Fascism and Behavioral Psychology in China

By Emily Baum

When one thinks of the countries where fascism flourished in the early twentieth century, China does not immediately spring to mind.[1] Rather, fascism in Asia tends to be associated with the Japanese, who fought alongside Germany during the Second World War. Despite its close connection to Japan, however, fascism also became a highly influential ideology in 1930s China. As the historian Lloyd Eastman has shown, many Chinese intellectuals in the interwar period “felt [fascism] to be the most advanced and efficient of political systems.”[2] Since Chinese leaders at the time were confronting several overlapping problems – including political instability, corruption, government factionalism, and the threat of communism – many looked to fascism as a potential solution.

Most historians of modern China have tended to discuss fascism only insofar as it was deployed by Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and head of the Chinese government from 1928 to 1949. Yet, Chinese fascism was not monopolized by Chiang alone. As I will show here, one of the more mainstream (though perhaps subtler) applications of fascism in 1930s China was within the social sciences – in particular, psychology. According to the historian Geoffrey Blowers, the earliest Chinese psychologists were less interested in the therapeutic applications of psychology than in its potential sociopolitical functions; psychology, it was believed, would enable the Chinese intelligentsia to foster “correct patterns of behavior” among their fellow countrymen.[3] Through the application of psychological principles, scholars sought to advance a fascist agenda that exalted one-party rule, rejected communism and liberalism, fostered nationalist sentiment and militarist values, and subordinated the desires of the individual to the collective will.[4]

Commandant Chiang Kai-shek inspecting cadets of the Whampoa Military Academy. “Whampoa Military Academy,” http://www.enacademic.edu.

Throughout the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937), the Nationalist Party supported the advancement of psychological research in two ways: first, through the establishment of the Academia Sinica, a major research institute that sponsored the development of the social sciences and outlawed the study of Marxism;[5] and second, by promoting psychological instruction at several nationalized universities, each of which maintained close ties to the Party and were “propelled in a direction prescribed by the Guomindang.”[6] Many of the scholars employed by these agencies either boasted a direct affiliation to the Nationalists or sympathized with their agenda. Their research, as Yung-chen Chiang has noted, was therefore often channeled toward the purpose of “control[ling] the social, political, and economic forces at work.”[7] Through the study of subjects like psychology, in other words, scholars aimed not simply to derive steadfast laws pertaining to human and animal behavior, but more importantly to apply these laws toward the control of human populations.


Scientific Psychology in China

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, scientific psychology was still a relatively understudied discipline in China. By the close of the 1920s, however, a number of Chinese scholars had returned from abroad, where they had received doctoral degrees in disciplines such as educational and behavioral psychology. At the time, behaviorism was an especially popular field of psychological research in the United States. As described by the American psychologist John B. Watson, behavioral psychology did not dwell on metaphysical concepts like consciousness, but instead examined empirical phenomena like behavior.[8] Since behavior was believed to be a physical reaction to a stimulus – rather than the product of some enigmatic consciousness – behavioral psychologists suggested that behavior could not only be quantified, but perhaps even controlled.

Guo Renyuan (Zing-yang Kuo) posing in his office [Wikimedia Commons].

Among the Chinese psychologists who studied in the United States in the 1920s, one of the most well known is Guo Renyuan (also known in English as Zing-Yang Kuo). At UC Berkeley where he received his training, Guo developed a reputation as an engaged and headstrong young scholar who was not afraid to champion behaviorist methodologies in both English- and Chinese-language publications. When he returned to China in 1923, he landed a prestigious appointment at Fudan University in Shanghai, where he founded the university’s first department of psychology. From there, his career continued to skyrocket when many of his studies gained international renown. In his most famous experiment, he determined a method for observing the behavior of a chick while still in vivo, and concluded – in typical behaviorist fashion – that the chick’s actions were always motivated by an external stimulus, rather than by instinct or thought.[9]


Psychology, Academics, and Behavioral Control

Guo not only made huge strides in laboratory research, but also in academic administration. He was asked to join the psychological research institute of the Academia Sinica in 1928; he was granted a research position at both National Central University in Nanjing and Zhejiang University in Hangzhou; and he was ultimately appointed president of Zhejiang University in 1933. As a nationalized university, Zhejiang’s campus was thoroughly under the control of the Nationalist Party, and Hangzhou itself was a known base to Chiang Kai-shek’s loyal supporters, the C. C. Clique. The Clique, according to the historian Frederic Wakeman, Jr., was “linked in the public’s eye with [the] new fascist formations that had recently begun springing up around Chiang Kai-shek.”[10] Undoubtedly, Guo would have been aware that his undertakings at Zhejiang would be closely monitored by Chiang and his cronies.

