China’s Great Transformation: From Duty to Personal Rejuvenation and Well-Being

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Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in China


If the freedom to choose is important for personal well-being, what happens when there are drastic restrictions on personal choice? China represents an opportune case to explore this question. Its fifty-plus years of experimenting with a redistributive command economy, combined with periodic bursts of political fever, made extreme egalitarianism more important than other Chinese values recognising individual merit, vision, and achievement. Throughout much of Chinese history, these values were widely shared; but in the current era, an alternative cultural model was stressed: social responsibility for the community and nation. Individuals were ideally expected to de-emphasise their individuality in favour of "the common good". In China, the juxtaposition of the two competing value systems—extreme egalitarianism versus individual choice, responsibility, and personal achievement—engendered confusion, anger, angst, and unhappiness. In China, from 1949 to 1976, this accounts, in part, for much of the suffering people experienced in living their lives. In this article I examine the Chinese cultural model for life satisfaction or wellbeing in two different eras: work unit (danwei), socialism (1981–1983), and market reform (1987–2000). My sample was found in Hohhot, the provincial capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China, where I lived from 1981 to 1983; six months in 1987; five months in 2000 (a total of 35 months). I will also examine the ways Chinese sought well-being in four different domains: friendship, family, occupation, and fun activities. By analysing how Chinese conceptualised their lives over time, I will identify the conceptual frameworks individuals used to assess their relative well-being.


China; Inner Mongolia; Market reform; Well being; Work unit era


Chinese Studies

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