Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy

Li Zhang is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Zhang’s research concerns the social, political, spatial, and psychological repercussions of market reforms and post-socialist transformations in China. Her new book, Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics and Psychotherapy (2020) explores the rise of psychotherapy in China and how it transforms selfhood, family dynamics, and governance in the country.

With economic reform in China came market-driven competition, rapid social change, and a pressure to be successful, leading many people to turn to psychotherapy. Since the 1990s, “Psy Fever” has been sweeping Chinese cities, with the explosion of books and magazines on mental health and therapy, a burgeoning regime of private counseling centers, and wildly popular lectures from overseas experts. This was a radical shift in Chinese culture, where focus on the individual had been discouraged by both socialist ideology and traditional culture. During Mao’s regime, for example, psychology was considered a useless and harmful bourgeois invention.

This “inner revolution,” unlike the cultural or consumer revolution, is relatively quiet, but still engenders profound change. The popular psychological movement has been transformative across many aspects of life, extending beyond the individual and family into governmental spheres and broader social domains.

Anxious China explores the causes, logic, and ramifications of this “inner revolution”, arguing that anxiety (焦虑) has become a key indicator for the pulse of contemporary Chinese society. Chinese people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds experience medical and social anxiety, and it’s palpable in China today because it has been undergoing 40 years of profound structural and cultural transformations.

The three central themes of the book are Bentuhua 本土化 (the role of culture in therapeutic encounters), therapeutic governing, and therapeutic self. “Bentuhua” involves the idea that this is not just a translation of western theories, but a dialogic process in which Chinese practitioners have to select, rework, and make sense of different strains of psychotherapy. “Therapeutic governing” involves the use of psychological interventions by state and non-state authorities to change the conduct of individuals and social groups in very subtle ways by integrating therapy into government agencies and state-owned enterprises. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely used in police training camps. Many therapists are party members, and have to negotiate their dual role of protecting privacy and fulfilling their duty to the party. Finally, the “therapeutic self” explores how, over the past two decades, selfhood has undergone profound transformations, but is still intertwined with social obligations, ethics, and traditional values.

Professor Zhang remains ambivalent to Psy Fever. It can be used as a political tool of neutralizing hegemonic ideology by turning all attention to the individual psyche and away from structural issues, but also provides relief to those experiencing torment. Anxiety is a symptom of a society in distress, and it is important to analyze how organizations, governmental agencies, and individuals grapple with this. Zhang seeks to convey the anxiety and pain of the Chinese people, but also aspiration, hope, and resilience of spirit in the midst of massive societal transformation.

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