The awakening of sexual desire and the absence of self-agency

In Ting’s story, 1 saw echoes of a trapped Du Liniang in a contemporary young woman. Although the external, physical chamber has long disappeared from Chinese life, the internal, invisible chambers remain. For Ting, her desire to break out of the chamber and find the path to self-realisation caused her inner conflict and motivated her to attend psychotherapy.

Like Liniang, Ting was the only child in her family. Her family was richer than her husband's family for which reason Ting’s parents had mainly paid for their apartment and car. After the birth of their son. her parents lived with the young couple to help take care of the little boy, which is quite a common scenario for young couples from one-child families. However, Ting felt quite ashamed of her dependence on her parents. Her mother was a very assertive and demanding woman, while her father was weak and withdrawn. He was distant to both the mother and daughter. Nevertheless, if there were any conflicts between the mother and daughter, he would ask Ting to obey her mother and to mind her mother’s feelings. Her parents had both lost their jobs due to the transformation of the Chinese economy; later, when she was quite little, they had started their own business, running a small photo studio.

They worked very hard and had no patience with their daughter due to their exhaustion. Therefore, as a small child, Ting had been very obedient and had tried hard to avoid causing trouble and to fulfil her parents’ expectations; nevertheless, she often bore the brunt of her parents’ blame and she had finally realised, in desperation, that they would never be satisfied with her.

Ting’s adolescence had been an extremely painful time for her. In high school, she had struggled with her academic studies and due to her academic failure, her parents had sent her to study drawing to ensure she could enter college. However, she had no aptitude for drawing and attending the drawing lectures had been torturous. In her final year of high school, she had spent most of her day sleeping, to the extent that her classmates had dubbed her ‘sleeping god'. Ting’s difficulties during puberty are not rare in China in the last 30 years. Schools do not encourage individual interests and young people are forbidden to date. Academic achievement is seen as the only valid goal for Chinese adolescents. At that time, Ting was quite sensitive but selfoppressed. The massive amount of time she spent sleeping was, in retrospect and from a psychological perspective, very meaningful.

In The Peony Pavilion, when Liniang realises her sexual desires, she falls asleep and finds fulfilment of her sexuality for the first time in a dream. However, Ting did not report any dreams from that period, and while Liniang’s sleep was temporary. Ting’s sleep was excessive and resembled more Liniang’s death after waking from her dream. Idema (2005) drew parallels between Liniang’s death and Sleeping Beauty’s long sleep and suggested that both resulted from the first touch of sexuality for young maids (p.293). This analysis could also apply to Ting's situation. Her sleep comprised a defence against her desire because, as was the case for Liniang and Sleeping Beauty, the external world did not allow her to express her desire openly. Ting’s academic failure and massive amount of sleep in high school could also be seen as symptoms of depression, but also a repetition of a more archetypal nature. The condition of falling into depression is quite similar to falling into the realm of death, or the underworld, with its darkness, lack of energy and lifelessness that inhibit the aroused sexual desires of puberty. This could be seen as a symbol comprised partly of passive obedience to the requirement to be inactive in sexual activities and partly a resistance to the pressure of academic achievement from the surrounding environment. As discussed in the previous chapter, Liniang’s death could be seen as a gesture of protest. In ancient China, death was a common way for women to fight and show their determination to rid themselves of their dependence and to freely choose their own paths. Furthermore, in Jung's theory, death and rebirth are necessary for individuation.

Unfortunately, unlike Liniang, Ting remained lifeless and did not get the opportunity for rebirth, trapped as she was by her dependency on her parents. She was accepted into a college far from her hometown and studied interior design based on the drawing classes she had hated. After her graduation, she tried to move to Shanghai and find a job there with her boyfriend at the time. However, her parents ordered her to return to her hometown and found her a position as a college teacher there. They claimed that all these arrangements were for her own good, because a stable and secure job and a peaceful life in a small city were more suitable for a girl like her. She accepted the job offer, broke up with her boyfriend and returned to her hometown. She then found another boyfriend who lived in a big city near her hometown. 20 minutes away by high-speed train. However, they eventually broke up and she married her husband after they had dated for a year. Her husband, who lived in the same city as her, had lost his sexual interest in her in the latter half of their year of dating.

Here, for a young Chinese girl, the invisible chamber appears once more, in the name of stability and security. Her parents had asked her to return ■for your own good’, a very typical phrase used by such parents. Ting felt quite pained and was unable to establish her self-agency. As Knox (2011) defines it, self-agency is ‘the experience that we can influence our physical and relational environment, that our own actions and intentions have an effect on and produce a response from those around us’ and she emphasised that the key element in this is ‘intentional, action-based and related to the consequences of one’s actions’ (p.34). Therefore, self-agency is an individual’s ability to make their own choices, take action towards those choices and accept the consequences. In Ting’s case, this was lacking.

Knox pointed out that young children are afraid to assert their own agency in case their autonomy and independence cause them to lose their parents’ love and evokes retaliation from them. The struggle between the call for agency and the worries and fears surrounding the parents’ response will continue if the parents do not ‘develop a secure sense of agency’ and ‘depend on ... their own child, to maintain a sense of their own identity’ (ibid., pp.296-297). It was clear that Ting’s parents feared her autonomy and undermined her attempts to take independent actions, asking her instead to be in tune with their own expectations of her. As Knox described it, this comprises ‘a masochistic sacrifice of self to protect the caregiver, whose needs are felt to be paramount’ (ibid., pp.299-300). Under such circumstances, as the only child. Ting carried the full weight of her parents’ projections and had no one with whom to share her burden. Hence, she found it difficult to acquire her own sense of agency and establish her own identity.

On the one hand, as was the case for Liniang, since adolescence Ting had felt a strong temptation to be herself. She had realised what she did not want to do and what she was not suited to, such as her academic studies, the drawing courses and the teaching position. However, the fear and guilt she harboured towards her independent parents prevented her from finding her own path. Unlike Liniang, before coming to me, she had not found her own dream - her aspiration and internal life. Liniang’s period of death lasted three years, but Ting’s death-like depression and lack of vitality had lasted from her adolescence into her 30s. The failure of her marriage could be seen as a product of her inner death. Liniang found the man in her dream who fulfilled her sexual desires and brought her back to life but Ting had rejected men who had tried to be more intimate with her and made her leave her natal family and had instead married a man who strangled her lust for life and oppressed her sexual desires, as her parents secretly wished.

The temptation to be herself and the eagerness to come alive caused her continuous pain and prompted her to seek psychotherapeutic help. For generations in China, sexuality beyond the aim of reproduction has not been deemed necessary or important for maintaining a marriage; this explains why Ting was hard-pressed to find support from her family or peers and to take the issues seriously. Most of the advice she received in relation to her difficulty was that she should simply tolerate and adapt to it. However, she refused to do as she was told and resisted ceding her sexual desires. In this respect, she was quite similar to Liniang. When trapped in the chamber and not allowed to visit the garden, Liniang tried to cast off the role of an obedient lady, faced the pain of struggle and found a path to salvation. Ting now also decided to face her awakening sexual desires and to stop oppressing her inner conflict. By coming to my office, she was demonstrating a certain attempt to find salvation.

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