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From Asylum to Museum: The Discourse of
Insanity and Schizophrenia in Shen Congwen's 1949 Transition

by Xiaojue Wang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 23, no. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 133-168


The essay deals with Shen Congwen's schizophrenic breakdown around 1949 and his subsequent conversion from fiction writing to research on antiquities and art, aiming to examine the pathological, political, and cultural implications of the discourse of insanity and schizophrenia against the backdrop of the Cold War division in China. Among modern Chinese writers, Shen was a fervent reader of Western psychology and psychoanalysis and employed psychological approaches not only in his literary writings but also in his self-investigation during his crisis of subjectivity. The author argues that while recent critical approaches of schizophrenia may help us to understand Shen's cultural and political behavior as schizophrenic, they nevertheless neglect the anguish and pain induced by schizophrenia at both clinical and body politic levels. In his post-1949 work as cultural historian, Shen found in the multitude of fragmented historical artifacts and episodic art historical accounts a possible way of breaking with the monolithic socialist ideology. Furthermore, the article utilizes the discourse of the museum as a prism through which to reflect on Shen's practice in the field of antiquities and art history, and how it reveals his distinctive aesthetic and historical consciousness.