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A Time of Lost Gods: Madness, Cosmology, and Psychiatry in China


A Time of Lost Gods explores madness, haunting, and mediumship in a rural county of China’s Henan province. Drawing on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork, I find that that given the economic and symbolic dispossession accompanying post-Reform rural outmigration, spirit mediums register psychiatric symptoms as signs of moral-cosmological collapse. I consider this in light of a precarious cosmology, wherein the very world of human and nonhuman persons and relationships are experienced as deeply destabilized. This sense of precarity is linked to the loss of Mao as a divine anti-colonial figure, evoking questions of socialist sovereignty alongside those of heavenly mandate. According to the spirit mediums, the Chairman’s death inaugurated the return of demons and deities, none of whom can be fully trusted, as they now mirror the duplicity of the human realm after market reforms. Mediums must work to discern between the true and false, the virtuous and malicious, amid a proliferation of madness-inducing spirits.

This contemporary cosmology, I suggest, simultaneously registers the national imaginary of Henan as a quintessential land-locked agricultural province “left behind” in a post-Reform regime of value, and opens up an inverted figuring of the rural as a potential ethico-spiritual center, awaiting apocalyptic renewal. To think with the mediums is to dwell on a historical present of hesitant horizons, at once beneath and beyond discourses of global mental health and religious revival. Across the psychiatric ward of the county hospital, local temples, and home altars of spirit mediums, betrayals of economy and kinship are transmitted through multiple genres of time. In mediumship, the progressive time of the socialist promise merges with a cyclical mode of dynastic anticipation, together carried in a spectral temporality of returns. In the clinic, symptomatic fragments of intergenerational impasse intermingle with the prognostic temporality of diagnostic modernity. After a long century of exasperated responses to the threat of colonial seizure, I approach patients, spirit mediums, and psychiatrists as figures caught in a shared dilemma, in a time when gods have lost their way.

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