Help yourself China – The rise of self-help culture and its unique Chinese features

April 27, 2012gil2 Comments, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Note: Gil Hizi is Ministry of Tofu’s contributor. He is also the chief editor of website Thinking Chinese.

In the last few decades, self-help culture, in the form of advice books, accessible knowledge and popularized expertise is blooming in the Western world as well as in many developing countries. China is no exception. Commercialized medicine, private clinics the offer instant ‘fix’, book guides to success and new therapeutic channels all flock the Chinese urban realm and encounter an impressive demand by city dwellers. Nevertheless, rather than insinuating a one-way direction of modernization and individualization, the Chinese self-help culture manifests some endemic characteristics. The result is a sociocultural practice that is neither ‘Western’ or indigenized, but a creation of novel Chinese subjectivities.

Self-help products answer several demands of modern Chinese society, particularly among urban residents, younger generations and middle class members (or any possible combination of these three conditions). Self-help normally means popularization of knowledge and tools, in terms of physical or financial accessibility, availability of information and products, prompt effectiveness and so forth.

Studies about the development of medical services in the West connect between accessibility of expertise and self-help. As British sociologist Nikolas Rose illustrates, marketization and privatization of medical and civil services leads individuals to make greater decisions and choices in their daily life. Based on the information they consume (through the media, magazines, etc) they become ‘experts’ on their own and learn to ‘help themselves’. According to Rose, a dedicated follower of Michel Foucault, this ‘free choice’ is an illusion, since powerful groups and governments pull the strings behind the scenes and operate mechanisms that direct people towards their ‘choices’. Still, on the more visible social layers, self-help culture is produced. This process is inevitable taking place also in China, due to the effects of the market reforms and the increasingly competitive society, with some distinguishing features. The authoritative potential of the Chinese government allows it to monitor many socioeconomic developments. Unlike what Rose describes in England and US, the Chinese state still esteems solidarity and expresses its nationalist agendas in front of its residents more directly.

Another appealing aspect of self-help tools, particularly books, is their cosmopolitan flavor. In her ethnographic experience in Beijing, Judith Farquhar finds that self-help literature bridges between the individual and the global. These books, that are often translations of foreign works (and even if this is not the case, they normally introduce universal ‘scientific’ disciplines such as modern medicine, psychology, business management and more) and tend to deal with modern universal issues. When diving into such a book, a Chinese pregnant woman can identify with a counterpart in Europe, a Shanghainese business executive can unite with a New-Yorkian manager, and a Hangzhou teenager can read about adolescent love experienced by an Argentinean girl, depending on the book topic. Having this compass to the global human mainstream and consuming knowledge that is esteemed for bringing forth modern wisdom are two factors that seduce urban Chinese to this genre.

Where, then, self-help culture in China displays some local attributes, rather than simply a desire to become modern or Westernized? Although we do not always need to search for the impact of a ‘traditional’ Chinese culture, distinct local features in this cultural phenomenon do exist.

The special cultural meanings of the advice industry in China can be found in psychological self-help material. In China, psychological counseling services are undergoing impressive development in recent years, yet they still face a high wall of public suspicion. Certain elements in Confucianism, the concept of mianzi (‘face’), and the stigmatization of mental disorders during the Mao years all prevent many people from addressing a psychologist even today. When therapy is initiated, it is normally short-termed and aims to remove an immediate challenge rather than reach the depths of one’s soul. Self-helps books in mental health allow readers to enjoy psychological insights (the discipline itself is receiving high public recognition in recent years) without risking their social status and engaging in a shameful therapeutic ‘confession’.

An array of Chicken Soup for the Soul

I have visited a center of bibliotherapy (achievement of therapeutic healing through reading relevant books, normally fiction, where the reader can identify with the protagonist) in Taishan Medical University in the city of Tai’an, Shandong province. Apparently, many Chinese academic works from recent years focus on the psychological subfield of bibliotherapy. Concerning self-help therapeutic literature, either in the form of bibliotherapy or best sellers, the director of the center Gong Meilin told me that “this practice avoids the ‘three fears’ (san pa) of counseling: the fear that other people will laugh at the counseled patient, the fear that others will think the counseled person is mentally-ill, and the fear that the patient’s innermost secrets will be revealed.” The discreteness embodied in self-help is indeed valuable for the Chinese patients/consumers.

While scholars who study the therapeutic culture in the West see a synergy between self-help books and counseling, in China self-help psychological tools (apart from books, certain classes and workshops are also platforms that attendees use to solve their own mental challenges) are creating an alternative conduit for spreading psychology, that does not necessarily contribute to the development of counseling and in some aspects even undermines it.

“Give Your Mind A Vacation; Cheer Up for A Brand-new Year.” Photo by Gil Hizi

Self-help in China has its modern neo-liberal characteristics while it also corresponds to some extent to self-cultivation ideas that exist in Confucianism or Daoism. Furthermore, the unique subjectivities that form in the changing climate of urban China allow different individuals’ aspirations to find fulfillment in self-help culture, whether these answers are an advice, expertise knowledge or even pleasure from the acts of desiring, selecting and consuming. As the example of psychological books illustrate, the flexibility of this cultural domain allows it to grow towards different directions. It approaches modernity, senses the influence of traditional norms, and gives space to varied and dynamic individual needs, which no essay can truly generalize.

Main references:

Rose, N. 1989. Governing the soul: the shaping of the private self. Free Associations Books, London.

Farquhar, J. 2001. “For Your Reading Pleasure: Popular Health Advice and the Anthropology of Everyday Life in 1990s Beijing.” Positions, 9(1): 105-130.

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2 comments to “Help yourself China – The rise of self-help culture and its unique Chinese features”

  1. Gary | April 28, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    When the title said ‘self help culture’ and showed a picture of a guy sitting on the floor of the bookstore reading for free, I thought it meant as in the English term “help yourself” as in “just take it”. I think bookstores in China only stay in business by selling practice exams to students since all the other isles are like the ones in the picture. People stand around and read the books without buying.

  2. Yes, Chinese have a special traditions and culture. Just love to discover something new. Nice article. Thanks.

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