Eric C. Hendriks studied at Utrecht, UC Berkeley, Göttingen, the University of Chicago, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Mannheim, and presently works as a postdoc in sociology at Peking University. He published a book on the globalization of the American-style self-help guru as a public figure, titled Life Advice from Below (Brill, 2017). Also he is one of the authors of Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry (Palgrave, 2016). His research focuses on the politico-cultural regime differences between China and liberal democracies.
China’s therapeutic field: between local appropriation and educational idiosyncrasy
The People’s Republic of China has over the past two decades seen the rapid rise of a globally integrated therapeutic field. This chapter will outline its history, structure, socio-cultural context, and its relationship to a globalized and functionally-differentiated world society, drawing on the ethnographic and sociological scholarship as well as my own research of self-help gurus and therapeutic-educational consultancy companies. The scholarship is even younger than the phenomenon itself; in mainland China, therapy, therapy culture, and their commercialization only emerged as prominent socio-cultural phenomena over the last two decades. There were no professional psychologists and therapists in Confucian-imperial China, while the Maoists repressed the first fledgling influences of Western therapy culture in the mid-twentieth century. The rise of a globally integrated therapy industry was enabled by the Dengian Reform and Opening Up policy.
The Dengian Reform and Opening Up essentially involved China’s increased integration into functionally differentiated world society. The economic dimension of this process commonly receives most attention and has been most easily grasped by casual observers. China’s partial opening to the world economy led to increased business professionalism, efficiency, demand, and opportunities, which in turn resulted in the emergence of an urban middle-class with money to spend on, for example, therapeutic services and products. But a necessary condition should not be mistaken for a sufficient condition. China’s integration into functionally-differentiated world society equally concerns an integration into globalized educational, scholarly, and media fields, which form an epistemic-cultural precondition for the establishment of therapeutic self-understandings and the therapeutic culture industry.
Still, despite the above named structural preconditions, and hidden underneath a surface of discursive commonality with globalized therapeutic discourses, the Chinese therapeutic field continues to possess highly idiosyncratic characteristics and drivers. Most importantly, the Chinese therapeutic field shades into a supplementary education field grounded in the cultural legacy of imperial Confucianism. Fueled by traditional educational desires and educational competitiveness, the supplementary education boom powerfully impacts, drives, and de-differentiates the rise of therapy culture in China.