Freud in China_Credit Lydia Wong

Once banned for being bourgeois, Sigmund Freud is belatedly taking the People’s Republic by storm, as collectivism gives way to the rise of the individual. Credit: Lydia Wong

A video clip appears on screen. An anguished girl runs through the shadows. She is chased by a growling dog. Cue voiceover in a dramatic American accent: “There is a dark side . . . where our forbidden fears lurk. These unconscious desires do not rest . . . they are the enemy within.” So far, so Hollywood slasher flick. Then the hero is introduced. A black-and-white picture of his bust floats towards us and the announcer declares: “One man believed he could exorcise our demons through the study of dreams. [Dramatic pause.] That man was Sigmund Freud.”

Taken from the Discovery Channel’s Great Books series, this episode on The Interpretation of Dreams has been given Mandarin subtitles and uploaded on sina.com, China’s leading infotainment website. Thousands have viewed it.

This is not a one-off. In the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in Freud and psychoanalysis in the Middle Kingdom. His books are now sold in every major bookstore. His face is recognisable enough to feature in television adverts. His ideas are found all over China’s webscape, including forums on pop culture sites such as douban.com, where the only Westerners normally to appear are the likes of Britney Spears. Today, psychoanalysis has taken root in China to such an extent that the International Psychoanalytical Association this year chose Beijing as the destination for its centenary celebration and first summit in Asia.

Just 20 years ago, when Great Books first aired in America, the situation in China was very different. “Freud’s name was only known in academic circles and there certainly weren’t any professionally trained psychoanalysts,” explains Geoffrey Blowers, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong, who is a specialist in the history of psychoanalysis in China.

At that time doctors treated mental health problems with a mixture of traditional Chinese medicine and drug-focused psychiatry. Psychoanalysis was not established in China until the 1990s, when foreign experts were allowed in to give training. One of the first Chinese doctors to take this up was Professor Cong Zhong, who now teaches at Beijing Medical University and practises as a psychoanalyst at the university’s Centre of Clinical Psychology.

He recalls how different the three-year training programme run by the German-Chinese Academy of Psychotherapy was from the medical degree course he took in the 1980s. “At university our teachers never mentioned Freud. We only learnt phenomenological psychiatry: how to classify certain symptoms, how to treat them with drugs. Patients were treated as materials to act on, not people to interact with.”

Instead, Professor Cong came across Freud in his free time. “Back then, Chinese students had a real hunger for Western ideas. We were always reading translated philosophy books for fun. When I first read them, I found Freud’s ideas fascinating but not in any way believable.” Later, when Professor Cong became a psychiatrist, Freud’s ideas came back to him. “The more I saw patients, the more I realised we were simply putting out fires with the drugs. With psychoanalysis we could find out why the fires kept breaking out.”

Foreign-trained psychoanalysts such as Professor Cong have been practising since the end of the 1990s. The Chinese Government did not recognise the profession with official certificates until 2005. But even this is a significant step in a country where psychoanalysis has had a chequered past.

Freud’s theories were first brought to China by foreign-educated students in the 1910s. They served mostly political rather than therapeutic ends, as the students used them to shore up their calls for social reform. There was only one known attempt to practise psychoanalysis in prewar China. In the late 1930s, Bingham Dai, a Chinese national who had trained under neo-Freudians in America, took up a position at Peking Union Medical College, teaching Chinese doctors and seeing patients.

When the Communists came to power after the war, all forms of psychotherapy were banned. “They felt that psychotherapy’s excessive focus on the individual would get in the way of creating a collective conscience,” explains Blowers. “They brushed it off as a bourgeois pseudo-science, serving only the interests of the middle classes.” The only psychological practices allowed were those that were Russian-approved, such as work on Pavlovian social conditioning. During the Cultural Revolution, psychology as a whole became a target.

When psychoanalysis was reintroduced to Chinese soil in the 1990s, there was no guarantee that it would flourish, as Blowers explains: “In Judaeo-Christian culture, with its belief in a personal connection with God, there is a tradition of improvement through self-examination. In the Chinese cosmological system the emphasis is on continuity and the need to fit in with one’s surroundings.”

Blowers points, too, to the differences between the West’s “guilt culture” and China’s “shame culture”. Whether it’s in the confessional box or through publishing memoirs, we are used to baring our souls. In China, sharing secret thoughts with strangers has always been discouraged, especially if it risks bringing shame on your family. The Cultural Revolution only intensified this tendency to be circumspect. But Professor Cong believes that these differences are just superficial. “Deep down, Chinese people have the same repressed feelings, desires and problems. In some ways psychoanalysis is particularly suited to our society. The typical one-child family makes relationships with one’s parents more intense, so the Oedipal drama is more apt.”

