The censors have gouged out Jordan Peterson’s criticism of Mao Zedong and Communism, but his latest book has nonetheless arrived in China where it has established a foothold on the country’s bestseller lists after its publication in Mandarin this fall.
Mr. Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist whose work has been favoured by right-leaning groups, does not make for an obvious fit in China. In 12 Rules for Life, he peppers his writing with biblical references and faults China and other countries for using Marxist ideology to devastating effect, subjecting people to “oppression rivalling that still operative in North Korea, the last classic communist holdout” and Mao Zedong of perpetrating “bottomless horrors.”
But Mr. Peterson has nonetheless found an audience in the world’s most populous country where, long before the local release of 12 Rules in late November, volunteers had translated more than 100 of his videos and published reviews of his writing.
Some in China have found in Mr. Peterson a coveted riposte to what they see as a preachy – and, for Beijing, hostile – form of Western liberalism, one embodied by people such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Others say Mr. Peterson offers answers amid a broader search for significance in a country whose rapid embrace of a market economy has elevated living standards but, for many, failed to satisfy deeper desires.
People “feel their lives are meaningless,” said Ma Mengjie, who has worked with a small group of others to translate into Chinese Mr. Peterson’s videos, interviews and academic courses. She compared Western rejection of Christianity with the Cultural Revolution in China, a turbulent societywide break from the past that has left a sense of being unmoored.
“Lack of direction has become a new problem,” she said.
Enter Mr. Peterson, who urges people “to reconstruct your value systems so you recognize the hierarchy of the things you want to pursue in life – and you place meaning and balance, instead of pleasure and happiness, at the top of that hierarchy,” said Steve Shi, the book’s Chinese translator.
Mr. Shi, a therapist in China, studied under Mr. Peterson at the University of Toronto. But Mr. Peterson, he says, speaks as easily to a modern Chinese audience – a generation of office workers on smartphones – as to Western readers. “Materialism and consumerism is very pervasive. And people are very tired and exhausted, working and pursuing what is supposed to be fancy and expensive for them.”
People in China have long been loathe to seek help for mental-health issues. Last year, 7.5 million people graduated from Chinese colleges and universities, but fewer than 20,000 with psychology-related degrees. But there are signs of change.
Sales of self-help books, for example, are expanding, from 3.3 per cent of all 2015 book-spending to 6 per cent in the first 10 months of this year, according to OpenBook, the primary source for Chinese book sales statistics. This year, some of the most popular titles in the genre have included The Emotional Quotient Lesson of Kevin Tsai: Live for Yourself for One Time, written by a Taiwanese television host; Good Loneliness by Fudan University psychologist Chen Guo; and a book on willpower based on a Stanford course by U.S. health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.
Where pseudo-science titles were more popular in the past, “the quality of psychology books is getting better and better,” said Ji Yang, chief editor at Cheers Publishing, which brought 12 Rules to China. It has aimed the book at 22- to 40-year-olds who are turning to psychology, Ms. Ji said, to “help them change to better habits, attain more skills and therefore realize personal growth.”
“I see it as a result of fierce competition in our society,” she said. “People want to improve themselves.”
Some elements of Mr. Peterson’s writing were considered unacceptable for a Chinese audience. Censors stripped away entire sections of the book in which he criticizes authoritarian Communism. In the original 12 Rules, Mr. Peterson writes: “It is deceit that produces the terrible suffering of mankind: the death camps of the Nazis; the torture chambers and genocides of Stalin and that even greater monster, Mao.” Those sections have been stripped from the Chinese edition, as are many biblical references as well as mentions of China’s one-child policy, sex-selective abortions, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet horrors and even the killing of Chinese people by Genghis Khan.
Ms. Ji shrugged off the deletions. Releasing a book in China requires being responsible to readers, writers and sellers, she said. “Our major goal is to make the core parts, the parts that can most benefit readers, available to the public.”
Some Chinese readers, meanwhile, have lauded Mr. Peterson as a pioneering voice against the modern tenets of Western liberalism.
“Many Chinese young people hate political correctness, such as the idea of feminism and equality for all,” said Wei Jianfeng, a prominent online writer who has praised Mr. Peterson’s book on social media. ”Mr. Peterson stands out, telling people that he’s tired of these baizuo, too,” he said, using a Chinese epithet for people they see as naive foreign liberals. Canada’s Prime Minister is high on that list.
Mr. Peterson has become “an ambassador” for people in China hostile to such thinking, Mr. Wei said. “We can totally see Peterson as an opponent of Trudeau’s in that sense.”
Indeed, Mr. Peterson highlights ”the ignorance, stupidity and hypocrisy of the so-called ’progressive activists,’ who have become more arrogant in recent years,” wrote Xu Ruiqi, another online writer with a large following.
Chinese feminists have publicly criticized Mr. Peterson.
For Ms. Ma, however, he has been an inspiration. At 27, she works in an investment company, but on weekends runs a private counselling practice. Her life goals are to accumulate one million yuan – $189,000 – by the age of 30, write books and become a good psychotherapist.
She credits Mr. Peterson with help on the latter. His mandate to “tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie” has changed her own life and, she says, is helping her change others. “In the psycho-therapy process in particular, the healing power of truth is huge,” she said. “You don’t need to say something fake to comfort your patients.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li