During his tenure at Zhejiang University, Guo earned the support of the Nationalists when he applied behaviorist principles toward the end of fostering patriotic and politically compliant students. Similar to contemporary trends in the Nazi education system, Guo stressed the importance of daily military drills, the elimination of liberalist tendencies, the cultivation of nationalist sentiment, and the suppression of individual expression. As noted in a guidebook to the university, Guo’s general goal was to “militarize, discipline, and collectivize the spirits” of the Zhejiang student body.[11] The way he did so was highly influenced by his background as a behavioral psychologist. By changing the “stimuli” at the university – through a new dress code, the dismissal of radical professors, the expulsion of communist sympathizers, and an emphasis on militarization – Guo attempted to “engineer” the behavior of his students. Indeed, as he had written a few years earlier, “The human character can be changed. If one’s environment and education are sound, then… any type of society is possible.”[12] Through the shared goal to modify and control human behavior, in other words, the two disparate philosophies of fascism and behaviorism were ultimately linked.

Guo was not the only intellectual to seek to apply psychology toward sociopolitical ends. His colleague Huang Weirong, for instance, also suggested that psychologists should be responsible for cultivating positive habits of body and mind – habits, he wrote, that were “in compliance” with social norms.[13] The educational psychologist Zhang Yinian similarly argued that the goal of psychology should be to cultivate “useful” behaviors while eliminating those that were “in conflict” with society.[14] Psychology in China thus worked hand-in-hand with the political desire to discipline populations and eliminate social deviance. While this desire was certainly not unique to fascist regimes, its sponsorship by the right-wing arm of the Guomindang nevertheless signaled the close affiliation that had developed between behaviorism and fascism in 1930s China.


Strengthening China Through Psychology

China’s experiment with fascist politics was short-lived. Following the end of World War II in 1945 and the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang fled to Taiwan, leaving the mainland to the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Three years earlier, Guo had left China for Hong Kong, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Although Guo would publish one final book in 1967, he never returned to laboratory research or academic administration.

Guo’s tale, nevertheless, is instructive for the ways it sheds light on the unexpected relationship between fascism and psychology. As a field that straddles medicine, the humanities, and the social sciences, psychology has never remained strictly within the laboratory or clinic, but has also been coopted to serve political ends. For instance, the international Mental Hygiene Movement, which took place roughly between the first decade of the twentieth century and the onset of the Second World War, attempted to use psychological principles not just to prevent mental illnesses, but also to create a healthier, more disciplined, and more orderly citizenry.[15] In many ways, fascism aimed to achieve a similar goal: to create a populace that was ideologically unified, stridently nationalist, and both psychologically and physically robust. It should not be surprising, then, that psychology and fascism became handmaidens in the mutual endeavor to strengthen the Chinese people and polity.


Emily Baum is an assistant professor of modern Chinese history at UC Irvine. She researches the history of madness in early twentieth-century China.



[1] This essay is a shortened version of Emily Baum, “Controlling Minds: Guo Renyuan, Behavioral Psychology, and Fascism in Republican China,” Chinese Historical Review vol. 22, no. 2 (2015): 141-159.

[2] Lloyd Eastman, “Fascism in Kuomintang China: The Blue Shirts,” China Quarterly no. 49 (1972), 3.

[3] Geoffrey Blowers, “The Origins of Scientific Psychology in China, 1898-1949,” in Adrian Brock, ed., Internationalizing the History of Psychology (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 97.

[4] Here, I am borrowing from Stanley Payne’s description of a “generic” fascism. Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), 4.

[5] Yung-chen Chiang, Social Engineering and the Social Sciences in China, 1919-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 11.

[6] Yeh Wen-Hsin, The Alienated Academy: Culture and Politics in Republican China, 1919-1937 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2000), 169.

[7] Chiang, Social Engineering, 1.

[8] For example, John B. Watson, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” Psychological Review vol. 20 (1913): 158-177.

[9] Z. Y. Kuo, “Ontogeny of Embyronic Behavior in Aves,” Journal of Comparative Psychology 13, no. 2 (1932): 245-271.

[10] Frederic Wakeman, Jr., Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 93.

[11] Guoli Zhejiang daxue yaolan [Guidebook to Zhejiang University] (Hangzhou: n.p., 1935), 6.

[12] Guo Renyuan, Shehui kexue gailun [Outline on the social sciences] (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshu guan, 1928), 287.

[13] Huang Weirong, Biantai xinli xue ABC [The ABCs of abnormal psychology] (Shanghai: Shijie shuju, 1929), 103.

[14] Zhang Yinian, “Xinli weisheng yu ertong xundao [Mental hygiene and the guidance of children],” in Xinli weisheng (Shanghai: Jiaoyu bianyi guan chuban, 1935), 16.

[15] Johannes Pols, Managing the Mind: The Culture of American Mental Hygiene, 1910-1950 (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1997).





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