Book Forum: Reflections on Li Zhang’s Anxious China

This article is part of the series:

This book forum brings together eight anthropologists to discuss Li Zhang’s Anxious China: Inner Revolution and Politics of Psychotherapy (University of California Press 2020). Zhang examines the rise of psychotherapeutic practices in contemporary China, documenting how techniques for managing mental distress are intersecting with new forms of self-care and modes of governing in the context of tremendous politico-economic transformation. While grounded in the ethnographic specificities of middle-class Chinese urbanites, Anxious China offers powerful insights to scholars working on similar questions in diverse regions of the world.

Drawing on her own extensive experience researching Chinese self-cultivation and healing practices, Nancy N. Chen contemplates how the psychotherapeutic models of care discussed in Zhang’s book have become the new platform for managing wellbeing in contemporary China. She engages with Zhang’s concept of bentuhua to consider how the localization of psychotherapy offers possibilities for creating new breathing spaces for ordinary people grappling with anxiety and distress.

Junko Kitanaka focuses on Zhang’s exploration of the “inner revolution,” highlighting the power of ethnography in exploring interiority at the intersection of anthropology and psychotherapy (which she herself probes so deftly in Japanese contexts). Yet Kitanaka also tempers this optimistic reading by questioning how this new psychotherapeutic space works with or against growing digital surveillance.

Dominique Béhague examines the ambivalent tactics of therapeutic governing that lie at the heart of Zhang’s book. Drawing on her own research in Brazil, Béhague underscores the generative tensions among state-controlled psy work, conflicting forms of expertise, and the possibilities of dialogic praxis that Zhang’s ethnography brings out.

Holding out Western psychotherapeutic work as history and foil, Rebecca Lester notes that the perennial question is whether psy practices are politically conservative or potentially liberatory. Lester shows that Zhang offers a powerful alternative to this oversimplified debate by demonstrating how Chinese adaptations of Western psy practices enable multiple culturally relevant models of personhood and the self.

Reflecting on her own personal and professional experiences as a partial insider to the psy fever gripping contemporary China, Zhiying Ma considers Zhang’s analysis of the rise of psychology as a scientific discipline and as a tool for governance. Ma questions whether and how these emergent psy practices fulfill quests for meaning and transform actual family lives and intimate ethics.

Writing in the form of a personal letter, Tomas Matza offers a heartfelt response to Zhang’s book in the context of his own anguish and loss. Matza calls attention to Zhang’s careful efforts to resist homogenizing binaries and highlights the shifting assemblages and human stories at the center of her book.

Li Zhang concludes the book forum by offering her own reflections on these interlocutors’ notes and queries. As the contributors of this book forum reveal, reading the affective landscape of China during this global pandemic takes on heightened significance in the turbulence of worldwide distress and suffering. Although Zhang completed her research long before the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed, the wide-ranging conversations sparked by her poignant ethnography showcase the enduring relevance of her work to the pressing concerns of our anxious era.


Book Forum: Reflections on Li Zhang’s Anxious China
Priscilla Song
University of Hong Kong

Recasting Therapeutic Models of Care Before and During the Pandemic
Nancy N. Chen
University of California, Santa Cruz

Self-Exploration in the Age of Digital Surveillance
Junko Kitanaka
Keio University, Tokyo

The Ambivalent Tactics of Therapeutic Governing
Dominique Béhague
Vanderbilt University and King’s College London

The (Anti?)Politics of American Psy
Rebecca Lester
Washington University in St. Louis

The Empty Hearts and Kinship Correlates of China’s Psy Fever
Zhiying Ma
University of Chicago

A Letter to Li
Tomas Matza
University of Pittsburgh

A Response Letter
Li Zhang
University of California, Davis

Book forum edited by:

Priscilla Song
University of Hong Kong

Priscilla Song is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine and the Department of History at the University of Hong Kong. She is a medical anthropologist working at the nexus of global health, science and technology studies, and contemporary China studies. Her book Biomedical Odysseys: Fetal Cell Experiments from Cyberspace to China (Princeton 2017) received the Francis Hsu Prize from the Society for East Asian Anthropology in 2018.


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