Psychoanalysis in the Chinese context



Between 1920 and 1949 there was a wide reception of psychoanalytic ideas in China (Gerlach, 2003; Larson, 2009; Zhang, 1992). Just as in Europe or America, Freud’s works were acknowledged mainly out of the academic circles, prevailed instead by behavioral theories (Blowers, 1997). Most of the leading intellectuals used and discussed psychoanalytic concepts in their works (Zhang, 2003), and some of Freud's works were translated into Chinese (Zhang, 1992). Psychoanalysis was becoming popular in China, likely more as an instrument for pointing out the weaknesses of society, than as a therapy. It was during the thirties that China had its first psychoanalyst, Dr. Bingham Dai, a psychiatrist of Chinese origins who received his training from Sullivan in New York and from Saul in Chicago, before he went back to Peking to work at the Peking Union Medical College, from 1935 to 1939 (Varvin and Gerlach, 2010).

Reception of Psychoanalysis was initially distorted because of some misunderstanding of the theory: the very concept of “psyche” does not belong to the Chinese cultural tradition (Graziani, 2007; Mingyi et al., 2002; Lin, 1981; Sun, 1991), and as such is difficult to render; concepts like “symbol” or “censorship” were considered “mystery of the mystery” (Blowers, 1997), and on top of this, some early translations of Freud’s works came from other translations, such as English or Japanese, which contributed to creating confusion (Zhang, 1992). Some intellectuals like Zhang Dongsung have tried to introduce psychoanalysis in China, imagining that psychoanalysis could serve to build a new society. But unfortunately, in the effort to adapt psychoanalysis to the Chinese society and culture, they distorted the former, proposing sublimation (which is originally a defense mechanism) as a way of social reform, or claiming that the goal of psychoanalysis was “to eliminate the human desire” (Blowers, 1997). In any case, with the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Psychoanalysis was no longer useful for the political cause of the Chinese, and as such was criticized as an element of bourgeois ideology and definitively rejected for many years: “The implications of psychoanalytic ideas and assumptions of ideas about individuality and society have induced the government to view Freudian psychoanalysis as a threat to the socialist structure. Freud has been put on trial time and again, during almost all major official political campaigns against the infiltration of Western ideology into China” (p.155).Just as happened in the Soviet Union, psychoanalysis in China was criticized and the Pavlovian experimental psychology was elected the official doctrine: “While rejecting ‘bourgeois’ emphasis on subjectivity and personality, the 1930-40s essays and talks of Mao Zedong stressed the importance of human will, and in the 1950s, psychology was one discipline charged with theorizing this focus. Revolutionary Chinese psychology valorized the Leninist notions of reflection and recognition, both of which demanded a keen awareness of position, and also consciousness as opposed to the unconscious, social contextualization as opposed to the isolated interior mind, and jingshen (often translated as ‘spirit’) as opposed to the sexual” (Larson, 2009, pp.5-6). It was only after the intellectual re-opening in the 1980s that psychoanalysis began its revival (Zhang, 2003). According to Larson, during the 1980s “a ‘Freud fever’ broke out again, with some replay of ideas and interpretations that had been popular in the 1920s” (p.33).

Currently, there is a new openness to psychoanalysis. Western psychoanalytical organizations and even some psychoanalysts move to China to offer training to Chinese candidates, mainly in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu (Varvin and Gerlach, 2010; Schloesser, 2009; Kisner and Snyder, 2009). Congresses and conferences are organized quite regularly and the number of participants is significant, quantifiable according to the organizers in some hundreds of people. The researcher of this study has attended the 3rd annual conference, held in Shanghai in 2012, and has verified this data in person.

The situation in Taiwan is more complex (Rascovsky, 2006); for several years psychoanalysis has been present in some university departments of literature and philosophy, and not only among therapists or psychiatrists. According to Liu (2010), in the last four decades Psychoanalysis has been drawing much attention from the intellectuals in Taiwan and some of the classic works of Freud have been translated into Chinese, mainly by medical students or young psychiatrists. However, the main problem was to set up proper training, so that many candidate psychoanalysts went to London, Paris or the US in order to pursue a proper formation and their own analysis. On the other hand, psychoanalysis can be found in major universities like the National Taiwan University or the National Chiao Tung University, where certain Psychoanalysis (Lacan, Zizek) is applied to literature, gender studies, philosophy, social studies and cultural studies and where the clinic gains a broader meaning than the therapeutic technique.

Psychoanalysis assumes a societal relevance, and enters departments such as the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, or the Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies (most professors in these departments received their PhD abroad). This is not an isolated case, and it is similar to the situation in Europe or America; in many western universities, psychoanalysis finds more appreciation in departments of humanities in general (philosophy, literature, arts, and media) than under Psychology specifically, where the mainstream is represented by cognitive and behavioral sciences.

To conclude, Hong Kong represents an unknown. Contrary to China and Taiwan, there is not even a single psychoanalytic association. Nobody who claims to be a psychotherapist professes himself as a psychoanalyst. Some University programs make some references to psychoanalysis, as a brief theoretical introduction; some of the students don't know who Freud is. Although some therapists have been trained abroad in psychoanalysis, they seem to operate quite differently upon their return, as if they have to adapt to the local context. Paradoxically, given the earlier exposure of Hong Kong to the West, one should expect to find the highest interest toward Psychoanalysis here, yet this is not the case. It is difficult to understand if there is no psychoanalysis because there is no demand for it, or if, on the contrary, there is no demand because psychoanalysis is unknown to individuals.

At this point it is not simply a matter of a generic Chinese culture that is resistant to psychoanalysis. Instead, there must be some specific factors of the local culture, and lifestyle of Hong Kong that determines such apparent indifference to psychoanalysis. At the same time, it is possible that Hong Kong is not as westernized as it seems. Despite an apparently westernized standard of life, Hong Kong remains traditional at its core, and reluctant to open up to what is perceived as a foreign practice, as something alien to the local culture and local identity.


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