Xin and the Art of Chinese Care: The 'Heart' of Distress in China's Psychoboom

Key information

3:15 pm to 5:00 pm
Main Building, Russell Square

About this event

Part of the Anthropology Departmental Seminar Series 2022


Professor of Anthropology, Simon Fraser University  


In this talk, I analyze the therapeutics of the xin “heart”  and an aesthetic model of care based on xin in China’s psychoboom. Drawing on Chinese classics of philosophy (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism), medicine (Huangdi Neijing), and Sunzi's Art of War, I discuss different analogies or conceptual metaphors of xin, including xin as the ruler/monarch of the body, as the master of “spiritual light” (Confucianism and Huangdi Neijing), as a mirror or water (Daoism), or as the universe or the Principle (Neo-Confucianism). I contextualize the study of xin in Chinese holism based on relational ethics and the “aesthetic order” associated with Confucianism (Hall and Ames 1987), and then link this analysis to the debate of the ontological turn in anthropology (Heywood 2017) and Indigenous Psychology (Sundararajan 2016). I illustrate that in some trends of psychotherapy/self-help of China’s psychoboom, xin is treated as  more than a keyword (Williams 1985) or culture rich point (Agar 1994), but as a sensible, orienting force that helps individuals navigate their moral, social and political surrounding through cosmological attunement. Xin is seen as both the origin of illness and distress and as the ultimate resource for healing. I argue that the xin-based model of care is less rational or logical but more aesthetic and affective. The emphasis on the therapeutics of xin crystallizes the recent turn to Chinese cultural tradition for solutions to social and mental distress by the government, moral psychologists, and mental health professionals, also part of China’s encompassing and lived “philosophical counseling” (Lahav 1996; Liu 2018).