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China on the Couch: Jewish Thought in Asia

China on the Couch: Jewish Thought in Asia

You don’t often think about Jews in China. Demographically, there are only about 1,500 Jews today in a country of more than one billion. But intellectually their influence is growing. Two intriguing articles — one in the current New Yorker; the other in The New Republic — highlight the burgeoning influence of Freud, and the decidedly anti-Jewish Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, on China’s intellectual elite.

The New Yorker’s Asia correspondent Evan Osnos reports on the curious fascination of China’s well-heeled citizens with Freudian psychotherapy. Though Freudian analysis has long been on the decline in the West, a few of its most ardent practitioners in the U.S. have begun offering Skype sessions to Chinese. Odder still, Freudian therapy’s main proponent, the 76-year-old Yale professor Elise Snyder, runs a mostly volunteer operation out of her apartment on the Lower East Side.

The story, however, isn’t just garden variety "who knew?" journalism. The psychological issues many Chinese face are real: the British medical journal The Lancet estimates that 20 percent of Chinese suffer some sort of mental illness. The causes are not hard to find. Mao’s brutal social programs, namely the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, resulted in the deaths of between 30 and 45 million, and the mandated silence afterward continues to traumatize millions. Though Chinese officials have slowly acknowledged some of the damage done by Mao, the reality on the ground is that few can openly talk about it.

And more recently, China’s capitalist surge has upended the social order, creating new psychological issues. After decades of anti-materialist ideology, China has essentially reversed its position on money (it’s now good) — but not on politics. The result has been a paltry response to the country’s economic losers: mainly, the more than 100 million who travel from the countryside to factory towns each year, working a dizzying number of hours in brutalizing conditions. The recent slate of suicides at Foxconn factory, maker of iPhones, not to mention the grisly murder of school children by financially troubled middle-age men this summer, suggest something’s deeply awry.

Whether Freud will help is anyone’s guess. But it’s worth noting that it may face the same problem it did in Germany on the eve of the Second World War. Freudians, Osnos notes, threatened Nazism by encouraging individual independence, and especially rebellion against oppressive authoritarian figures. In states that prize national uniformity above all else, Freud has never bode well.

Which brings us to Mark Lilla’s equally fascinating essay in The New Republic. Lilla, an intellectual historian at Columbia, writes about the strange fascination Chinese intellectuals have for Carl Schmitt. This is troubling: Schmitt was the anti-liberal philosopher who gave Nazism its main intellectual boost.

As Lilla explains it, "Schmitt was by far the most intellectually challenging anti-liberal statist of the twentieth century. … [He] assumed the priority of conflict: Man is a political creature, in the sense that his most defining characteristic is the ability to distinguish friend and adversary."

Chinese intellectuals are not, Lilla suggests, attracted to Nazism. But they are looking for ways to retool China’s single-party system. The Chinese Communist Party’s reversal on toward capitalism has left many intellectuals feeling that the party has lost a guiding ideology. With the disruptions of capitalism mounting–not only exposing losers, but also making beneficiaries more powerful and self-assertive–the government needs a philosophy to unite the country again. Nationalist theorists like Schmitt, perhaps not surprisingly, have great appeal.

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