From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China

From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China

by Wendy Larson

When Freudian sexual theory hit China in the early 20th century, it ran up against competing models of the mind from both Chinese tradition and the new revolutionary culture. Chinese theorists of the mind—both traditional intellectuals and revolutionary psychologists— steadily put forward the anti-Freud: a mind shaped not by deep interiority that must


When Freudian sexual theory hit China in the early 20th century, it ran up against competing models of the mind from both Chinese tradition and the new revolutionary culture. Chinese theorists of the mind—both traditional intellectuals and revolutionary psychologists— steadily put forward the anti-Freud: a mind shaped not by deep interiority that must be excavated by professionals, but shaped instead by social and cultural interactions.

Chinese novelists and film directors understood this focus and its relationship to Mao's revolutionary ethos, and much of the literature of twentieth-century China reflects the spiritual qualities of the revolutionary mind. From Ah Q to Lei Feng investigates the continual clash of these contrasting models of the mind provided by Freud and revolutionary Chinese culture, and explores how writers and filmmakers negotiated with the implications of each model.


Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Delving into the psychic and emotional roots of political culture in modern China, Larson's look offers many insights into the pitfalls of applying Freudian notions to literary and film studies . . . I applaud Larson's effort to decouple the conservative version of Freud from the account of the revolutionary mind."—Ban Wang, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture

"Larson's book stands as a tour de force for readers who want to learn from its neoformalist approach and benefit from its extensive review of the Chinese literary field. Larson has thoroughly engaged the scholarship of critics based both outside of China and in China. As a veteran scholar in the field, Larson is able to, for instance, effortlessly synthesize the four major literary directions among twentieth-century Chinese writers in writing about the countryside. . . Students and researchers in Chinese literary studies will benefit tremendously from a myriad of her ideas and can avail themselves of the book's exhaustive bibliography and informative notes. A short review cannot fully bring out the book's admirable complexity and its brilliant insights teeming everywhere."—Zhen Zhang, Comparative Literature Studies

"Larson's study itself is grounds for optimism about the prospects for global conversation. No brief review can do justice to the great range of ideas in this rich book."—Jungyuan Zhang, Chinese Literature

"This book is rich in detail and sweeping in scope. It should reach a readership beyond the immediate field of Chinese studies."—Tao Jiang, China Journal

"Larson Convincingly puts revolutionary culture in a broader social context, arguing for a deeper understanding of revolutionary mentality, mind and spirit....The significance of [her] study lies especially in the tracing of the introduction, acceptance, and resistance of Freud in China, and in breaking a new theoretical ground- the revolutionary spirit- to discuss China's revolutionary culture."—Jianmei Liu Journal of Asian Studies.
"This is an important study for anyone interested in modern and contemporary China and its revolutionary culture. Embedded with fascinating insights into a wide range of issues such as subject-formation, collective consciousness, and the nation/state construction, this book breaks new ground in our understanding of China's revolutionary culture and complex heritage."—Xiaomei Chen, University of California, Davis
"Larson asks if the sexual innuendo and sensual abandon in recent Chinese novels and films depicting the Cultural Revolution indicate that Chinese artists are embracing the West's post-Freudian sense of modernity, with its pervasive sexuality and awareness of subconscious motivations. No, she concludes, these controversial works are not simply revisionist or nostalgic. ... The inquiry into 'revolutionary spirit,' beginning with its absence in Lu Xun's characters and ending with its apotheosis in Lei Feng, is the book's major contribution."—CHOICE

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Stanford University Press
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Studies in Asian Security Ser.
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New Edition
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Read an Excerpt

From Ah Q to Lei Feng

By Wendy Larson


Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-0075-7

Chapter One

Freudian Obsessions

Enduring grief was widespread after the war among both veterans and civilians. The millions of deaths from the influenza epidemic piled on more losses: Europe was a continent in mourning.... Freud did not want to know about the effects of these terrible traumas and immense losses. Lou Andreas-Salomé wrote to him in 1919 about a young woman patient who had lost her twin brother in the war, and suffered from a number of serious somatic and obsessional symptoms. Neither she nor Freud paid the least attention to the brother's death, discussing, instead, the usual sexual factors: repressed homosexuality, father fixation, phallic symbols, and the Oedipus complex. BREGER 2000, 262