While Freud’s theories are treated with increasing disregard in the West, Professor Cong feels that the key Freudian idea of repressed sexual desire is especially relevant in today’s China. “Freud discovered his theories during a period of strict Victorian morality. In China we are more open than in the past, but for most people sex is still a taboo subject.”

And the Chinese Government is doing everything it can to keep it that way. Over the past two years it has waged an anti-vulgarity campaign, shutting down hundreds of websites judged to be “lewd” and punishing those found guilty of distributing porn — it’s illegal in China — with up to 13 years in prison. In this context, psychoanalysis and psychology more generally can be very useful. They allow people to talk about sex by couching it in the language of intellectual discourse. A good example of this is the successful launch in China of Psychologies magazine. Like its UK counterpart, there is normally at least one sex-related coverline. By using teasing terms such as “handbook for communication” and “those questions we don’t want to ask”, the magazine manages to escape the censors.

So Freud’s focus on sex may well explain why he elicits so much interest from the Chinese public. Check any one of the douban.com pages dedicated to the great psychoanalyst and you’ll find that a good third of the threads concentrate on his sexual theories. One douban user, who goes by the name Lexapro, freely admits: “When I read The Interpretation of Dreams in high school, I was especially interested in sex.” Now this 27-year-old bar manager checks the douban forum every other day. There is only one other subject that draws more enthusiasm from him and the other users: dreams. “Everyone has them,” says Lexapro. “They cannot be explained through reason. So every time I have a weird one, I go to the Freud forum for help.”

D ream interpretation has a long history in China. In the past, works such as the I Ching or Book of Changes were used to divine dreams in the hope of revealing people’s futures. Today, many people are drawn to Freud because they believe his dream theories can help them to unlock the present. Bai Xijie, another regular on douban’s forum, says of The Interpretation of Dreams: “I expected to read something like, ‘If you fly in your dreams, it means X, or if there is fire, it means Y.’ Of course, this wasn’t the case.”

It’s not just the public who seem fascinated by this more mystic element of Freud’s theories. Fewer and fewer psychoanalysts in the West use dream interpretation, but this method still holds sway with professionals in China. “We don’t use the couch any more,” says Professor Cong. “But dream analysis still plays an important part.”

For other psychoanalysts it is vital to preserve Freud’s theatrics. With his black-framed glasses and poker face, Xu Lin is every inch the psychoanalyst of Hollywood movies. He has appeared as a TV panellist, runs his own practice in Chongqing and counts himself as a firm disciple of Freud. “I strictly follow his theories. I ask patients to lie on the couch and to wear the mask. Then I interpret their dreams.”

As a student, Xu first came across psychoanalysis in films such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound and films have certainly played a part in popularising the discipline. This summer, China’s newspapers were filled with reports of the “Inception effect”. After the release of this blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a spy who enters people’s dreams, sales of Freud skyrocketed.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that the appeal of psychoanalysis in China is due solely to the subjects of sex and dreams. There are bigger factors at play. Painful memories of past violent political campaigns that left thousands dead and countless more traumatised are beginning to resurface. Even for those generations who weren’t yet born when these tragedies occurred, their parents’ unresolved mourning left a legacy. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but a paper published in The Lancet in 2009 by Michael Phillips, the director of suicide prevention at the Shanghai Mental Health Centre, suggests that 17.5 per cent of the Chinese population have some form of mental disorder.

China’s rush towards economic hegemony is also creating new tensions. “People are under great pressure in their studies and in their careers,” says Bai Xijie. “Even if they consider it shameful to seek professional help, they can reach out to psychological books and articles.” People such as Bai, who search for help online, are increasingly targeted by private psychotherapy practices. One such is Linzi Counselling Centre, which has about 100 psychoanalysts based in centres in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chengdu. Last year it posted a cartoon of Sigmund Freud on the beach on youku.com, China’s equivalent of YouTube. The bespectacled figure of Freud in his board shorts explains his theory of the id, ego and superego using a boy’s reaction to a girl in a swimsuit.

Marketing manager Bo Shan explains: “Obviously, nobody comes for counselling just because they’ve seen this video.” But it draws people to the centre’s website “and from there, we can show them that we are a professional and trustworthy brand”. She is optimistic about the future: “More and more people in China will have psychoanalysis as education levels increase and incomes go up.”

China’s affluent classes have embraced Freud and psychoanalysis just as they have embraced the values of market consumerism, suggests Blowers. “As with the wealthy in 1950s Manhattan, psychoanalysis is a status symbol. It’s a case of ‘My analyst is X. Who’s yours?’ ” Certainly, many of the Linzi’s clients find the centre through the recommendations of friends. Blowers believes that psychoanalysis in China may just be a fad. “We don’t know yet whether it will integrate into Chinese society in the long run.”

Whatever form of psychological help future generations in China turn to, one thing is certain: focusing on oneself is no longer bourgeois treachery. Chinese individualism is on the rise.

First appeared in The Times on January 6, 2011.