From Ah Q to Lei Feng:
Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China

By Wendy Larson

Reviewed by Ban Wang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2015)

Wendy Larson, From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. xii, 322 pp. ISBN-10: 0-8047-0075-3 (Hardback: $57.50)

Wendy Larson, From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. xii, 322 pp. ISBN-10: 0-8047-0075-3 (Hardback: $57.50)

Although scholars in Chinese studies have deployed psychoanalysis in their research, Wendy Larson critiques the relevance of this Western critical discourse to the Chinese context. Delving into the psychic and emotional roots of political culture in modern China, Larson’s book offers many insights into the pitfalls of applying Freudian notions to literary and film studies. The Freudian approach sees aesthetic works as expressions of the deep-seated sexualized unconscious and valorizes sex as a crucial element in literary analysis. Larson’s critique of this method, ironically, stemmed from her own initial fascination with a number of 1990s films and literary works that looked sexually promiscuous. Intrigued by Jiang Wen’s 1995 film In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子) and works by novelist Wang Xiaobo 王小波, she started to enquire into how the Freudian notion of the sexed unconscious could serve as an interpretive tool to throw light on these sexually provocative works. Before long she realized that the Euro-American discourse of psychoanalysis, by reading too much sex into Chinese works, have missed much of what shapes the mind and heart of the individual as he or she is experiencing revolution. This discontent compelled her to look for a different notion of the mind in revolutionary China.

In the opening chapters, Larson critically traces Freudianism’s degeneration by giving a very detailed and well-documented account of the fate of psychoanalysis in the West during the world wars and the Cold War era. From a rich discourse with social, political, and religious implications, Freud’s theory degenerated into a gentrified, bourgeois establishment. This version of Freudianism disengages from activist politics, privileges adjustment and therapy over social engagement, and psychologizes away social conflict, thereby colluding with the status quo by putting back on track maladjusted individuals. The feminist and “left” critiques of Freudianism are not spared Larson’s ire. These uses of Freud reveal a misguided notion of sex as pivotal to the modern subject. Deploring the illusion that sexual revolt à la Woodstock will translate into political revolution and cultural change, Larson argues that the much touted slogan “The personal is political” actually depoliticizes and trivializes. Against the conservative, gentrified version of Freudianism and its related cultural analysis, Larson goes on to make a case for a revolutionary theory of the mind.

Rather than an inner process drenched in sexual desire, Larson offers us an image of the revolutionary subject as “socially developed and yet also informed by a passionate wellspring of emotion and intellect” (4). Against the sex-centered approach to Chinese culture in terms of sexuality, repression, and sublimation, Larson disputes the view that mental life in revolutionary China is driven by sublimation, a process of channeling libidinal drives into higher, nobler goals of cultural activity and social movements. Rather, the forging of the revolutionary mind presents a pedagogical program based on the Leninist principle of reflection and consciousness modeling. Individuals are grist for an ideological mill of inspiration or control; they are educated and hailed into an ethical position of spirit combined with drives and will. An inspirational and spiritual program builds individuals into a character suited to the revolutionary cause—a character that dovetails with Party imperatives, aligns with collective agendas, and assumes the right political attitude. But instead of inward spiritualization, the revolutionary subject grows by undergoing an unending process of orientation and reorientation in tune with the powers that be. The political culture envisages a mind-shaping machine that nurtures and manufactures subjects. The forging of the mind may be spiritually inspired and inspiring, and is often emotionally vibrant and deeply felt. But this mental life is bereft of reference to sexual and libidinal undercurrents and removed from inwardness and unconscious elements. To such a high-minded formation and its external manifestations, the Freudian concept of sex is wrongly applied.

Larson distances the revolutionary mind from sexualized interiority and moves toward an image of the mind as a social and ideological matrix. Revolutionary subjectivity is defined as revolving around social relations. This image differs radically from the image of the Freudian subject “as deeply sexualized unconscious” (79) and trapped in repression. Revolutionary consciousness positions itself in regard to existing power and authorities. Larson writes,

The revolutionary emphasis on spirit is certainly a theory of sociality concerned with relationships and their necessary outward expression. Yet by envisaging the negotiations as a quality that can inspire the most fiery, explosive emotions as well as the most pedestrian, drudge-like loyalty, this emphasis also theorizes an abstract essence that extends from the core to the exterior, is intellectual as well as emotional, is both deeply felt and sincerely expressed. Revolutionary spirit could be a tremendous source of inspiration, a tool of self-knowledge, and a guide on how to live one’s daily life. It also could be a rationale for violence, a stick to hold someone’s head, or a reason to despair of one’s life and opt for suicide. (79)

