A Time of Lost Gods: Madness, Possession, and the Return of Spirits in Contemporary China


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




Explosive rates of rural-urban migration and privatization in post-reform China have spurred debates on new forms of reason, accompanied by a proliferation of “psy-disciplines.” Meanwhile, something else was on the rise: hauntings by spirits that purportedly vanished during Mao's reign. While possession is treated in psychiatric clinics through rubrics of mental disorder, it is woven into the moral fabric of everyday life in Chinese villages—villages said to be “spectralized” in another sense due to their emptying of symbolic value under the market regime. Drawing on ethnographic research in rural Henan province, this dissertation finds that across temple and clinic, betrayals and reconfigurations of reciprocation are transmitted through temporalities of socialist promise, cosmological anticipation, and intergenerational impasse. It approaches those “left behind,” including patients, spirit mediums, and psychiatrists, as figures caught in a shared dilemma, in a time when gods have lost their way.