The epigraph references many of the important concepts of psychoanalysis that have become well-known and accepted in contemporary popular culture in the United States even as Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) work has undergone increasing academic critique. Central to Freudian psychoanalysis are the ideas that the real cause of anxiety and trauma liesnot on the surface of phenomena or in recognized daily-life experience but below, at a depth not readily visible or accessible, in the unconscious; that in order to deal successfully with loss, one should consult experts, who are trained to see and interpret the invisible depth; that each individual occupies a special spot informed almost entirely by his or her unique experiences and history (even if those are largely dictated by the unconscious mind); and that at the root of most mental problems or anxiety one will find a core of sexual dysfunction and unexamined sexual desires and experiences. In this deep sexual core is where the real resides (Horrocks 2001).

Emphasis on sexual desire as a crucially important aspect of human behavior did not begin with Freud but was well under way by the 19th century. Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), the grandfather of Charles Darwin, set sexual love at the center of his theories as "not merely the basis for the creation of the race but also the focal point for all psychological feelings of unity and harmony with others and with the world," and a similar approach was picked up by Percy Shelley (1792-1822), who believed every experience of the soul was erotic (Reed 1997, 55). The German / Austrian psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) published his massive study Psychopathia Sexualis: With Especial Reference to Contrary Sexual Instinct: A Clinical-Forensic Study in 1886. Although von Krafft-Ebing's early work aimed to provide understanding of and practical solutions for the problems of caring for the mentally ill, it also was part of a general interest in sexuality that developed rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. English sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) published Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters in 1883, and began publishing what became a seven-volume set, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, in 1897. German sexologist Iwan Bloch's (1872-1922) Sexual Life of Our Time in Its Relations to Modern Civilization appeared in 1908. Austrian psychologist Albert Moll (1862-1939) published The Sexual Life of the Child in the same year. Others, including Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-95), Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), and Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) expanded the study of sex through their work on homosexuality and other topics. As Arnold I. Davidson argues, it is

not because we became preoccupied with our true sexuality that a science of sexuality arose in the nineteenth century; it is rather the emergence of a science of sexuality that made it possible, even inevitable, for us to become preoccupied with our true sexuality. Thus our existence became a sexistence, saturated with the promises and threats of sexuality; the biggest change of the nineteenth century in terms of sexual discourse is a changing of the "rules" in which sexual identity became separated from anatomical structure, becoming "a matter of impulses, tastes, aptitudes, satisfactions, and psychic traits. (Davidson 2001, 35)

For Freud, sexual desire was not just one aspect of human life, but a basic quality of the unconscious to which all form of experience were linked. Freud's interest was not so much in evaluating actual sexual behavior, but in constructing a theory of sexuality. David Seelow explains: "Freud creates fiction as a way to reach a truth that must, being psychic in nature, remain hidden from the scientific eye, the microscope, and the laboratory" (Seelow 2005, 23). Sexual desire lurked in the unconscious, metamorphosing through repression into a powerful, not-to-be ignored instigator of everyday problems. As an ever-elusive yet potent cause of almost any kind of anxiety, trauma, or despair, sexual desire could be endlessly represented, manipulated, excavated, and brought into the light, if never for the final time. Freudian psychoanalysis, with its mixture of a hidden unconscious, a productive sexual desire, and a pathology of daily life, translated three centuries of interest in sexual desire into a pseudo-medical and cultural system. It laid out important guidelines about the modern person: how s / he must think and feel, and what could and should be acted upon. It mandated sexuality at the core of human identity and demanded significant, life-long attention to this "truth." Freud's sexually rich unconscious was not just a theory of sexuality but also a theory of the mind. Interpretation of Freud's work, psychoanalysis, psychology, and psychiatry spawned a massive field that expanded rapidly over the century in many locales. It became an arena populated not only by medical professionals but also by philosophers, theorists of popular culture, literary critics, film critics, historians, biographers, and more.

