AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 545

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Session 545: Madness and politics in China, 1700-2010: interdisciplinary perspectives

Organizer: Fabien Simonis, University of Hong Kong, China

Chair: Everett Y. Zhang, Princeton University, USA

Discussants: Ruth Rogaski, Vanderbilt University, USA; Veena Das, Johns Hopkins University, USA

This interdisciplinary panel brings attention to the variety of ways in which madness may be studied in relation to politics in various contexts, through either fieldwork, literary studies, or archival research. Both “madness” and “politics” are taken in a broad sense so that participants may develop their own problematiques, and in order to create methodological contrasts that should enhance our group discussions. Everett Zhang examines the flourishing of the category of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, contrasting the psychiatric shaping of individual grief in 2008 with the collectivist ethos of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which valorized heroic sacrifice and suppressed grieving. Birgit Linder studies the work of two modern Chinese poets who suffer from some form of mental illness; she explains how their illness relates to both their public and their private identity, showing that mental illness is far more than a medical issue. Fabien Simonis probes the status of mad speech during trials in which men who had presented their written fantasies to imperial officials in the eighteenth century were executed for utmost subversion even as they were dismissed as crazy. With three panelists and two discussants from anthropology, literary studies, and history, this panel tries to emphasize conceptual issues as well as empirical ones.

Grieving from the Tangshan Earthquake to the Wenchuan Earthquake: The Emergence of the Category of Trauma in China
Everett Y. Zhang, Princeton University, USA

This paper examines the flourishing of the psychiatric category of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the humanitarian intervention triggered off by the Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan Province in May, 2008, and its implications for the pursuit of wellbeing in China. It tries to sort out a genealogy of the category of PTSD in China from its introduction in the late 1980s to its early institutionalization in the 2000s. Compared to the suppressed grieving in the Tangshan earthquake under the ethos of Maoist collectivism and heroism, grieving in the Wenchuan Earthquake started to be encouraged to articulate individual sorrows and agony by psychiatric professionals in light of the rationale of dealing with sorrows as the symptoms of trauma. This contrast reinforces the change in the attitude toward the loss of life from valorizing sacrifice and sublimating sorrow to seeking therapeutic effects of healing through the combination of folk rituals of mourning and the psychiatric intervention. However, the institutionalization of the category of PTSD has had a complex impact on the reconstructing of the local world. On the one hand, it provides a new language for conceptualizing the pain and sorrow. On the other hand, it tends to flatten the depth of the suffering by concealing rather than disclosing the suffering rooted in the long history of the precarious local lifeworld shrouded in the cultural resilience of the local people.

Madness, Medicine, and Politics: Representations of Mental Illness in the Poetry of Guo Lusheng and Wen Jie
Birgit Linder, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Representations of mental illness proliferate in Western literature, and have changed the perception of its pathology decisively. With the recent advent of the field of Medical Humanities, a new appreciation has grown for the poetics of mental illness as a discourse that combines medical, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects. In China, representations of madness are mostly confined to Sixth Generation film or “trauma fiction.” Representations of mental illness by poets and writers, however, are rare, and even more so by those who suffer from a mental illness themselves. This presentation introduces two such poets: Guo Lusheng (“Indexfinger”), who is best known as an iconic underground poet of the Cultural Revolution and who suffers from schizophrenia; and Wen Jie, a female poet struggling with depression and its treatment. For both poets, mental illness is closely related to public and private identity. But while some intellectuals and fellow poets (mistakenly, I think) view Guo Lusheng’s illness as an enviable opportunity to voice dissent, Wen Jie’s struggle is more lonesome. Both represent important cathartic voices and challenge readers and perhaps doctors to rethink traditional perceptions of mental illness as a medical issue alone.

Madmen talking? Delirium, symbolic sedition, and state violence in eighteenth-century Chinese trials
Fabien Simonis, University of Hong Kong, China

Several times in the eighteenth century, Chinese men who were considered “mad” at home presented texts to Qing (1644-1911) imperial officials in order to obtain recognition for their predicament. Both law and psychiatry have schooled us into distinguishing between the legal innocence of delirium and the culpability of criminals. But in the eighteenth century these written fantasies could be received as challenges to the very fabric of the imperial state. Officials in charge of the “literary trials” that ensued often executed the authors of these texts for utmost sedition while dismissing them as crazy. What in the words of these eighteenth-century “madmen” was perceived as such a threat to Qing imperial power that they had to be punished so severely? And why was the madness of these men not considered a mitigating factor even when killings committed in a state of madness were punished less severely than regular homicides? In a sense, the imperial state fell “victim” to the very success of the imperial model, which shaped the fancies of common people to the extent that these men’s fantasies came to compete with those of the state on the same symbolic level. The violence of the state in reaction to these strange writings also shows that the eminently public symbols of imperial governance were designed for public view, but not for public use.