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Psychology, the Mind, and the Social Organism

March 27, 2010

Psychology, the Mind, and the Social Organism: the China Field, 1953-1974

Rachel Scollon (2000)

In his In Search of Wealth and Power, Benjamin Schwartz searches the work of Yan Fu for clues to the preoccupations of a Confucian gentleman on the edge of the modern world. Yan is, Schwartz finds, “seeking . . . a clear and all-embracing vision of reality” (p. 111) that can show him how China can achieve wealth and power akin to that of Britain. It is Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism that “fills [Yan’s] most deeply felt intellectual needs” (p. 111). But in Yan Fu’s “rapturous embrace of Spencer” (p. 52) he does not accept Spencer’s ideas precisely as originally articulated; they are filtered through those intellectual needs and come out imbued with the flavor of his preoccupations.

Yan takes the conception of societies as organisms engaged in an evolutionary struggle for survival, of the state as the nervous system of society, beyond the point where Spencer’s commitment to the individual required him to stop, into a vision of the development of those state organs as the ultimate evolutionary goal. This carries him, too, beyond Spencer’s determinism to a conviction that it is possible for the brain of a society to perceive the factors impelling its own evolution and take action to influence its evolutionary course.

The proportion of mid-twentieth century American scholars of China who read Schwartz’s book on Yan Fu probably nears equivalence with the proportion of early twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals who read Yan Fu’s own work. It is not surprising, therefore (although I do not here posit a unidirectional movement of ideas outward from the mind of Benjamin Schwartz to the minds of other scholars) that this book is densely packed with ideas that are also to be found sprinkled liberally throughout the other output of the field. An organic metaphor of society, an emphasis on psychology, a basic identity between individual, societal, and state interests, and what Mary Wright terms “a kind of ‘great leap’ psychology” (Wright 1968, p. 62) turn up again and again, in assorted combinations, in the works of this period.

Certain combinations of these themes appear more often than others, however. It is possible to identify in Schwartz the confluence of two streams of thought that are related, but have their sources in two different intellectual environments. The first is an analytical orientation, a psychoanalytical approach to the study of society. This is associated with an implicit organic metaphor of Chinese society, but while it finds affinities with elements in the thought of Chinese thinkers, its source is in mid-century American habits of thought.

The other stream, which flows through findings rather than methods, consists of commentary on a Chinese belief in the capacity of human beings to alter their material and social environment. That such commentary can be found, with some differences of treatment, across the work of scholars taking a variety of psychological, materialist, self-consciously scientific and objective approaches suggests that its Chinese source is substantial and significant, but also that American scholars of various persuasions shared a certain sensitivity to the role of consciousness, and that the apparently neat match between the preoccupations of Chinese intellectuals and the American intellectuals who study them may lead to certain distortions of emphasis.

An early example of the first of the two intellectual currents outlined above is Joseph Levenson’s Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China. Levenson’s focus in this book is the impossibility of separating ideas from the psychological needs of their originators. He traces the question, “how can a Chinese be reconciled to the observable dissipation of his cultural inheritance — or how can a China in full process of westernization feel itself equivalent to the West?” (p. 5) through Liang’s lifetime literary output, examining in detail the intellectual outcomes of a psychological need to resolve the contradiction between the requirements of membership in China’s culture and the demands of the modern world.

In her The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism, published four years later in 1957, Mary Wright focuses more than Levenson does on practical policy. She describes the administrative and diplomatic efforts of Tongzhi Restoration officials to reverse the decline of the Qing dynasty’s fortunes, giving them high marks for intelligence, resourcefulness, practicality and effort. She finds, however, that in the long run their attempts were a failure. Her explanation for that failure reduces to psychology, but the psychology of a society more than that of an individual. Confucian society, she says, was unable to adapt to the requirements of the modern world, primarily because of a basic inability to conceive of economic growth as desirable.

Both Levenson and Wright seem to be working within an organic metaphor of society; China is a large, sentient organism, and one that is sick and dying. Levenson refers to a dying tradition (p.47) and moribund ideas (p. 86), and asks, “would an infusion of Western civilization cure China or kill it?” (p. 198). He is ostensibly paraphrasing one side of Liang’s conflicted psyche, but it seems from his evident despair at the futility of Liang’s synthetic efforts that he himself believes traditional China to have died. The “mind of modern China” that he refers to in his title must be the mind of a saprophyte living on traditional China’s rotting remains, for if he regards Liang’s search for continuity between the old China and the new to be deluded the new, modern China has to be a different organism altogether.

Wright, too, sees Confucian China as an organically unified whole. It is impossible to make any significant changes in the parts without bringing about the demise of the entire organism, and “there is no way in which a effective modern state can be grafted onto a Confucian society” (p. 300). She does not define her “Confucian society,” but it is its mental rigidity that brings it down in the end. Also implicit in her argument about the inability of the society to adjust to the demands of modernization is an evolutionary view in which China, as a weaker social organism, succumbs in the face of competition from the fit, surviving Western powers.

