Ulrike Syha

A hole has opened up in the middle of the dorm room. A black hole, as it turns out, which at first only swallows up objects, but later devours a student when she gets home.

Meanwhile, campus life goes on as usual, couples find each other and split up, friends discuss their future plans or the lives of hot movie stars, and sometimes the sparks fly: one student snores too loudly, another steals a neighbour’s laundry token, yet another blasts her roommates in their eight-bed room with yet another episode of a Korean soap opera. An unsolved murder took place in this very dormitory many years ago, there are occasional sightings of eerie doppelgängers and sometimes whole parts of the building vanish without a trace, whilst the students – with WeChat always open on their smartphones – rush from their classes to the library or from the sports fields to the cafeteria.

Of course this dormitory doesn’t really exist. Or rather: it cannot be easily located. It must be somewhere between the old campus in central Nanjing and the gigantic new one outside the city gates, somewhere between Jiangsu province and rainy autumnal Göttingen. In a workshop for fourth-year undergrads and another one for master’s students, some German language and literature students and I jointly invented this dormitory and wrote two little plays about it. I should add, in all fairness, that their contribution to the project was far greater than mine: they actually wrote the scenes (in German, to boot!), I merely corrected them and linked them all together into a loose sequence, which we then presented to other students and teachers at a small-scale reading to wrap up the project.

I came to China in the autumn of 2015 through the writer-in-residence programme of the Goethe-Institut and the University of Nanjing. I’m actually a playwright by trade. Shortly after my arrival, I gave an introductory lecture in the German studies department on the current German theatre scene and its historical background, which I later repeated at the University of Suzhou. But in the weekly workshops I didn’t want to talk only about things I know well from my professional experience. My literary curiosity won out again, the almost mischievous pleasure of grappling with something one does NOT know well. So in the course of the creative writing workshop we addressed a subject the students know far more about than I do: life in the sushe, the on-campus dormitory.

This idea worked out perfectly for me. Through their writing and our exchanges about they wrote, I got a very personal, very multi-layered look at student life in China. Besides, I was living on a campus too: on the lively Gulou campus right off midtown Nanjing with its central square, where the Sun Yat-Sen statue is enthroned. “Zhongshan”, as he’s also called, even today the omnipresent “father” of the first Chinese Republic, whose capital in the early 20th century was Nanjing.

The journey to Nanjing wasn’t my first trip to China. I’ve been coming to the country on a regular basis for some years now, for professional and private reasons, but the on-campus housing and the proximity to every-day student life really made this stay special. Right in front of my window there was a fascinating universe to discover, countless scenes and stories that seemed utterly strange – and yet at times suddenly familiar.

When I didn’t have anything to take care of at the university (and wasn’t busy driving shopkeepers and locals to despair with my wayward use of Chinese tones, even after years of study), I’d often spend hours just walking through the city. Life in China takes place in the street a lot more than in Germany, and the writer inside me just can’t get enough of looking at its every facet.

Moreover, Nanjing is very well suited for long rambles through town. Big, but not quite as big as Beijing or Shanghai, not quite as hectic, not quite as overcrowded (not even near the tourist attractions, of which there are plenty). Plus an almost charming landscape of lakes, tree-covered mountains, boulevards lined with palm trees, bamboos and sycamores. Even in October there’s a pleasant late-summer climate, and riding on the train to towns in the vicinity, you get a vivid sense of the vastness of China.

The range of cultural events may well be somewhat smaller than in the capital or the coastal conurbations, but Nanjing does have a lot to offer, even in contemporary art. I was particularly fascinated by the Toki Festival, which seeks to bring together contemporary and traditional artists from China, Japan and Singapore. Noh theatre and Beijing and Kun opera are juxtaposed with various kinds of 21st–century theatre, all on the same rudimentary stage set, all short (20-minute) plays. It’s a ride through the ages.
Riding through the ages is a feeling you never quite get away from in China anyway. The apparent simultaneity of it all, the superimposition of various cultures and lifestyles, the fusion of yesterday and today in a vibrant present.

I’d like to thank everyone who made my sojourn in Nanjing possible and made it so easy for me to settle in there, especially my colleagues in the German Studies Department and the Goethe-Institut Contact Point.
I hope many other artists, from Germany as well as China, will take advantage of this exchange programme.

My enthusiasm for China and its countless faces remains unabated – in fact I’m already thinking about when and how I can go back. In the meantime, many of my impressions and observations of Nanjing will be finding their way into my literary work, of that I am sure.

  •  Workshop Drama-Writing by Syha at the Nanjing University ©German Department of Nanjing University

    Workshop Drama-Writing by Syha at the Nanjing University

  •  Workshop Drama-Writing by Syha at the Nanjing University ©German Department of Nanjing University

    Workshop Drama-Writing by Syha at the Nanjing University

  •  Syha with the students of German studies on the excursion in Zhenjiang ©German Department of Nanjing University

    Syha with the students of German studies on the excursion in Zhenjiang

Ulrike Syha studied dramaturgy at the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy School of Music and Theatre in Leipzig and worked for several years as assistant director at the Schauspiel Leipzig (intendant: Wolfgang Engel), where her first play, Kunstrasen, premiered (directed by Susanne Knierim) in 2001. Since 2003 Syha has been based in Hamburg, writing and translating freelance for and about the theatre.