The history of developing psychoanalysis and analytical psychology in China

Psychoanalysis in China

In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, China and Chinese culture are mentioned just four times. The first mention relates to foot binding, which Freud considered an expression of fetishism and a ‘symbolic castration’; the second reference concerns Chinese dream interpretation; and the final two discuss the similarities between understanding Chinese script and language and Freud’s interpretive strategies of dreams (Zhang, 1992, pp.7-10). There is no evidence, however, that Freud had any deep communication with someone who knew Chinese culture well, despite several documents recording his correspondence with Zhang Shizhao, a very famous and influential intellectual in Chinese history (Blowers, 1993; Shi, 2014, p. 193; Zhang, 1992, p.6). Zhang was an important translator of Freud’s work and also translated the works of other Western ideologists. However, although he showed some interest in Freud's works, this interest was part of a general interest in all Western ideas, which were relatively new and striking to Chinese society at that time. Thus, his attitude reflects the initial attitude of many Chinese intellectuals to psychoanalysis, identifying it as just one of many Western ideas that they were eager to learn more about in the early 1900s.

Psychoanalysis in China before 1949

The first of Freud's works to be translated into Chinese was the Study of Dreams in 1914 (Shi, 2014). In the following decade, the main interest of translating books and papers in psychoanalysis focused on the interpretation of dreams and free association (Kirsner & Snyder, 2009, p.47). Chinese people’s initial interest in psychoanalysis was mainly on these two topics, which is understandable since China is a country with a long history of viewing dreams as meaningful. In the last century, Chinese people wanted to know how people from other countries, particularly from more scientific countries, thought about dreams. On the other hand, by thattime, for thousands of years, it had been difficult to imagine that somebody could be encouraged to engage freely in open discussion without censoring. Thus, this topic was quite new to the culture.

In fact, in the early years, behaviourism was the most popular form of psychology in China and behaviourists were against psychoanalysis. At that time, therefore, it was writers who took the most active interest in psychoanalysis. The new generation of Chinese writers applied ideas and concepts in psychoanalysis to create their novels and to write literary criticism. These writers led the public interest in psychoanalysis and in the 1930s this interest reached a climax, with Freud becoming well known among educated Chinese people (Shi, 2014, p. 193; Zhang, 1992, pp.25-35). In those years, the main knowledge on Freud and psychoanalysis in China was his sexual theory. Sex-related topics had a long history in China and always caused complicated feelings, which I will discuss in the following chapters.

The severe circumstances surrounding the invasion of the Japanese army and the civil war in China meant that Chinese people paid little attention to Freud or other Western thinkers, whose ideas were unrelated to the ideas of revolution. Furthermore, the main political parties in China had never had positive attitudes towards psychoanalysis (Zhang, 1992, p.34). After 1949, for decades, no one dared to mention Freud without criticising him, or else they simply ignored him and his theories. However, this was no special phenomenon. The only ideas that could safely be learned and spread from the West were those of Marxism-Leninism, which were reinterpreted by the Chinese Communist Party.

In the clinical realm, psychiatry was a totally new subject in China in the early 1900s, while psychotherapy was treated ‘as part of Western medicine’ (Kirsner & Snyder, 2009, p.47). In 1933, psychoanalysis was launched in the curriculum of Peking Union Medical College Hospital (PUMCH), and the first psychoanalyst in China, Dr. Dai Bingham, took a teaching post at PUMCH to train doctors and treat patients there. Dai was trained by Harry Stack Sullivan, Leon Saul and Karen Honey at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis (Blowers & Wang, 2014, pp.150-151; Kirsner & Snyder, 2009, p.49; Shi, 2014, p. 193). In 2011, the first certified member of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), Lin Tao, completed his course and become a recognised psychoanalyst. Thus, 78 years lie between Dai and Lin, the first and second psychoanalysts in China. This long intermediary period demonstrates the difficulties involved in launching psychoanalysis in the clinical realm in China.

After Dai, one of the doctors in Dai’s training. Ding Tsan, who was ‘a strong supporter of Freud’, applied psychoanalytical ideas to his academic writings and clinical practice (Blowers & Wang, 2014. pp.151-154). Along with other pioneers in the areas of psychiatry and psychotherapy, Ding led a miserable and tragic life after 1949. He was forced to stop all his studies and practice due to political intervention (ibid., pp.157-159). The practice of psychoanalysis with patients in China, which had begun in the 1930s, came to a standstill for many years and was not revived again until the 1980s. The whole process was in accordance with the shift of political circumstances and the change of general attitudes towards Western thought in China.

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