It would of course be possible to make too much of the occasional outcropping of an organic metaphor. The idea of the body politic was, after all, the basis of medieval European political theory, and old metaphors to which everyone is accustomed fade slowly. Furthermore, people have the habit in everyday speech of attributing sentience to cars and refrigerators, so perhaps to speak of a society as “dying” is of no tremendous import. There are, however, a multitude of other possible ways of conceiving of society — a web, a machine, a gas, a pile of sand. The combination of organic metaphors with a sense of irreversible decline and references to the beliefs of a society must be held to bear some significance.

In Benjamin Schwartz’s work on Yan Fu, American psychologism and Chinese voluntarism come closest to achieving seamless unity. Schwartz, like Levenson with Liang Qichao, undertakes to interpret Yan Fu’s work out of a conviction that ideas are important. He is not greatly concerned with Yan’s personality for its own sake, devoting little space to elaborating upon his personal characteristics, but he gives psychological motives great weight in shaping Yan’s thinking and the ordering of his intellectual priorities. He makes little, for example, of Yan’s opium habit, giving it only a single paragraph, but his treatment takes mental predisposition as the most crucial factor in individual action. He suggests that opium smoking was an expression of an existing “quietist mystical strain in [Yan Fu’s] outlook” (p. 31), rather than a habit the development of which radically altered the course of his career. Yan Fu was, Schwartz suspects, more of a thinker than a man of action, disgruntlement at the government’s perennial failure to make use of his talents notwithstanding.

Schwartz is concerned primarily with Yan’s ideas as articulated in his essays, translations and commentaries, and takes a psychological tack in explaining the divergences of Yan Fu’s ideas from the literal meanings of his original Western sources. As noted above, Schwartz believes that Yan had a intellectual (read psychological) need to find a system of thought that accounted for everything, and within that to find a way for China to survive in the modern world.

Spencer and the Enlightenment political philosophers provided Yan with that system. The idea of social evolution might at first glance suggest that China was on the brink of extinction. Yan drew hope, however, from the possibility that release of energy at the individual or cellular level, guided by the nervous system of the social body, could give China the strength to emerge triumphant from the evolutionary battle.

Schwartz does not, of course, come out in wholehearted support of Spencerian social Darwinism. He refers to the “obsolescence and mediocrity of his thought” (p. 47) and gives little sign of identifying so fully with his subject as to want to revive Spencer. But somehow Yan Fu’s discovery of this second, individual level of evolution, with its potential to reverse the prognosis on China, cheers Schwartz as well, so that he leaves the conceptualization of China as an organic entity to Yan himself, and declines to join in Levenson and Wright’s gloom.

The psychological approach, in this new, relatively optimistic form, was continued by Leo Ou-fan Lee in his The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers. Lee is much more explicitly psychoanalytical than his predecessors, applying Freudian and Eriksonian methods, as well as Henry A. Murray’s Icarus syndrome, to the autobiographical works of his selected authors in an effort to elucidate the nature of the cultural environment of the 1920s. Lee, drawing directly upon Schwartz’s work on Yan Fu, sees his protagonists as seeking to lead their individual lives in such a way as to release the energy needed to set their society on a good evolutionary path.

This psychoanalytical trend in mid-century American scholarship on China can to a great extent be explained by a general fascination with psychology that permeated both academic and popular culture during that period. In the 1950s and 1960s, academics in fields from literature to anthropology, and from across the political spectrum, sought to apply the insights of psychology to the study of human society.

To Ssu-yu Teng and John Fairbank, Freudian analysis was an antidote to “the pre-Freudian, rationalistic economics and sociology of Marx and Lenin” (Teng and Fairbank, p. 275). In the Postface to China’s Response to the West, they advocate a “psycho-ideological approach” as one of the two “lines which seem likely to penetrate most deeply and broadly the terra incognita” of a largely unexplored field (p. 274). But the use of a psychoanalytical approach in the China field cannot be said to have followed from Fairbank’s advocacy. Levenson’s book, for instance, was published the year before Teng and Fairbanks’. The various scholars taking this approach were in all likelihood responding independently, and perhaps not always consciously, to the general intellectual atmosphere of the time.

There would, of course, also be a certain personal element to the choice of approach. Joseph Levenson’s treatment of Liang Qichao, for instance, leads one to suspect that Levenson himself was preoccupied with the role of the intellectual in society, and possibly himself tormented by some form of the conflict between “history” and “value” (allegiance to and membership in the culture of one’s birth vs. intellectual commitment to a position) which he imputes to Liang.

The other major factor contributing to this type of approach was the nature of the sources then available. Limited to published materials, historians found it easiest to concentrate on intellectual history through the analysis of the bodies of work produced by key individuals. But the sources only limited the approaches that were possible; they could not in themselves impel their users towards psychoanalysis.

