person’s daily life, and the performance was quite wonderful. Mayor told us it was the first show of this drama for welcoming us, and he wished to make us feel citizens’ love for literature and the literary atmosphere of the whole city. This became the most impressive visit on my mind, and we can not forget that drama, that story, and that beautiful city.

The visit to Granada in Spain, I remember, in the city of literature office, we saw some disabled persons were attending dancing lessons. Professional dancers were teaching these persons, and these professional dancers are volunteers, even several of them are local celebrities. These dancers told us disabled persons are more needy to release themselves, open mind and enjoy life.

The several cases above are all our experiences during our visit. We deeply realize that there are too many places worth learning from other "Cities of Literature". While cheering for receiving this honor, we should know that the test just started. For the newly designated cities, “City of Literature” represents honor, but also responsibilities and obligations. Since Nanjing joined in, in terms of international exchanges and cooperation, we have launched the "Nanjing Literary Works Translation Funding Program". Each year, we select four outstanding literary works that express Nanjing’s history, reality and humanities to support their translation and publication; “2020 Nanjing International Writers Residency Program” will select 6 to 8 writers from the world's Cities of Literature to come to Nanjing to participate in a one-month resident writing. Through personal experience in Nanjing, they participate in literary exchange activities to enhance understanding and creative writing.

This February, during the pandemic, Nanjing launched an anti-COVID-19 inspirational poster design activity online, and 21 Cities of Literature including Nanjing actively participated. On April 23 (World Book Day), the “Reading Classics Together” international literary reading event was launched, and reading videos from well-known writers from 8 countries were received. The “One City, One Postcard” postcards collection event launched in June received exquisite works from 34 cities, including Nanjing, and the response rate was nearly 90%. The head of the “City of Literature” Network Damjan (Ljubljana) said: “The Nanjing initiative has received such a high proportion of responses within the network, which is very rare in the field of Cities of Literature.” Nanjing is willing to work with all cities of literature for global cultural exchanges and cooperation, and make greater contributions.

The Untold Story of Nanjing's bid for UNESCO Creative City of Literature

He Tongbin:After Nanjing became “City of Literature”, many new phenomena showed up in the fields of literature, media, academia, cultural industry, education, etc., such as project development, project application, and promotion of creative products. The simple sense of responsibility that makes the effort to build the "city" is unavoidable, and some are unavoidable to be utilitarian. Therefore, how to correctly guide writers, readers, ordinary people and related institutions and industries to treat Nanjing "the capital of literature" properly The hard-won city card should be the problem we urgently need to solve in the next step. What suggestions do you have?

Yuan Shuang: Since the successful bid, the "City of Literature" has attracted more and more attention. Especially the citizens of Nanjing, with enthusiasm beyond our imagination. Couple weeks ago, a citizen came to our office and said that he was inspired by Mr.Bi Feiyu’s program and wanted to be a volunteer. He also brought his resume and introduced himself to us, saying that he wanna contribute to the construction of “City of Literature” for Nanjing. The scene at that time was particularly moving. “City of Literature”is an honor awarded to our city, and UNESCO has very strict regulations on the use of the brand. We will put our efforts to promote the city of literature. From the philosophy, connotation, mission and responsibility of the city of literature, we hope that every citizen can blurt out and participate in every event, so that the city of literature can penetrate all citizens. Daily life. Let us change the way we love and protect the unique, hard-won, and glory city honor of Nanjing, UNESCO Creative City of Literature.

The Untold Story of Nanjing's bid for UNESCO Creative City of Literature The Untold Story of Nanjing's bid for UNESCO Creative City of Literature

He Tongbin:

Young literary critic; Guest host for Reading Classics Weekly; Associated editor of Zhongshan Magazine

The Untold Story of Nanjing's bid for UNESCO Creative City of Literature

Yuan Shuang (Lilas):

Focal point for Nanjing, UNESCO Creative City of Literature; Director of Nanjing Literature Center

Back to Top