The debate about the differences between applying psychoanalysis in Chinese and Western settings

The strongest point of contention regarding the applicability of psychoanalysis in China is whether therapists should apply psychoanalysis in a different way in Chinese settings, given that psychoanalysis is deeply rooted in Western culture. In general, there are two opposing views.

The first view is that there are huge differences between Chinese people and Westerners. Schlosser (2009), Haag (2014) and Hansen and Pang (2014) have discussed the ‘self’ in China and the relationship between ‘family interests’, social requirements and ‘individual concerns’ and all have reached the same conclusion: namely, that there are no clear boundaries between Chinese people, or, in other words, that in China ‘selfboundaries are permeable’ (Haag, 2014, p.46). Individualism is seen as negative in Chinese society and so collectivism takes precedence. This gives rise to the concern that it is difficult to maintain boundaries between the analyst and analysand, and to observe psychoanalytical rules and practices. Based on their professional experience in CAPA, Fishkin and Fishkin (2014) expressed the same concern. These discussions are very important in demonstrating the difficulties involved in applying psychoanalysis in clinical practice in China. However, this does not mean that they are impossible to overcome. As pointed out above, all the instances of invasion that they observed occurred during the training process, indicating that immature therapists or those who have not been properly trained have a tendency to make these types of mistakes. This problem can be solved by further training and analysis of trainees by a training analyst. Based on my experience, the younger generation of therapists in China, who have been well trained but are still in the minority, show more tendency to have clear selfboundaries and know how to work within therapeutic settings.

The second view is that ‘there is no actual difference between the Chinese mind and the western mind’ (Varvin, 2014). In other words, working with patients in a Chinese context is similar to working with patients in a Western context. Some of the experiences of Western lecturers who offer supervisions and analysis support this assertion (Gerlach, 2014b; Scharff, 2014, p. 143; Wang & Zachrisson, 2014). Comparing her work in China with that in the US, Snyder pointed out that, ‘what is clear is that it is not a difference between East and West, but more like between rural and urban, primitive (in the psychoanalytic sense) and sophisticated, and non-middle class versus middle class’ (2014, pp. 126-127). She further suggests that if the patients or therapists over-emphasise the cultural differences, this could be interpreted as ‘resistance’ or ‘defensive manoeuvres’. This is quite understandable. In the past 30 years, China has undergone a drastic social shift. Globalisation, also known as Westernisation or Americanisation, has had a profound effect on Chinese people. When young Chinese people grow up exposed to the same commercialism as Western youth, their psyches might come to share common elements with their Western counterparts. Both in a conscious and unconscious sense, they no longer totally identify with their Chinese ancestors. In addition, the basic family structure in modern China is founded on the marriage between a man and a woman who raise children together; this also offers a similar experience of family and personal development to that of Westerners. In this sense, there is no real significant difference between Chinese and Western minds.

However, a more realistic view on the issue of differences, 1 think, would be that there are some differences between Chinese and Western psyches, but that it is unnecessary to exaggerate these. As Varvin and Rosenbaum state, there are no myths about ‘Narcissus’ or ‘Oedipus’ in ancient Chinese narratives. However, even if the contexts appear different at a superficial level, it is possible to find some resonance in their Chinese counterparts, because ’the struggle of the human mind in dealing with transitional processes from the primarily non-verbal pre-Oedipal aspects and Oedipal language-bound experiences’ (2014, p. 158) are common elements in the mental processes of human beings. However, the appearance of these conflicts and the approaches to solving them vary between contexts.

Therefore, in contemporary China, the otherness coexists with the similarities. If we ignore the otherness, we risk overlooking the uniqueness of the Chinese psyche and misunderstanding our patients, but if we ignore the similarities, this could make us too cautious to apply psychoanalysis effectively in China. Therefore, it is necessary to create a dialogue between Chinese and Western minds and to develop more mutual understanding (Jia, 2016; Lin, 2014, 2015; Saporta, 2014; Snyder, 2014; Varvin, 2014; Wang, 2015; Xu. Qiu, Chen & Xiao, 2014; Zhong, 2014). Zhong Jie, one of the 1PA candidates in China, described his dilemma when applying psychoanalysis to treating his patients (2014). He admitted that he encounters some difficulties when attempting to work with his patients in psychoanalytical settings. However, like many other therapists who are interested in psychoanalysis, he and his Chinese and Western colleagues will continue to apply it in the Chinese context and will eventually find the right way to do so.

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