The use of a psychological approach to history in the China field persisted at least from Levenson’s 1953 book to Leo Lee’s, published 1973. Over the course of this period, however, there was a shift from Joseph Levenson and Mary Wright’s early conviction of a sharp break between traditional and modern China, an end followed by a new beginning, to an idea that the old and new China were in fact joined by a period of transition, through which some continuity was maintained. This change of outlook may indicate an adjustment to the reality of Communist rule. In the years just after 1949 scholars were suffering from shock and surprise, and were inclined to explain this sudden transformation by supposing the old order to have collapsed altogether and been replaced by something entirely new. When they had had time to reflect further, as well as generate a new body of research stimulated by the need to explain the Communist rise to power, they began to see how that rise followed from social developments of the preceding period.

In her introduction to China in Revolution Mary Wright moves, with her discussion of “‘great leap’ psychology,” from one stream of the China field’s preoccupation with mind and consciousness to the other. Wright speaks of “a conviction that by superhuman effort of an indoctrinated elite, China could bypass the usual stages and achieve its own kind of good society though sheer application of human energy and willpower” (p. 62). She is drawing upon a collection of papers that while it, for the most part, still focuses largely on elites, presents findings reached by the methods of political and social history rather than the psychological, intellectual biography approach. But these papers (particularly, one suspects, Mary Rankin’s on revolutionaries in Zhejiang and P’eng-yuan Chang and John Finchers’ papers on the politics of the provincial assemblies) suggest, although perhaps more strongly to the suggestible mind, a prominent role for mind, will, and consciousness in the history of early twentieth-century China.

Wright’s use of the word “psychology” flags the possibility of confusion arising from an assumption of a unity between American academics’ and Chinese leaders’ conceptions of the mind and its relationship to social change. It seems possible that at least some scholars have lost track of this distinction and identified the Chinese phenomenon of a stress on the role of will and consciousness with the Durkheimian notions of a collective psyche that were in vogue during the middle part of the century.

There seems little doubt that the phenomenon of Chinese voluntarism, with an emphasis on the role of thought, which has drawn the attention of psychologically-minded historians and social scientists does exist in some form. The scholars discussed above were drawn to it, and others of different methodological orientations found it significant as well.

To William Hinton, the admiring foreign observer of land reform, a thorough transformation of consciousness is what ensures that the reforms carried out during his months in Shanxi will endure. Hinton is a materialist. His primary focus is on practical politics and the tangible markers of social change: the movement of a storage jar from one household to another, the fate of a padded jacket. Repeatedly, however, in the course of his observations, the importance of thought and the mind to the success of the land reform process impresses itself upon him.

Ezra Vogel, a man of a different political stripe, working on a different part of China, and reporting from newspapers and interviews rather than firsthand experience, records a very similar “effort to reform the most basic patterns of thought” (p. 83), which he facilely traces to a Confucian concern with moral rectitude.

Knowing that an emphasis on thought and the mind does exist in the twentieth-century Chinese intellectual tradition, what do historians between 1953 and 1974 do with that knowledge? They do not seem to examine the phenomenon carefully on its own terms. Do they absorb it into preexisting ideas of the psychological nature of humans and society? I cannot now answer the question definitively, but I can voice a suspicion.

In his introduction to Chairman Mao Talks to the People, Stuart Schram introduces the theme of release of individual energy to maximize social progress.

[L]ike those late nineteenth-century Chinese thinkers who first taught [Mao Zedong] how Western liberalism could be made to serve China’s resurgence, he is persuaded that the energy of the people as a whole can be maximized only by releasing the initiative of every individual (pp. 17-18).

This passage, although unfootnoted, clearly draws upon Benjamin Schwartz, identifying Mao as the mind of the social organism. What is Schram’s purpose in drawing such a parallel? A straightforward interpretation would be that he is merely pointing out that Mao’s thought is not formed in isolation, but, in Levensonian terms, seeks to answer the same general questions that hold the attention of other members of society.

It may not be as simple as that. In bringing Schwartz to bear on Mao, Schram calls up a host of associations. In making such a glancing reference, Schram sets no limits to the interpretive schemes in which he is inviting the reader to place Mao and his thought. Would Schram be comfortable with the idea of Mao as the mind of China, and with the analysis of Mao’s thought as the psychoanalysis of the country? Perhaps. If so, it would be an evil consequence of the confusion between the psychoanalytic approach to the study of society and a practically oriented, mass-mobilization approach to social change. If not, the field could at least have benefited from some clarification of principles.


Hinton, William. Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Levenson, Joseph R. Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Schram, Stuart, ed. Chairman Mao Talks to the People: Talks and Letters: 1956-1971. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974.

Schwartz, Benjamin. In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Teng, Ssu-yu and John K. Fairbank. China’s Response to the West: A Documentary Survey 1839-1923. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Vogel, Ezra F. Canton under Communism: Programs and Politics in a Provincial Capital, 1949-1968. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Wright, Mary Clabaugh. The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-Chih Restoration, 1862-1874. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Wright, Mary Clabaugh, ed. China in Revolution: The First Phase 1900-1913. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

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