The critique of Freudianism becomes historicized in a critical account, in chapter 2, of Freud’s reception in Soviet Russia and China: Larson tells us how the sex-centered theory was studied, critiqued, and resisted, and thus failed to take hold. The materialist considerations of the mind came to prevail over the liberal, subjectivist readings. The move from Freud to Marx in Soviet Russia predated similar gestures by Chinese scholars and writers and offered a corrective to the merely “subjectivist” and sexed images of the mind. By making a foray into the classical Confucian tradition of the mind, Larson provides another background for the critique. The traditional theories of the mind, along with historical materialism, give us a broader sense of how Chinese intellectuals grappled critically with the influx of foreign ideas in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The materialist critique of Freudianism joins the traditional insistence on spirit as crucial to social and cultural life. This foray into the classical, late Qing, and early Republican ideas reveals a lively field of competing discourses of the mind, matter, and spirit. What remains constant is “the political and cultural discourse of the spirit” (89). This view sees the spirit as a collective expression of national, ethnic, and cultural weakness. The frustration with the spiritual deficit of the Chinese indicates how important national spirit became in revolutionary modernity. Larson’s study of the critical reception of Freud in Russia and China in modern transition offers a welcome antidote to the embrace of Freud in much of Chinese studies.

The materialist critique of Freud and the traditional emphasis on spirit lead to an analysis of the revolutionary image of the mind in Chapter 3, “Revolutionary Discourse and the Spirit: From Ah Q to Lei Feng.” This key chapter highlights the importance of spirit in revolutionary modernity. The polar opposite of Lei Feng 雷锋, Ah Q is a poster child of spiritual deficit, and his infamous claims of “spiritual victories” only underscore the fact that the spiritual source has dried up in China’s cultural wasteland. Those claims allow Ah Q or spiritually-depleted Chinese to languish in the swamp of complacent stagnation and survival. By contrast, modern revolutionary culture fosters the shining symbol of Lei Feng, the spirit that does not withdraw into interiority but urges the individual to devote him or herself to serving the people. In Larson’s words, Lei Feng emerges as “a historical figure known through his diary: Lei Feng embodies a world in which subjectivity does not conflict with material and social reality” (111). Lei Feng is an exemplary model to enjoin everybody to internalize the revolutionary spirit.

In general, Larson distinguishes two interwoven strands in the modern concept of the mind. One is a “radical embodiment of oneself in relation to power” (6) and the other evinces an intense emotional and intellectual focus of identification. In Chapters 4, 5, and 6, she reads the works of three novelists, Mang Ke 芒克, Wang Xiaobo, and Anchee Min, and analyzes films by Jiang Wen 姜文 and He Jianjun 何建. Set against the background of the Cultural Revolution, these works seem steeped in sexual desire but are able to “soar free” from the status quo and libidinal closet. In The Golden Years 黄金代 by Wang Xiaobo, for instance, the protagonist, though sexually indulgent, is able to step back from his passion to offer a long view of revolutionary history. In the Heat of the Sun, directed by Jiang Wen, ventures into sex and discredits state socialism, but “it contains a kernel of forward-directed movement” (9) of transcendence. Driven by the dynamic spirit of revolutionary change, these works simultaneously identify with and deconstruct the revolutionary legacy. In the ruin of revolution, these writers blend sexual desire with restless energy, as if carrying on a continuous revolution. Their apparent theme of liberating sexuality does not indicate the “abandonment of the revolutionary past” or that sexual desire can “indicate the future” (155); these works “connect sexual desire with the spirit of the revolution,” retrieving a core of spirit and exposing the ills of the status quo. Larson’s close readings enrich our understating and appreciation of these understudied authors and directors.

In spite of her initial attempt to decouple Freud from revolution, however, Larson’s readings seem to bring sex back into the revolutionary spirit. Freud can, after all, be linked to revolution? A radical image of Freud may help link psychoanalysis to revolution; psychoanalysis may help us understand the ways an educational process mobilizes libidinal energy for revolutionary, emancipatory purposes. To deal with this connection, Larson’s book may well be placed in a scholarly context that links psychology with politics.

