Psychoanalysis and Chinese culture. Some notes on the current debate on indigenization


A big debate arose in Chinese communities (particularly in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore), concerning whether applying western theories to Chinese is effective, or not, given the profound cultural differences in societies. A significant number of scholars believe that the point is just to adapt the original theories to the local reality. As Chong and Liu notes (2002) the supporters of modification suggest to usher in Chinese indigenous cultural characteristics with Western theories, and to merge them together through “technical adjustment,” “theoretical modification,” or “philosophical reorientation” (Tseng, 1995). They believe that “Western developed professional counseling practices should be culturally transformed to serve Chinese people and the Chinese culture” (Duan and Wang, 2000, p.7). Some scholars tried to modify western theories in accordance with Chinese values, like Filial piety (Kwan, 2000). On the other hand, Chinese clients are described as expecting directive, goal-oriented, time limited and pragmatic counseling (Chong and Liu, 2002; Qian et al., 2002), and this seems particularly evident in Hong Kong. However, these are the expectations that every client (Chinese or Western) has at the beginning of psychotherapy: no one would begin a counseling that lasts long and does not lead anywhere! I therefore argue that the question has to be refined and the focus reoriented.

Generally speaking of “culture” and “cultural match” can be misleading and can remain too abstract. In order to catch some false assumptions and misunderstanding within this debate, it can be useful to consider the story of Psychoanalysis from its birth. The same psychoanalysis was born as a critique to the culture of its time, and its goal was surely not to become a practice to comfort patients. Quite on the contrary psychoanalysis caused some violent reactions from society, and Freud has been attacked from many sides because of his revolutionary and provoking thought. Psychoanalysis was far from matching the culture of its time! Freud sometimes experienced some violent reactions within the analytical setting too, but still, he advised the psychoanalysts to act like the surgeon who puts aside all his feelings, even his human sympathy, and concentrates his mental forces on the single aim of performing the operation as skillfully as possible (Freud, 1912).

Cultural match was not relevant for Freud because psychoanalysis is not played in the register of comprehension. On the opposite, the very work of psychoanalysis is possible because of an irreducible, structural misunderstanding. When Freud speaks of free floating attention he refers precisely to the disposition of listening to what is beyond the spoken words, to the other possible meaning that lies in background. This is to say that some distance from the manifest meaning, or what should be culturally shared is required. The gap between what the analysand intends to say and what is actually spoken can never be filled, which is exactly what allows for the analysis to take place.

Unlike many other psychotherapists, Freud said that psychoanalysis is not a Weltanschauung, a worldview, meaning that psychoanalysis does not propose a better or a “more right” conception of the world or set of values to propose to clients. It is a theory of the psychism indeed, where the personal beliefs and values of the analyst should not interfere with those of the client. This is to say that psychoanalysis is a method of investigation, rather than a system of thought. Its aims at redefining question, rather than finding answers. Psychoanalysis emphasizes a radical and peculiar attitude to listening, which can only open up to an analytical work, regardless of culture.

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