Hypnotism & “Pseudoscience” in China

Studying the “Pseudo” Seriously: Hypnotism in Early Twentieth-Century China

My interest in hypnotism stems from my study of another “dubious” discipline, crowd psychology. Part of a book manuscript I am working on explores the invention of qunzhong (crowd) as a psychological entity in modern China. Central to this psychological, and, more often than not, psychopathological, figure of the crowd were such notions as anshi (suggestion), gexing xiaoshi (disappearance of individuality), and huanjue (delusion), etc., notions that not only belonged to the stock assumptions of a psychopathological language of depicting the crowd that circulated globally around the turn of the twentieth century, but also bespoke the fascination with the primacy of the irrational in the redefinition of the self that first emerged in Europe at the time. In the theories of crowd mentality and behavior around the turn of the twentieth century, hypnotism held an important if unexamined explanatory place. For a wide range of crowd psychologists across the globe, hypnosis was regarded as a main model of social interaction and control. It is not surprising, then, to find that such notions as anshi, gexing xiaoshi, and huanjue, which characterized this “psychological crowd,” were also central to the discussions of hypnotism that began to emerge in China in the 1900s. However, the widespread engagement with hypnotism in early twentieth-century China reveals interests that went much beyond the narrow concern with crowd manipulation.

Indeed, it must have meant more than that. Otherwise, how can we explain why an anti-Machu revolutionary went to Japan to study hypnotism in 1904 and came back to Shanghai where he made a living by teaching hypnotism at the Educational Society of China (Zhongguo jiaoyu hui)? Why did a young adventurous student of his, after trips to both the center of the earth and the outer space, disseminate the secret of animal magnetism as a source of empowerment of the masses, a practice so subversive that it had to be suppressed by interested parties? Why, around the same time, did the news that the Governor-General of Zhili, Yuan Shikai, had “examined” the display of stage hypnotism by two French showmen become an illustrated item for the emerging print sensationalism? A biographical anecdote leads to a science fantasy; a news illustration unfolds a world of itinerant performers of wonder shows travelling across all kind of boundaries. I find myself wandering, unexpectedly, into a labyrinth of dispersion, a profusion of connections: a mail-order textbook leads to a variety of manuals for hypnotism; a piece of advertisement in a popular magazine leads to a whole group of hypnotists who founded their own research society; while theories of hypnosis were introduced in elite educational journals, a Shanghai-based troupe of magicians boasted about having the “hypnotized-beauty-flying-in-the-air” as one of their main tricks, etc. Did I mention all the weird, “scientific”-looking diagrams and illustrations that populate the do-it-yourself hypnotism handbooks, the detailed stage instructions and vivid descriptions of various apparatuses and gestures of hypnosis induction, and the astonishing, or should I say spectacular, photos that Chinese theoreticians and practitioners relied on to authenticate their psychological wonders?

Now a few words about the history of hypnotism, particularly its history in early twentieth-century China, are in order. Hypnosis is an artificially aroused state of enforced suggestibility. At the heart of this definition is the notion of “suggestion,” which refers to the psychical process of induction. Through this process, an idea aroused in another person’s brain, to borrow Freud’s words, “is not examined in regard to its origin but is accepted just as though it had arisen spontaneously in that brain.” Induced somnambulism was given the name of hypnotism by James Braid in 1843, but its history goes back to Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician who was one of the first person to investigate magnetic sleep as a healing method in the eighteenth century. The enormous interest in mesmerism mounted steadily from the 1770s to the early 1780s and declined after 1785. In the early nineteenth century official European medicine denounced Mesmer’s animal magnetism as charlatanism, but the last two decades of the century saw a revival of interest in hypnotism led by distinguished European neurologists. Around the turn of the twentieth century hypnotherapeutics became recognized as a respectable branch of medicine, and a hypnotic movement quickly spread across Europe and America. The International Congress of Hypnotism in Paris in 1900 drew philosophers, neurologists, psychiatrists, and other participants from as far afield as Iceland, Persia, Rumania, and Venezuela.

The Chinese term for hypnotism is cuimian. Most Chinese advocates of hypnotism complained about it, because hypnotism is really not about making people sleepy as the literal meaning of the Chinese term indicates. Closely associated with cuimian, as I find out, is a cluster of ideas about communication, or more precisely the direct influence of mind upon mind, that transcends the recognized channels of senses—ideas such as xinxing xiangtong or sixiang zhuanyi (thought transference), gantong or tonggan (telepathy), and tianyantong (clairvoyance). In the 1900s and 1910s, scattered reports of foreign itinerant performers of stage hypnotism entertaining Chinese audience appeared in the popular illustrated press. The systematic introduction of animal magnetism and hypnotism in China cannot be separated from Japanese Spiritualism in the late Meiji and Taisho periods. A new vocabulary for discussing the mental life emerged in turn-of-the-century Japan. A great number of societies for psychical research and therapeutic/educational institutions were founded across the nation. Hypnotism permeated the popular consciousness through entertainment shows and literature. Chinese students in Japan were attracted to the books about mesmerism, hypnotism, clairvoyance, and telekinesis that flooded the market and to wonder shows of hypnotherapy at public pleasure halls. Many of them attended hypnosis schools in Japan and joined Japanese associations of psychical research.

