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China on the couch

Can psychoanalysis find a home in a Confucian communist state? Dr. Elise Snyder thinks it can.

In this cultural moment when American parents of the bobo persuasion debate the pros and cons of “tiger parenting” and declinists intone the need for Western countries to emulate China’s success, Dr. Elise Snyder is swimming against the tide in her role as one of the chief exporters of psychoanalysis, a product of Western philosophy and culture if ever there was one, to China.

Snyder, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University, is the president and founder of the China American Psychoanalytic Alliance. At a time when the prevailing media narrative of Chinese economic ascendancy does little to shed light on the rapidly changing sociology of the country, the very existence of organizations like CAPA and the growing popularity of this therapeutic model (largely seen to be past its prime in the U.S.) in an authoritarian state strike many as counterintuitive — and fraught with failure.

It is this cultural exchange that is the subject of Evan Osnos’ much discussed article for the January 10 issue of The New Yorker. Aptly titled, “Meet Dr. Freud,” the piece explores the myriad challenges and pitfalls of reconciling a western therapeutic model that prizes self-expression with a culture that still places very real restrictions on freedom of speech. The 76-year-old Snyder, whom Osnos describes as “having the cheery vigor of a cyclist in a Centrum Silver commercial,” is featured prominently in the article. She was gracious enough to answer some follow-up questions I had after reading the New Yorker article.

Jeanne Park: How did you end up playing such a large role in bringing psychoanalysis to China?

Elise Snyder: It started by accident. I went to China with my husband [Michael Holquist]. There was a conference in his honor, and Yale was paying his way. And I said, “I want to go, too.”

And then I tried to find out if anyone in China was interested in [psychoanalysis]. And I found this group in Chengdu. When I went there the first time in 2001, I gave a public lecture and 150 to 200 people showed up. People [asked immediately] for supervision and treatment. And I said, “I can’t do anything.” And I went back the next year, and I went to a couple of other places, and, by my third visit, someone approached me and said, “I really need an analyst.” [And] he suggested Skype.

So — ta da — I found somebody for him. And then many more people began approaching me, and I got to be surprisingly well known very quickly.

You have an element of Chinese people who are enthralled with American brand names — even though most things with American brand names are now made in China.

Park: There’s that much hunger for analysis?

Snyder: Huge hunger.

And they wanted training. And I called and wrote to — I know many, many people in the American Psychoanalytic Association — and I called every institute of the APA with a psychotherapy-training program (which was most of them), and asked if they were interested in doing something in China. And they all asked, “Are you nuts?” in essence.

By then I had a number of people doing some treatment and supervision, and [finally] I said, “Let’s do it ourselves.” It felt very crazy to try, but we tried and it has just taken off.

Park: How many of the training analysts speak Chinese?

Snyder: I thought you might ask that. [Laughs.] Probably around five.

Park: And are a majority of the analysands in China conversant in English?

Snyder: They have to be. That’s one of the criteria that we use in accepting people: They have to be reasonably conversant in English. Our younger students are quite fluent in English. The older ones have more trouble.

Park: What about psychoanalysis appeals to the Chinese? Is it because this therapeutic model encourages a self-expression that is, to some extent, still discouraged in the larger culture? Or is it a case of a growing consumer class enamored with the model’s “brand-name appeal”?

Snyder: I think it’s a complicated answer. In some ways, you have an element of Chinese people who are enthralled with American brand names — even though most things with American brand names are [now] made in China. [Laughs.]

In my opinion, the best and the brightest are interested in psychoanalysis for several reasons. 1. There is a long history of interest in psychoanalysis in China dating back to 1921, when Freud wrote a letter to the minister of education saying, “I would be glad if you used whatever means possible to introduce psychoanalysis in China.” 2. [The Chinese] started to translate. 3. By the ‘30s for example, Freud was really part of the popular culture in China. There [used to be] bottles of cough syrup with pictures of Freud on the labels, so there’s a long history of interest.

The other thing, though, is that psychoanalysis is more intellectually appealing than things like CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] and DBT [dialectical behavior therapy] so a lot of our people are intellectuals or people whose goals lay in that direction. … It’s probably less useful for a mass population. But what it is useful for is training people who teach people how to do therapy with lots of people.

Park: What is the psychological legacy of historical watersheds like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in contemporary China?

Snyder: It ain’t good.

I hesitate to speak about “the Chinese” because 1. I know 300 people. 2. All of the people I know are in this coastal rind. You know … middle-class people — not the one billion rural people. But many of the people I know were born in rural areas. Their parents had not even a grade-school education. Some of them had parents who were killed in the Cultural Revolution. Some of them were in camps and farms on the Thai border. So I’m going to say “the Chinese,” but I’m [aware that] it’s a dumb thing for me to say.

I think psychoanalysis is appealing because people are expressive, rather than people becoming expressive because of analysis.

There are two heritages: One heritage is the one everyone talks about. These are traumatized people. They’re like Holocaust survivors, or the children of Holocaust survivors. In fact, there’s a whole industry in … China of people doing studies on comparisons between the Holocaust and Cultural Revolution.

The other thing that’s also traumatic in its own way but not as dramatically traumatic [is the rapid rate of change]. You blink your eyes, and there’s a new highway. The last time I was in China, I got up one morning, and I asked my husband, “Was that building there last night?” They work 24 hours a day building high-rises and roads. … So there is this incredibly fast change. And that in a way is traumatic. Traumatic, some would say, in a good way.

I go back every year, and I can’t find my way around because there are new highways and buildings. And I was out in a more rural area, and there were 25-story condos going up. So I think the rapid cultural change is another thing that’s —

Park: — disorienting?

Snyder: Disorienting. But treatable.

Park: A lot has been written in recent months about the Chinese concept of “eating bitterness,” which seems to be at odds with the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis. What do you say to critics who argue that a “shame-based culture” like China’s is incompatible with psychoanalysis?

Snyder: The whole notion of Asian or Chinese people not being expressive is just not my experience. There’s a huge amount of people talking about how they feel – and that has nothing to do with therapy. [So,] what can I say? I think you have to be careful about cause and effect here. I think psychoanalysis is appealing because people are expressive, rather than people becoming expressive because of analysis.

I don’t know that now in 2011 China’s “shame-based culture” is as active as it was in 2001. So, the Chinese will say that they have a shame-based culture, but it’s like us saying that Americans are friendly. Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t. But this is our vision of ourselves.

And [as I said before], I don’t know the Chinese except for the Chinese that I know.

Park: What’s the future of psychoanalysis in China?

Snyder: It will have 10 to 15 years with immense interest, with everybody wanting to be an analyst or in analysis. And then it will become part of the culture.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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