Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 371–400 | Cite as

Untamed Jianghu or Emerging Profession: Diagnosing the Psycho-Boom amid China’s Mental Health Legislation

  • Hsuan-Ying HuangEmail author
Original Paper


This article focuses on the psychotherapy debate in China that was triggered by the country’s mental health legislation. Seeing the release of the draft Mental Health Law in 2011 as a “diagnostic event” (Moore in Am Ethnol 14(4):727–736, 1987), I examine the debate in order to unravel the underlying logic and ongoing dynamics of the psycho-boom that has become a conspicuous trend in urban China since the early 2000s. Drawing on my fieldwork in Beijing and Shanghai, I use the two keywords of the debate—“jianghu” (literally “rivers and lakes”), an indigenous term that evokes an untamed realm, and “profession,” a foreign concept whose translation requires re-translation—to organize my delineation of its contours. I describe how anticipation of state regulation prompted fears and discontents as well as critical reflections and actions that aimed to transform the field into a profession. The efforts to mark out a professional core against the backdrop of unruly jianghu further faced the challenge of an alternative vision that saw popularization as an equally noble cause. The Mental Health Law came into effect in 2013; ultimately, however, it did not introduce substantive regulation. Finally, I discuss the implications of this debate and the prospects of the psycho-boom.


Jianghu (rivers and lakes) Profession Mental Health Law Psychotherapy Psycho-boom China 



This study was supported by Desmond and Whitney Shum Fellowship, Harvard-Yenching Doctoral Fellowship, and Australian Centre on China in the World. I’m grateful to Arthur Kleinman, Zhang Jinghong, and Gong Yidong who read the draft and gave me helpful comments. The two anonymous reviewers provided criticisms and suggestions that were detailed and insightful. I have incorporated most of them into the final version. I must also thank Marie-Louise Karttunen for her masterful copyediting. My deepest gratitude goes to the therapists who share their life stories and experiences with me during this long research journey.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyChinese University of Hong KongSha TinHong Kong SAR

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