A Letter to Li

Dear Li,

In a previous book forum, Angela Garcia wrote her response to Lisa Stevenson’s Life Beyond Itself in the form of a letter. I loved her approach for the way it revealed the sociality that often nurtures our work. Letters also involve a special kind of intimacy, as Laurence Ralph shows in his recent book—that of one person telling something important to someone else in particular. You and I have known each other a decade now, and we have talked more times than I can count about the anthropology of psychotherapy (and postsocialisms). I thought a letter would be a great way to continue our conversation.


You start your book with an experience that occupies just a few pages, but I imagine it must have loomed large in this project: the death of your mother and the anxiety that followed you after it. As I read those pages, I identified with the profound experience you described; my father passed away just two weeks ago. Reading Anxious China at this time in my life created a new bridge into your work. What I saw as I crossed it was less the topics we have discussed in the past—the link between psy and government; subjectivation; psychology and the (re)production of social difference (e.g. class and gender)—and more your attempt to keep your interlocutors’ experiences of mental suffering front and center. Perhaps in loss one appreciates more fully the importance of the support of others. This is what oriented my reading of China’s “inner revolution.”

In particular, I appreciate your efforts to resist the binaries that cast a singular, homogenizing suspicion on what is a very nuanced phenomenon: power/resistance; public/private; West/rest. You avoid the notion that psychotherapy is only a top-down technique of government intended to recast structural inequities as psychological problems. There is that aspect, you note, but you also show how people turn to psychotherapy on their own accord and for lots of reasons: cultivating happiness, becoming more mindful, overcoming anxiety and depression. You also nuance psy vis-à-vis selfhood. You show how people in China turn (in)to psychotherapists in order to find ways to dis-embed and re-embed the self in their social worlds. Finally, you avoid the West vs. rest binary by attending carefully to the “culturing,” or bentuhua, of different psychological theories and approaches. Chinese practitioners draw together idioms from Daoism, Confucianism, and even socialist thought work to create locally legible and meaningful therapeutic modalities. These are not imposed imports.

As a result of your careful analysis, we learn that China’s “inner revolution” is in fact a varied and unpredictable phenomenon—a shifting assemblage. And, to return to my earlier point about shared human suffering, this analysis allows us, your readers, to stay in close contact with the human stories at the center of psychotherapeutic work. While you identify a number of potential negative directions “therapeutic governance” may take, you resist drawing a neat boundary around them all. (I liked how your chapters did not end with “conclusions,” but, rather, with “reflections.”)

If I had one question for you, it would be about the question of psy, class and gender. (And here I come back to our earlier conversations.) I noticed that you touched on these topics briefly in the text, often in the reflections portion of each chapter. As a way of continuing our now-many-years-long dialogue, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how, as standards of practice become more decentralized (and presumably marketized) in China, you think the “inner revolution” may amplify social inequities along the lines of class, gender, and also ethnicity. What, also, might that amplification mean for the experience of anxiety, not to mention the circulation of stigma? And finally, how might you craft a similarly nuanced account of suffering and care in the face of potentially clearer indications of psy’s implication in inequity? The answer to this last question bears directly on how we as scholars navigate analytically between dark anthropologies, anthropologies of the good, and decolonial/abolitionist critiques of fixes.

In closing this letter, Li, I just want to congratulate you on this book. It is a wonderful result of many years of research. It is a gift to those of us who think about the politics, ethics and lived experiences of mental health, and a fascinating lens onto everyday worlds in contemporary China. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to our next chat.



Tomas Matza is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Shock Therapy: Psychology, Precarity and Well-Being in Postsocialist Russia (Duke UP 2018), featured in a recent Somatosphere book forum. He is also a co-editor with Kevin Lewis O’Neill of a special issue of Social Text, entitled Politically Unwilling (Fall 2014). More recently, he has written about the politics of transnational intervention in El Salvador.