The story of Freud's development of his sexual theories, which posited hidden sexual motives behind psychological problems, has been studied extensively. Freud first worked with hysterical patients (meaning those whose symptoms had no obvious physical cause) in his collaborations with Josef Breuer (1842-1925). Breuer published his early work on the subject in 1893 and 1895, with Freud as joint author. Most of the patients he sent to work with Freud were women, and the first case presented in the latter volume was that of "Frau Emmy von N.," in real life Baroness Fanny Moser. In his evaluation of this case, Freud began to move away from materialist explanations of Moser's mental distress-which focused on the actual events that had caused her pain-toward emphasis on sexual abstinence as the cause of her problems. Although Breuer believed sexuality was only one area among many where psychological trauma could be located and thereby cautioned against over-reliance on sexual explanations, Freud pushed ahead with his approach and eventually broke off relations with his former collaborator (Breger 2000, 111-25).

Freud then met and eventually formed a tight friendship with Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928), a nose doctor who developed theories out of his observation that nasal tissue and genital tissue were similar. Fliess published The Relationship Between the Nose and Female Sexual Organs in 1897. In a series of letters dating from 1887 to 1904, Freud discussed his ideas on hysteria, neuroses, the interpretation of dreams, and the psychopathology of everyday life with Fliess (Masson 1985). It is apparent in these discussions as well as in his other writing that although Freud initially credited real sexual events with motivating power, he eventually came to believe that sexual trauma was imagined by children, who were held in the grips of the Oedipus complex. Freud's view that neuroses resulted from sexual conflicts at the unconscious level was further developed in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, published in 1905. Here he expanded the power of sexuality by showing how it determined not only mental illnesses but also personality and character (Breger 2000, 163). Homosexuality, bisexuality, masochism, sadism, and fetishism-many behaviors that supposedly emerged during infancy-were theorized in terms of an individual's lifelong identity, and Freud argued that in their lifetimes, human beings passed through several stages of sexual desire and expression.

Freud gained and lost important disciples, some of whom supported and developed his theories and others who rejected them, going in new directions. Karl Abraham (1877-1925), who published the Freud-approved essay "The Experiencing of Sexual Traumas as a Form of Sexual Activity" in 1907, proposed that in the case of children who had been raped, sexual trauma was "desired by the child unconsciously" (Breger 2000, 214). Abraham also furthered Freud's focus on sexuality by insisting that soldiers traumatized in battle were merely suffering from impotence or frigidity; fear, the stress of violence, watching their friends die, and questioning the morality of killing those like them on the other side all were irrelevant. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), a one-time Freud supporter who eventually became estranged, asked Freud where a 6-year-old girl supposedly "seduced" by her foster father could have found the story of her abuse. Freud assured him that the child, preoccupied with sexuality, was under the influence of a fantasy and had not been abused at all. In 1919, Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he elaborated on a natural aggression that accompanied the sexual drive inherent in all human beings (Breger 2000, 223-59).

Although Freud developed a comprehensive system for imagining the new sexual modernity as a profound psychic reality, there was no guarantee that his vision would be widely accepted. Yet Freud's sexual theories became particularly influential in the United States, where their popularity, largely limited to New York intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, became widespread after World War II. E. Fuller Torrey explains:

Following the war Freud's theory began to spread, first sending roots westward under the Hudson River and eventually extending tendrils into every American city and town. The transformation of Freud's theory from an exotic New York plant to an American cultural kudzu is one of the strangest events in the history of ideas. (Torrey 1992, 104)

