East Asia Workshop: Politics, Economy and Society

Feb 16, Zhiying Ma, “Promises and Perils of Guan: Mental Health Care and the Rise of Biopolitical Paternalism in Post-Socialist China”


East Asia Workshop: Politics, Economy and Society presents


 “Promises and Perils of Guan:Mental Health Care and the Rise of Biopolitical Paternalism in Post-Socialist China”

Zhiying Ma

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology

University of Chicago

4:30-6:00p.m., Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Pick Lounge, 5828 South University Ave.



Over the last three decades, most psychiatric inpatients in China have been hospitalized against their will, by their families. The first national Mental Health Law, effective since 2013, has reinforced the family’s rights and responsibilities in psychiatric care. The family’s involvement is inscribed in the keyword guan (管), a polysemous word that can refer to caring about and being responsible for another individual, and/or to managing, governing and controlling interpersonal situations. Drawing on 32 months of fieldwork, my research examines the family’s involvement in psychiatry as technical, institutional, and ideological configurations, and explores their implications for the ethics, affects, and political economy of care and population governance in post-socialist China.

In this talk, I will trace the circulation of guan between legal, psychiatric, and familial realms. I argue that a biopolitical paternalism has emerged in post-socialist China that demands and legitimizes the family’s involvement in psychiatric care, particularly by invoking and reconfiguring the family’s role in performing guan. This ideological and practical formation constitutes mentally ill patients as subjects of perpetual risk management. The cultural ethics of paternalism lends ideological legitimacy to the post-socialist state’s population control. Meanwhile, through the recursive circulation of paternalism, the actual work of care and control are relegated to families. This biopolitical paternalism thus produces vulnerabilities and ethical ambivalences within families, as well as aggravating health disparities across the mentally ill population. I will conclude the talk by considering the conceptual and practical implications of biopolitical paternalism.


Workshop website: http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/eastasia/

Student coordinator: Yan Xu (xuyan@uchicago.edu)

Faculty sponsors: Xi Song, Dali Yang and Dingxin Zhao


This presentation is sponsored by the Council on Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences and Center for East Asian Studies. Persons with disabilities who believe they may need assistance please contact the student coordinator in advance.

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