Healing the Nation through Self-Discovery: The Chinese New Age Milieu and the Politics of Emotion

Healing the Nation through Self-Discovery: The Chinese New Age Milieu and the Politics of Emotion
Anna Iskra


The last three decades in Mainland China, with their accelerating speed of economic, social, and cultural reforms, have created an atmosphere of moral uncertainty that has encouraged many people to search for happiness by turning inwards. Forming part of a larger Psycho-Boom, the Body-Heart-Soul, or shen xin ling (身心灵), refers to the growing interest among Chinese urbanites in various workshops and seminars that creatively transform the guiding principles of the Euro-American New Age movement, incorporating China in the transnational networks for the circulation of alternative spiritualities.
This anthropological investigation into the Mainland Chinese New Age / shen xin ling milieu locates its genealogy in the progression of several post-Maoist self-cultivation fevers. These fevers emerged because of the opening of new spaces for self-exploration by the Communist Party’s policies, becoming platforms for people’s problematization of personal issues, based on language borrowed from official state discourses. Drawing from the current academic discussions on the self-formation processes in the People’s Republic, I focus on Chinese New Agers’ practices of emotional release that consist in collective expressions of anger, sadness and anxiety that are tied to significant life problems such as professional advancement, marital conflicts, child-rearing, and/or health. As they later label and scrutinize their emotional releases, these self-cultivators are being told that “they are the only source of their problems” and they can only “fix” their lives by working on emotional management and self-regulation.
I argue that since it does not encourage any deeper reflection on the structural issues that may be at the root of people’s daily trails and tribulation, the dissemination of New Age teachings in China contributes to the widespread processes of the privatization of social suffering across the nation. I imagine the shen xin ling milieu as a network of spaces where “negative” emotions that could result in resentment towards the state agents are released, dispersed and transformed into “positive energy,” while the idiom of emotion becomes a carrier for a variety of state-endorsed discourses on topics such as money and entrepreneurialism, gender, or China’s soft power and global leadership role. This process is characterized by tensions as “shen xin ling-ers” find themselves positioned at the intersections of their expanding personal desires and aspirations and the state’s political dogma, all the while they experience anxieties over multi-level marketing schemes and “evil cult” accusations.


Anna Iskra

Defended in


PhD defended at

The University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Social Sciences, Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences


Social Sciences


East Asia


National politics
Health and Medicine
Gender and Identity