Larson’s book comes as a rebuttal to Lucian Pye’s influential The Spirit of Chinese Politics, which denies any spirit in Chinese politics. Pye traces this absence of spirit to the Confucian tradition. To Pye, the interplay between inner and outer and that among the individual, society, and the state is to be read as always antagonistic. He sees political dynamism between the psyche and culture as occurring in “the elbow room between the realms of conformity at the top and of spontaneity beneath the surface.” “Conformity and rebellion have indeed been the lifeblood of modern Chinese politics,” Pye states categorically.[1] The relationship between the individual and socio-political norms is portrayed as a perpetual, clandestine cat-and-mouse struggle between the state, on the one hand, and dissenting writers, on the other. Expressions of the mind must be about pain, repression, and suffering. In this picture, writing literature is either a gesture of resistance or a descent into despair. The total control of the mind entails an image of the psyche as a mere social robot, hollowed out by external norms. In contrast, Larson’s image of the revolutionary mind attends to the dynamic interaction between the individual’s emotional and spiritual force in relation to revolutionary ideology and practice.

Larson’s work also resonates with the image of the revolutionary subject delineated by David Apter and Tony Saich. In their book Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic, Apter and Saich analyze how politics intertwines with the ritual of fostering emotion and passion in Yan’an. Taking issue with the analysis of Chinese politics based on the economic, rational model, they enquire into how the quasi-religious discourse generates passion, purpose, and meaning. By investigating ideological campaigns, thought transformation, and mass mobilization, they give a sociological account of how “the discourse community was reformed and generated sufficient power to change the course of Chinese history.”[2] Rather than the self-interested subject, this discourse-power works like a narrative: it mobilizes the revolutionary masses by appealing to their bodily and sensory-affective responses. The aroused passion and energy are pivotal to what they call “inversionary” politics in emancipatory movements.

Although they touch on emotion and quasi-religious ethos, Apter and Saich pay more attention to logic and discursive features in their emphasis on cognition and interpretation, which recalls Larson’s spiritualization based on the Leninist principles of reflectivity. While they recognize emotional dimensions in rituals and inspirational programs, they do not go on to plumb the psychic, libidinal undercurrents. They do speak, however, of “the body as a point of visceral departure for a larger and more theatrical frame,” of ideological processes that are “symbolically dense and loaded with interior meanings,” and of the retrieval of the past in projection of a future both mythical and logical” (5). The emotional appeal also derived from the charismatic figure of Mao and the storytelling rituals in revolutionary discourse (4).

Apter and Saich’s language of the psyche points toward a closer tie between psychoanalysis and revolutionary modernity. For all her decoupling of psychoanalysis from revolution and her critique of Freud, Larson’s readings in fact reveal a closer link between sexuality and revolution. Her critique is directed at the mid-twentieth century valorization of Freud as the godfather of the sexual unconscious. But we know that sex is not the whole story of Freud, and sex is not sexuality. Sex centered psychoanalysis is a corrupt, truncated discourse from a Freudian philosophical vision that sees libidinal energy and its imaginary fantasies as vibrant signs of living humans. If we recall the broad notion of sexuality as Eros, “sexuality” should encompass those primary undercurrents not fully contained by cultural and moral constraints. Against the rational, normalized ego, these primary strata are embedded in and derived from childhood memory, past injuries, traumas, attachments, kin relations, and ancient history.

A left-leaning current of psychoanalysis may help reconnect Freud with revolutionary spirit. This current has been a source of hope through its articulation of the libidinal, subjective potentials for cultural revival and social change. In Freud’s time, the psychoanalysis establishment splintered into left-leaning groups that sought to deploy the new knowledge for social welfare and offered mental counseling for the poor and underprivileged. In her book Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938, Elizabeth Ann Danto depicts several groups of psychoanalysts who sought to render new concepts of the human mind into the service of social as well as psychic change. These psychoanalysts, in the spirit of Vienna’s social democracy, provided free council and treatment for the disadvantaged and the urban working class.[3] The most significant event in this overlooked history of radical psychoanalysis in the Chinese reception of Freud is the Frankfurt School’s program to align psychoanalysis with Marxist historical materialism. Such “Freudian revisionists” as Herbert Marcuse, Norman Brown, and Erich Fromm burst on the scene in the eras marked by the orthodox psychoanalytical establishment.[4] Larson mentions these writers but associates them too hastily with the erotics-as-liberation of the 1960s. In recent decades, Fredric Jameson and Cornelius Castoriadis tap into psychic depths and libidinal drives to critique capitalist alienation and to articulate utopian hopes for socio-political change. In the politically vibrant 1960s, works by Marcuse, Brown, and Fromm inspired social activism, raised consciousness, and fueled critiques of the human condition under capitalism. The marriage of Marx and Freud staged a compelling critique against the culture industry and the military industrial complex and offered a source of hope for the disadvantaged, the repressed, and the disenfranchised.

