Psychiatric Subjectivity and Cultural Resistance: Experience and Explanations of Schizophrenia in Contemporary China

Zhiying Ma, University of Chicago

Although Western-style psychiatry was founded in China in the late-19th century, and has been growing rapidly since the 1980’s, it has failed to completely replace other illness explanations. It is reported that many patients with mental disorders and their family members prefer to explain their illnesses in non-biomedical terms and seek help from Chinese medical doctors or folk healers rather than psychiatric professionals. Why do patients and their family members resist psychiatry? How do they resist? Underlying the struggle between different illness narratives and practices is the clash between different culturally shaped subjectivities, which the study of schizophrenia can help illuminate. My study thus aims to address the questions above by looking at daily life and illness narratives in and beyond the schizophrenia wards of a psychiatric hospital in Southern China.

The results of my preliminary research on patients at both male and female wards and their lives beyond the institution show that with the assumptions of mind-body dualism and biological reductionism, biomedical psychiatry simultaneously exerted power effects of individual-making and institutional, pharmaceutical control. Some patients and families used Chinese Medicine or folk religion to recuperate the social person and to reconstruct a socio-moral-cosmic world where they granted their lives meaning, reconceived normality, reclaimed agency, and negotiated change. For example, while biomedicine saw schizophrenia as the ultimate breakdown of the normal self that could only be restored by the pharmaceuticals, patients and families tried to weave a continuum between the normal and the pathological with the functional and holistic language of Chinese Medicine, to cultivate a subjectivity that flows through and beyond the individual body, and to assert the power of moral thoughts-emotions in transforming the utmost precariousness. While the pharmaceuticals created side effects, entailed high expenses and limited personal agency, patients and families resorted to Chinese Medicine for an inexpensive resolution that allowed them to regain some control, and that went beyond treating local symptoms to strengthening the constitution, pacifying the heart-mind and harmonizing social as well as cosmic relationships. Overall, my study shows that by resisting biomedical individualization with culturally inscribed forms of sociality, Chinese traditions rather than modern individualism became the basis of agency for some psychiatric patients and their families.