Friday, October 29, 2010

Freudians Put China on the Couch

BEIJING — More than 500 Chinese and foreigners packed “Freud and Asia,” the 100th anniversary meeting of the International Psychoanalytical Association here last week, reflecting growing interest in psychoanalysis in a country some say is suffering high levels of repressed trauma — and ripe for change.

For decades after the 1949 revolution, the Communist Party banned psychoanalysis as bourgeois superstition. Sports and revolution ardor were recommended for mental health. Only in the past 20 years has analysis been permitted, at first grudgingly, now relatively freely. But, “It’s still not easy,” said Chen Aiguo, a self-taught counselor in the central city of Zhengzhou.

Violent political campaigns that killed tens of millions in the past, and tight controls over freedom of expression that persist to this day, have left a significant legacy of trauma, say Chinese and foreign analysts. This affects not just those who experienced painful events but also children who inherit their parents’ unresolved mourning, the association’s former president, Cláudio Eizirik, said on the eve of the event, the first time the influential association, founded by Sigmund Freud in 1910, had met in Asia.

“I think the Chinese in this respect resemble the Holocaust survivors and the children of Holocaust survivors,” said Elise Snyder, an American psychoanalyst. “It’s astonishing how much they have been through.”

Ms. Snyder trains Chinese analysts via Skype and Oovoo, a video-conferencing service. Thirty-one Chinese, part of Ms. Snyder’s China American Psychoanalytic Alliance, graduated from her program last Sunday.

Yet some Freudians worry about the efficacy of short-term, long-distance programs. In 2008, the association began training nine analysts in China, following strict Freudian principles of years-long, multiple sessions per week on the couch, with an association-approved psychoanalyst. The candidates must also learn theory and, eventually, analyze patients. Most need several more years to qualify.

Liu Yiling, 31 and a Communist Party member, is one. In her talk, “Slow Analysis for a Fast-Developing China,” she lashed out at China’s frenzied economic growth, which she blamed for soaring mental health problems as values erode and families fall apart.
Xiao Zeping, director of the Shanghai Mental Health Center and president of the association’s China Allied Center, agreed. “Chinese people aren’t really happy,” she said. “They say, ‘I’m so stressed, everything is changing so quickly.’ Or they say, ‘I have money, but I have no time to see my friends.”’

Both Ms. Liu and Ms. Xiao warned accurate statistics are hard to come by in a country where few people with mental health problems seek professional help. But Ms. Xiao pointed to a study published in The Lancet in 2009 led by Michael Phillips, director of suicide prevention at the Shanghai center, that reviewed four provinces from 2001 to 2005. It found that 17.5 percent of people had some form of mental disorder.

Ms. Liu offered some reasons.

Starting in 1978, when China began its project to get rich quick after the death of Mao Zedong, uninhibited greed took over, she said. Society splintered as people rushed to secure a place at the coveted middle-class table. Present times are “barbarous,” she said.

But economic growth has also led to the increased liberties and individualism — and cash — necessary for psychoanalysis to take root.

Thousands of self-taught counselors have sprung up across China in the last 20 years, some mixing Western and Eastern principles. For example, “Sunbrother” (real name Zhang Kunbo), who attended the meeting, offers counseling that promises to take clients on a journey “from psychology to the I Ching,” an ancient divinatory text.

Mr. Chen, the Zhengzhou counselor, charges 300 renminbi, or $45, an hour. Asked to identify key problems among Chinese today, he paused, then said: “You really can’t say it’s this or that, their problems are all highly individual.”

That appeared to undercut the argument that Confucian culture, which values conformity, and Communism, which values the collective, make China an inappropriate home for psychoanalysis, which privileges individual memory and experience.

Today, both Communist propaganda and commercial advertising offer a one-size-fits-all solution to people’s fantasies, said Shi Qijia of the Wuhan Mental Health Center. He predicted these strategies would ultimately fail, as people turn to individuated, personal forms of expression available through the Internet, blogs and Twitter services.

In fact, how far Freudian psychoanalysis should take on board Chinese cultural values was hotly debated.

Jorge Canestri, an Italian psychoanalyst, favored an Asian “enrichment” of psychoanalysis as it enters the region. Do-Un Jeong, of South Korea, disagreed. “Psychoanalysis needs to be solidly grounded first” in Asia, he said, “otherwise it can easily fall into confusion.”

Inhibitions fell as Asian analysts addressed highly sensitive issues like Chinese-Japanese relations.

Shigeyuki Mori of Konan University, in Kobe, Japan, confessed his fear of speaking before the mostly Chinese audience about the case of a Japanese woman. Born in 1929, she experienced World War II as a girl in Kobe, simultaneously horrified by her country’s violence but nevertheless identifying with her culture. This created a trauma that has followed her through life. Mr. Mori said such cases were common in Japan.

Noting that the victim-perpetrator relationship between China and Japan is unresolved and that Japan has not dealt adequately with its wartime aggression, he said: “What reaction can I expect from Chinese people? Should I expect a renewed resentment against the Japanese Army or Japan as a whole?”

Yet he plowed on, saying psychoanalysis “offered a framework for thinking the most traumatic and unthinkable material, and generating meaning from it.” By examining unresolved hatred borne of its wartime past, as Germany had, Asia as a region could move ahead.

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