In the next two decades, works of Japanese hypnotists were translated for the Chinese reading public. The Chinese Institute of Mentalism (Zhongguo xinling yanjiuhui), the most important society of hypnotism in the Republican era, was established in 1911 in Tokyo and later moved to Shanghai. A great number of self-help books, theoretical monographs, and pamphlets on topics ranging from hypnotherapy to animal hypnosis and telepathy were published by both small presses and large publishers. Journals dedicated to psychical research with particular attention to hypnotism appeared. Theories of hypnotic phenomena, such as suggestion, dual consciousness, and mental disassociation (by Jean-Martin Charcot, Hippolyte Bernheim, Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault, and James Braid, among others) were extensively introduced to the Chinese readers. Clinics, institutes, and societies of hypnotism and psychical research emerged across the country. Performances of hypnotism were staged and commemoratory photo catalogues were printed. A rainbow of techniques of hypnotizing was introduced, the most common of which included the use of monotonous and uniform sensory stimulation such as eye fixation.Correspondence courses were offered and advertised on newspapers. While it is difficult to chart precisely the main twists and turns of its course in early twentieth-century China, the interest in hypnotism mounted steadily from the 1910s to the early 1930s and declined after the late 1930s. The Chinese Institute of Mentalism claims that by 1933 more than sixty thousand students of hypnotism had graduated from the institute alone.

Despite its intriguing presence,however, cuimian in modern China has been largely disregarded and forgotten. Alan Gauld’s otherwise exhaustive 700-page study, A History of Hypnotism, for instance, focuses on Europe and America and claims that there is “little to be said” about “other parts of the world.” When it does get scholars’ attention, for example in a recent study of the history of “pseudoscience” in China, hypnotism is written off as a regressive throwback to shamanistic occultism. Both studies share an anachronistic narrative of exclusion that pre-assigns the “scientific” or “meaningful” centers to an intellectual world where the very boundaries of plausibility and implausibility, proper practice and fringe aberration, center and margin, might not be as clearly demarcated as they would later be claimed to be. Both studies overlook the fact that the heightened enthusiasm for hypnotism in East Asia, particularly in Japan and China, was not only constitutive of a truly transnational movement around the turn of the twentieth century but also, more importantly, brings into relief the varied ramifications of the dissemination, appropriation, and institutionalization of hypnotic thinking in local contexts. In their dismissal, I feel, lies room for a new “serious” study of the “pseudo.” But how?

I found myself eagerly comparing Chinese manuals and “encyclopedias” (quanshu) of cuimian with Western handbooks of hypnotism from the 1900s. I read translations, pamphlets, manuals, and theoretical treatises by Chinese authors to check whether their renditions and introduction of Mesmer’s animal magnetism or Braid’s hypnotism were accurate and faithful to the original. I was spurred on, as I later realized, by a desire to locate the “pseudo” theory of cuimian “above” the threshold of scientificity that was accepted as standard at the time, and I felt relieved to see an obscured Chinese author tending to coherence and demonstrativity when he tried to explain the mental mechanism behind marvelous feats such as thought transference and clairvoyance. I found myself, consciously or not, looking for evidence for the Weberian paradigm of disenchantment: “Here you are, the secularizing logic of intellectual rationalization,” I said to myself when I read a paper written by a Chinese student for an exam for a Japanese society of hypnotism, in which the student used the modern psychological theory of hypnotism as explanatory model to disenchant the mysterious forces such as yuanguang that traditional Chinese occultists used. But I realize that by doing so, that is, by focusing exclusively on the “scientific”-sounding part of the introduction, circulation, and appropriation of cuimian in modern China, I am also engaging with a mode of exclusion and delimitation exterior to the discursive formation that I examine—in fact, not unlike the two aforementioned studies that pre-assign meaningful “centers” and ignorable “margins”— and obscure the very coexistence of dispersed and heterogeneous claims, practices, and stories that attracted me to this topic in the first place.