Marcuse and Castoriadis champion sexually or libidinally driven social revolution. Marcuse articulates an expanded notion of sexuality and projects a non-repressive order by means of artistic utopianism and collective solidarity. This may take place “if the sex instincts can, by virtue of their own dynamic and under changed existential and social conditions, generate lasting erotic relations among mature individuals.[5] Norman Brown goes beyond “sex” to the sexualization of the world, which constitutes the unity of the individual with the social and cultural environment, of the ancient dreams and their objective correlatives. The aim of sexuality or libidinal drive is always outward: it is to become one with the world, re-sexualize the desexualized (read: alienated) body, and infuse the arid world with erotic hues and auras. Implicit in Freud’s remarks on the sex instinct, wrote Brown, is the suggestion that “there is only one loving relationship to objects in the world, a relation of being-one-with-the-world which, though closer to Freud’s narcissistic relation (identification), is also at the root of his other category of possessive love (object-choice).”[6] Speaking of this expanded self-love as a love of objects, Marcuse notes that the rational ego is “shaken and replaced by the notion of an undifferentiated, unified libido prior to the division into ego and external objects.”[7] This challenges the Freudian orthodoxy that the ego dominates the id: the rational subject dominates the libidinous undercurrents. Larson defines the Lei Feng spirit as producing a “seamless connection between the subjective and the material,” exemplifying “a true taking on or internalizing of the theory of permanent revolution in every aspect” (111). This revolutionary spirit comes very close to the utopian vision in Brown and Marcuse.

Marxist critic Cornelius Castoriadis challenges the conservative image of Freud by linking psychoanalysis with collective politics. He asks, “Has psychoanalysis nothing to do with the Western emancipatory movement?”[8] As if echoing Larson’s concern about the individual in relation to collective politics, Castorialdis protests, “Why should the practical perspective adopted by psychoanalysis in the sphere of the individual automatically become void when passing over into the collective sphere?”[9] His answer is that psychoanalysis has much to say to revolution and to the individual’s relation to the collective. The emancipatory hope rests on an unconscious reservoir of energy and primary strata—a life force, not sex. According to Castoriadis, if psychoanalysis were about the conquest of the ego where the id (read: the ceaseless and restless unconscious other) used to be, if it only studied a process of the self rising up from the ruins of the id, it would be an impossible and monstrous project. It would be impossible and monstrous because “there can be no human being whose Unconscious is conquered by the Conscious, whose drives are fully permeated and controlled by rational considerations, who has stopped fantasizing and dreaming.” The unconscious remains the strongest impetus in making us human. What prevents men and women from becoming social robots—the completely rationalized egos or ideological subjects, is that “uncontrolled and uncontrollable continuous surge of creative radical imagination in and through the flux of representations, affects, and desires.”[10]

I applaud Larson’s effort to decouple the conservative version of Freud from the account of the revolutionary mind. But an emancipatory image of Freud could link psychoanalysis more closely with revolutionary modernity and emancipatory impulses. It would put the utopian, dynamic elements of the libidinal unconscious back into the revolutionary imagination and practice.

Ban Wang
Stanford University


[1] Lucian W. Pye, The Spirit of Chinese Politics, New Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), “Preface” and ix-x.

[2] David Apter and Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 2. Further references to this book will be in parentheses in the text.

[3] Elizabeth Ann Danto, Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice: 1918-1938 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[4] Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), 86-112.

[5] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), 182. Further references will be will be provided in parentheses in the text.

[6] Norman Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Second Edition with an Introduction by Christopher Lasch (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), 42.

[7] Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 152.

[8] Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, and Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1997), 125, 127.

[9] Castoriadis, 125-126.

[10] Castoriadis, 127-128.