Torrey traces Freud's ascending trajectory to efforts to discredit the racially motivated theories that lay behind the Holocaust. Before the Holocaust, a discussion on race and immigration, and its accompanying debate on nature versus nurture, raged throughout the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century in the United States, with most well-known figures arguing that immigration from eastern and southern Europe, as well as from Asia, was ruining America. Racial determinism was all the rage, and it was promoted by famous figures in all walks of life. From MIT president Francis A. Walker in his 1896 article "Restriction of Immigration" to Madison Grant, with his The Passing of the Great Race on Nordic superiority in 1916; from Harvard president Charles W. Eliot to Stanford president David Starr Jordan; from Alexander Graham Bell to Charles Davenport in the Eugenics Records Office, leading intellectuals jumped on the eugenics bandwagon. The Ku Klux Klan, which peaked at 5 million members in 1915, led attacks against all immigrants, but especially African Americans, Jews, and Catholics. American xenophobia and racism was widespread in the middle class, and it was given even more credibility through Kenneth L. Roberts's 1922 best-seller Why Europe Leaves Home, in which he portrayed the newcomers as stupid, vermin-laden animals (Torrey 1992, 39-59).

According to Torrey, the anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942), who taught at Columbia, should be regarded as a central figure not only in the fight against racism but also in Freud's ascendancy. Boas's research empirically discounted the eugenicists' arguments; through published debates, scientific research, and congressional testimony, Boas warned against attempts to "raise a race of supermen" (Torrey 1992, 54). In The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), he laid out the principles of cultural relativism, which denied the value of universals in evaluating culture; instead, he championed a deep investigation into the specificities of each culture. He thus changed the meaning of the term culture from a singular to a plural (Stocking 1996). Boas believed in the importance of collecting data about every aspect of human behavior and focused on language as a window into any particular culture. He clashed with many leading eugenicists, whose sexual conservatism led them to oppose birth control and sexual liberation. Although Boas was impressed by Freudian sexual theory, two of his students-Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and Margaret Mead (1901-78)-picked up the connection between early childhood sexuality and cultural nurture in earnest, deploying Freud's sexual theories to further their mentor's fight against racism and their own claims on behalf of culture over genes. Mead in particular, with her research emphasis on sexual mores, corroborated Freud's theories in her 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa, which Boas cited in claiming that "where sexual life is practically free sexual crimes do not occur" (Torrey 1992, 71-72). According to Mead-whose research gained such canonical status that it was not challenged or thoroughly debated within the field of anthropology until a half century after it appeared-the absence of cultural taboos on sexual relations in Samoa produced a neurosis-free society.

It was the Holocaust, however, that shocked people into realizing that eugenics could become genocide; without the Holocaust, Torrey argues, New York intellectuals would have lost interest in Freud. Freud's emphasis on childhood experience and its amalgamation in the unconscious was an appealing alternative to racial determinism, and when Marxists finally came to recognize Stalin's atrocities, they too joined the sexual liberationists and nurture proponents, shifting their allegiance from Marx to Freud. Although in the 1930s Freud was "a Viennese physician promulgating an unusual theory about the importance of childhood sexual experiences," by the 1950s he had become a "quasi-religious figure sent to redeem His children by confession and transference" (Torrey 1992, 111).

Next came the discovery of Freud by the media, beginning with Life and Time magazines, which was quickly followed by Benjamin Spock's (1903-98) adoption of Freudian principles in his widely read books on childcare; the popularization of Freudian sexual theory through articles and films (including Margaret Mead's monthly column for Redbook in the 1960s); the New Left's inflation and expansion of sexual theory into a theory of social and political liberation through the work of Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Paul Goodman (1911-72), and Norman O. Brown (1913-2002); and the elevation of mental health as a national goal by John F. Kennedy. Psychoanalytical sexual theories penetrated nearly every discipline in the social sciences and humanities, and the New York intelligentsia, which was closely allied with the publishing industry, made certain that Freud-positive works were published. The personal growth movement, begun in the 1960s but still alive and kicking in the next century, was based to a large extent on Freudian theories (Torrey 1992, 128-213).


Excerpted from From Ah Q to Lei Feng by Wendy Larson Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Wendy Larson is a Professor of Modern Chinese Literature at the University of Oregon. She has published extensively on 20th century Chinese culture, including Women and Writing in Modern China (Stanford, 1998).

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