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China Discovers the Couch

Stressed by rapid social change, the nation turns to psychology. The challenge is to adapt Western therapy to an Eastern culture.

September 17, 2004|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Step back, Confucius. Move over, Mao. Dr. Freud is making the rounds.

Once vilified by the Communists as a remnant of bourgeois imperialism, the practice of psychology -- and especially the Western ritual of going to a therapist -- is gaining popularity in this land of budding capitalists.

China's newfound fascination with the subconscious comes amid wrenching social changes that are reshaping a nation steeped in values of self-reliance and self-discipline. As this country accelerates from a planned economy to a free-market system, people are feeling the shock of increased competitiveness, elevated stress levels and the dawning recognition that an awful lot of folks just aren't happy.

"Everything's changing, including people's behavior, customs and beliefs," said Zhang Kan, president of the Chinese Psychological Society. "Some people want to keep the traditions, but it is not possible. Maybe you can keep what's essential, but you have to change to fit in the world."

Now, it seems, China is shrinking to fit.

Those within psychology circles say a growing number of the burgeoning middle class, armed with Internet access and images of therapy from movies such as the Hong Kong blockbuster "Infernal Affairs," are seeking professional help to soothe their angst.

The sales of Prozac in China have nearly doubled in four years, said an Eli Lilly & Co. spokesman.

One-third of those polled in a recent nationwide survey said they felt frustrated, angry or listless. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among young adults. Divorce, while still a modest 16% by some figures, is rising.

The demand for help has government officials scrambling to seize control of a therapy industry that has sprung up virtually overnight and includes many self-styled counselors trying to make a quick buck.

Meanwhile, universities are adding psychology departments, hoping to keep pace with a surge of students who now see the human mind as a career gold mine. The number of university psychology departments and the figure for grad students have doubled over the last five years -- to 40 and 4,000, respectively, according to professional sources.

They're entering a growth market.

Zhang, a 33-year-old radio station employee who gave only his family name, said he had "no concept" of what therapy was all about when he contacted a Beijing therapist via the Internet a year ago.

Now, after intense counseling, his troubled marriage is healing and he describes the talking cure like a pro.

"It is a process during which a therapist and client communicate with each other, and through that communication they can discover problems under the surface," said Zhang, who is not related to the psychological society president.

The vast majority of Chinese, however, are not so ready to swap Confucius for the couch.

In a land where 70% of the people are peasants, most are too busy eking out a living to worry about emotional fulfillment. And if they did, what with an average per capita annual income of $1,000, many couldn't afford the $20 to $100 an hour therapists here charge.

Even those who can afford it are put off by the fact that the Chinese word for psychologist means "heart-reason consultant," implying that a client who comes to see one has something wrong with his or her mind.

And if Chinese get past that, they are uncomfortable with an approach that often calls for exploring family skeletons or divulging secrets to a stranger. That's far removed from the Confucian tradition of venerating ancestors and, above all, saving face.

"Chinese people are taught this way," a local businessman, who declined to give his name, said as he relaxed recently in Beijing's popular Lotus Lane bar district. "If you have any problems, you go to your parents. And if your parents can't help you, you bear them yourself."

During Mao Tse-tung's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, political ideologues attacked psychology as a "pseudoscience" of capitalist expansionists. Hard-liners shut down human behavior research, destroyed psychology libraries and forced human behavior researchers to perform manual labor, such as raising pigs.

Yet the post-Mao economic reforms initiated 25 years ago unleashed social forces that have splintered China into a class-based society, and left both the haves and have-nots struggling with immense change.

Layoffs. More demands at work. Less time for friends or family. Pressure to keep up with the Fangs.

"If the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer and you tell people, 'Don't envy rich people,' it won't work," said Wang Kegiang, a therapist in Dalian, a coastal city 290 miles southeast of Beijing. "People still feel unbalanced.

"Besides that are all the problems of corruption and the pressure of educating children and unemployment," he said. "All of these problems are causing instability in China, in the society."

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