“Meet Dr. Freud” in China

Jock McKeen and Bennet Wong

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos reports about the growing interest in psychoanalysis in China (Osnos, E. “Meet Dr. Freud: Does psychoanalysis have a future in an authoritarian state?” The New Yorker, January 10, 2011, pp. 54-63). Osnos notes that China has already imported other therapeutic models, including systemic family therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and sandplay. In China, psychoanalysis is equated in the minds of many professionals with psychotherapy, and its popularity and cachet are growing. The article notes that some analysts are now working from America with clients in China over Skype.

Historically, Chinese people have been reluctant to talk about their inner issues, believing in the virtue of “eating bitterness”. Osnos notes, “For most of Chinese history, mental illness carried a stigma of weakness so intense that the siblings of a disturbed person could have trouble finding a spouse.” Psychiatry has played a minor role until recently. “At the time of the Communist revolution, in 1949, China had some sixty psychiatrists for a population of nearly five hundred million,” notes Osnos. But this has changed as the growing middle class in China has time and money for exploration. This has been dubbed by the Chinese as the “psycho boom.” A search for spiritual values in a modern world brings increasing numbers to counselling, religions and psychotherapy.

We ourselves first went to China in 1987, hoping to learn more about ancient traditions in health and healing; we were surprised, and humbled, to be welcomed as teachers who could bring back long-forgotten perspectives on Chinese medicine. We taught in Asia many times in the decades following, especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. Since we retired, The Haven has been sending leaders to China frequently, and many people are coming from China to participate in translated mini-Phase programs at The Haven. Last summer The Haven ran its first full Living Alive Phase I program for Chinese speakers. We have continuously been wondering if the Chinese participants are getting what we think they are getting, or if they are modifying the teachings to fit their own preconceptions. Certainly, this is to be expected, and could be positive. But it also could bring effects that we have not foreseen. The language and cultural gaps are often subtle, and difficult to discern.

We have been musing a lot about the “psycho boom” in China. We recognize that the Chinese people are hungry for meaning that goes beyond politics of the 40s and 50s and the more recent acquisitiveness that comes with the new capitalism. Just as has been the case in the West, many “mistake the shadow for the substance” in their materialistic approach to meaning. They seek something tangible outside themselves, a system, or an answer, or a goal, to provide their meaning.

In their hunger for something more, we see they are sitting ducks for a “guru” leader who tells them “the way it is.” We are concerned that psychoanalysis (and other imported psychological approaches) might be utilized in this way. Certainly, we see that psychology has a significant place in China where individuality as understood in the West is such a fledgling concept. But, as in other areas of their lives, the Chinese seem unconsciously ready to copy something holus bolus without dissecting out what fits, and what doesn’t.

We have been interested in James Hillman and Michael Ventura’s book We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and The World’s Getting Worse. They suggest that we should get on with life and participate in the world community, rather than becoming addicted to self-involved introspection as an end in itself.

One limitation of psychoanalysis is its focus on the past rather than the present. The approaches we helped to develop at The Haven focus on living in the present in caring relationships, through self-revelation and heart connection. Ben was trained in the psychoanalytic approach, and was disenchanted with much of it. Both of us like Freud; we see the value in having insight from past experience. But we both believe that the significant life is led in the present (more Zen and existentialist) and the past is useful only for short visits for perspective, not as a cause célèbre.

We think a relational psychology, focussed in the present, is more practical and pertinent for Chinese people. Yet, as in all crosscultural translation, a system often requires modification to fit the adopting culture. In particular, the emphasis in Chinese culture on the family systems is different from much of western culture. For example, what is labelled enmeshment from a western perspective is often the norm in Chinese culture. Many issues to consider ….

The New Yorker article is a very insightful look at the history of Chinese psychology, and provides some cautionary notes about crosscultural work. The Chinese will probably consume psychoanalysis (as they seem to do with many other things western), and then maybe move onto the next fashionable acquisition. Meanwhile, our associates at The Haven and Hai Wen in China will continue to bring the message that personal development doesn’t come in a package, but rather involves an important inner assessment of values. To grow and find meaning requires a dedicated life of earnest and disciplined practice of sharing one’s heart with others. This could be the foundation for a psychology for the world community.


The original New Yorker article is available online to subscribers. A blog entry by Evan Osnos is available to all, including clips from a Chinese TV psychotherapy program.

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