For example, next to, or at the “margins” of, the theoretical discussions of dual consciousness and disembodied mind that one often finds in cuimian manuals from this period of time, are fanciful and sometime bizarre anecdotes and recollections that I first found entertaining but not more than that. A variety of anecdotes are collected in the appendix of a mail-order textbook from 1915, compiled and printed in Tokyo and sold across major cities along the China coastline and in Southeast Asia. According to one of the anecdotes, at a friendly gathering in a small town in southern China, a student of hypnotism, who had just finished reading an earlier print of the very same textbook, successfully brought his friend into a hypnotic trance, during which his friend, under his suggestions, experienced flying to Paris, fishing, dining, and watching a film there. When awakened, the hypnotized subject felt physically relaxed and spiritually refreshed and thanked the hypnotist for “granting him a free tour of Paris.”

At first, I did not even bother to make a note of the anecdote as I was paying most of my attention to the theories and instructions of hypnotic induction in the textbook. And yet, this little incident, vividly described in the book, kept coming back to my mind, raising questions: Does it merely function to prove the psychic theory behind the phenomenon of “rapport” and heightened suggestibility—that the hypnotist is able to introduce and foster sensuous illusions to the mind of the subject and the hypnotized, to his own astonishment, will experience a hallucinatory rapport with hypnotist’s suggestions? Or does it illustrate the ambivalent politics of the hypnotically generated hallucination as a locus of drift? The notion of induced sleep as an artificially aroused state more awake than the waking one problematizes the boundary between reality and illusion. Hypnotism, as the technique of inducing nomadic visual and auditory hallucinations, is applauded here for offering at least a fantasy of sensorial experience of the modern, a fantasy that resists the stable geopolitical arrangement. If our objective is not to “diagnose” cuimian but rather to understand what was in hypnotism that appealed to so many Chinese commoners and elite intellectuals, and the historical and intellectual conditions for such appeal, isn’t the utopian desire it mobilized as important, if not more so, as the “scientific” or theoretical rationality that it claims to rely on or aims to validate?

To account for the “tangled plurality” of concepts, statements, stories, and images in fiction, philosophical texts, psychological studies, popular manuals and textbooks, newspaper reports and advertisements, and political theories, etc.—that is, to analyze, as Foucault has suggested, “the interplay of their appearances and dispersion”—I believe, is more productive than merely prove or disprove the extent that cuimian complied with the accepted scientific norms of the time. To go beyond the anachronistic characterization one often finds in the study of the “pseudo” and map this system of dispersion that characterizes the widespread engagement with hypnotism in early twentieth-century China, I find the notion of “vernacularization,” which Professor Andrew Jones has admirably elaborated in his recent study (Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture), very helpful. Instead of single-mindedly attempting to separate fiction from truth in the claims and practice of the “pseudo,” it might be more productive to examine the layered process of vernacularization through which the transposed knowledge of the “pseudo” acquired meaning locally: cuimian in modern China, as a vernacular of the “proper” form of “scientific” knowledge from Western metropolises and their academic institutions, was further vernacularized through diverse popular channels including pamphlets, illustrations, journalism, and fictions. Rather than testing the widespread engagement with hypnotism in early twentieth-century China against certain intellectual or institutional limits of “scientificity,” one needs to explore the ways in which scientific pretensions function within that discursive formation as a “field of knowledge” where different subjects take positions. From the self-styled vanguards, dressed in Western suits, who claimed to hold the miraculous cure for the spiritual and bodily ailments of the nation, to spiritualists who used hypnotism to communicate with the dead, and to urban magicians who magnetized flying beauties in amusement halls for entertainment, we are confronted with a field of “diffractions” that do not simply constitute gaps or discontinuities extrinsic to the system of distribution through different social spheres and domains of application, but rather characterize its unity.

So, I am interested in the ways in which the social and cultural context conditioned the specific forms that the local dissemination, appropriation, and institutionalization of hypnotic thinking assumed. To track the movement of hypnotic knowledge as it crossed a variety of disciplines, media, and forms of cultural production, penetrated different social spheres, and was appropriated and transformed, is also to study the “economy of discursive constellation” to which it belonged. By so doing, we will be able to move beyond the boundaries of the “pseudo-” or “quasi-” discipline with scientific pretensions and enter a whole field of relations that constituted its discursive practice. The travels of the hypnotic thinking, both across nations and across genres and media, make it manifest that there is more to understand what was in the “pseudo” at one particular historical moment that appealed to many Chinese intellectuals and commoners, and what fantasies and desires it mobilized, than to merely diagnose whether it is “scientifically” sound.

Tie Xiao
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Indiana University

Image: “Animal magnetism: The operator putting his patient into a crisis.” From E. Sibly, A Key To Physic and the Occult Sciences, 1814. Source: Wiki Commons.

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