Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Freud’s Surging Popularity in China

China’s economy is set to become as big as that of the United States, by some estimates as early as 2027. Too often though, commentators speak about Chinese consumers like they’re some kind of monolith, somehow different from other customers. Yes, they represent truly enormous collective purchasing power, both now and increasingly in the future. But evidence is building that individual Chinese consumers are ultimately looking for high-quality products they can have an emotional connection to.

This point was driven home in a recent article from China Daily, “Screens and dreams fuel Freud fever,” about the explosive popularity there of Sigmund Freud. Libraries have loaned out every copy of The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1899. Bookstores are sold out. Tens of thousands of Chinese students have sought training to become psychoanalysts. And the blockbuster-in-the-U.S. Inception, set in a stunning dream world and owing much to Freud’s theories – and predicted to bomb in China – was a smash.

The New Yorker also reported on the trend, with an article “Meet Dr. Freud” commenting on the Chinese hunger to explore psychiatry. Where China had around 60 psychiatrists for a population of 500 million in 1949 – reflecting the status of mental health as a social taboo – a surging interest is now fuelling initiatives like web-based psychotherapy courses and analysis between American therapists and Chinese patients over Skype.

Driving this phenomenon is the simple human desire to understand the mysteries of our interior lives. As one man interviewed by the China Daily, Zhong Juntao, says, referring to Inception, “I might not be able to have multi-layered dreams like they do in the movie, but I want to know more about my subconscious.” Zhong keeps The Interpretation of Dreams, along with Liao Yuepeng’s Everyday Magic Hypnotism, within reach at his Beijing apartment.

While Freud and his works were introduced to China in 1920, they became unpopular during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. As China opened its economy and society beginning in the 1980s, the world-changing father of psychoanalysis began to stage a comeback. Now he’s a superstar. What drives the recent explosion of interest? The China Daily article quotes Harvard anthropologist Huang Hsuan-ying, who says, “[Freud’s] psychoanalysis deals with ordinary things, such as quarrels, pride and pressure. These things echo with the current state of mind of many Chinese."

That state of mind is worth remembering as we contemplate the opportunities to be found in the ever expanding Chinese market for consumer goods.