Calligraphy

Podcast: Chinese Evangelist for the Power of Art Therapy

Courtesy of Shi Yunyuan

A work of art made by clients of Shi Yunyuan. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a master’s degree in art therapy and counseling, Shi now teaches art therapy at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Learning calligraphy from an early age, Shi Yunyuan firmly believes in the power of art.

“It was because of my confidence in art that I chose to study art therapy abroad,” Shi said. “I have gotten along well with art for quite some time, and the experience and its power are beyond words.”

A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MA in Art Therapy and Counseling, Shi now teaches and directs the disciplinary development of art therapy at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

“I was delighted to learn of the existence of the major in art therapy. I like the idea that art heals, ”she said. “Art can certainly make us feel good, but how can it heal effectively? I got so interested in it, and felt like it was the thing I wanted to do in the future.”

This week, we still have Shi with us, and she will share her understanding of art therapy, the “unanswered questions” and the challenges of locating her in China.

Podcast: Chinese Evangelist for the Power of Art Therapy

Courtesy of Shi Yunyuan

Q: How do you understand art therapy now after studying it for three years in Chicago?

A: Basically it’s hard to explain what art therapy is in one sentence. As we mentioned earlier, this is an interdisciplinary subject.

In the meantime, this is also a clearly labeled topic. This is a new type of productivity that lies in the overlapping realm of art, health and mental health management institutions, and public social service centers. This productivity can be linked to the economy, to culture and even to new types of art and technology.

Certainly, the term “art therapy” can be misinterpreted. When people here use the word “therapy” many think it is about treating a certain disease, or that it can only apply to sick people. To a certain extent, the translation from English to Chinese leads to misunderstandings. Even in today’s academia, ideas vary as to what the exact words for art therapy should be in Chinese.

However, I don’t think you need to obsess over finding word mistakes. What concerns us is what art therapy is in nature, and what it is about.

I believe that art therapy is a kind of philosophy of life with art as a core, which can inspire us to new styles of life. I often quote a saying from “Huang Di Nei Jing” (“Yellow Emperor Medical Classical,” China’s first medical book and the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine) that says, “The best doctors prevent disease, pre-symptomatic cases and the competent lease deal with symptomatic cases.

There are many effective art therapy treatments targeting various symptoms in Western countries. Compared to the West, which emphasizes logical thinking and deduction, we understand something macroscopically better.

Hence, we can focus on how to use art as preventive measures and call for an active lifestyle.

Podcast: Chinese Evangelist for the Power of Art Therapy

Courtesy of Shi Yunyuan

Art therapy sessions that Shi gave in Chicago when she was working as an intern at an institution for Asian refugees and immigrants.

Q: How can people try art therapy and what are the possible effects?

A: One of the benefits of art therapy is the power to propel social change. Art therapists have a responsibility to help the public better understand what art is and how it exists in everyday life.

During the COVID-19 epidemic in Europe, the balcony theater emerged. Just as (Joseph) Beuys once said: “Everyone is an artist”.

When I worked at the Asian Refugee and Immigrant Center, there was a Chinese client who married an African American man. She came for advice on parent-child relationships. As she was a woman who grew up in China with a child raised in the West, she was very disturbed about how to educate and get along with her child.

We have had many art therapy related activities to help her shift her focus away from caring for her child or even controlling the child for herself, and finding her values ​​in life.

It was a long process. At first she completely rejected art, saying “I don’t want to do art, just tell me what to do to solve my problems.” Then I found out that she had a fondness for music since she was a child, so I let her take the time to find those artistic elements in life and let them play.

Everyone can have their own moments and resources with art.

Podcast: Chinese Evangelist for the Power of Art Therapy

Courtesy of Shi Yunyuan

Art therapy sessions that Shi gave in Chicago when she was working as an intern at an institution for Asian refugees and immigrants.

Q: Is it hard to get people to believe in art therapy?

A: Definitely. Because of our background and the education we have received, whatever we do we want immediate feedback and results. We want to see changes right away. But art therapy doesn’t work that way. It takes time for the public to recognize and accept. But I believe that those who want to enjoy art and those who aspire to a better quality of life will give it a try one day.

Podcast: Chinese Evangelist for the Power of Art Therapy

Courtesy of Shi Yunyuan

Part of Shi’s artwork “66 Unanswered Questions” which reads in Chinese: “Bias and Stigmatization”.

Q: You have an artwork called “66 Unanswered Questions”, which is your reflection on art therapy. Tell us about it.

A: It was an essential part of designing my degree. In the form of a handmade book, this is actually cross-cultural research that clearly presents the subject and themes of my essay. It presents the dual culture dilemma from my perspective as an expat living and studying art therapy in the United States. It addressed the intercultural issues that concern me in the development of art therapy in China. For example, ethics, translation and professional challenges. One of them, if memory serves, is how does language lead to prejudice and stigma? I hope that these questions can open my mind and continue my journey of thought.

The book has no back cover but two front covers – one in Chinese and one in English. For Chinese readers, it is presented with vertical printing and Chinese calligraphy, because in the West, calligraphy represents the highest level of Chinese visual expression. And for English readers, it is printed horizontally in Roman type.

I hope this piece goes beyond personal expression to analyze the difficulties and challenges of art therapy practice in China.

Podcast: Chinese Evangelist for the Power of Art Therapy

Courtesy of Shi Yunyuan

Part of Shi’s artwork “66 unanswered questions”

Q: Of all these questions, which questions have you found answers to and which remain unanswered?

A: I still have a lot of these questions in my head, like the one I mentioned before: “How does language lead to prejudice and stigma?” I thought about it all the time – how did the Chinese phrase affect our recognition and experience of pain, and feelings of depression and anxiety?

I followed the studies of Arthur Kleinman, anthropologist at Harvard University, who inspired me to psychologize emotions. Psychology was introduced from the West. One day we Chinese came to know the words “depression” and “anxiety” from the West. It suddenly struck us then that those blue moods and nervous breakdowns might be part of the depression.

However, simply labeling a common feeling or emotion as a certain disease somehow affects our understanding of this mental phenomenon.

Podcast: Chinese Evangelist for the Power of Art Therapy

Courtesy of Shi Yunyuan

Part of Shi’s artwork “66 unanswered questions”

Q: What are the challenges of locating art therapy in China?

A: Today, I would like to see art therapy as a hybrid of Western and Eastern ways of thinking. In the West, it looks a lot like TCM; while in China we see it as something very western. By the early 1960s and 1970s, the practice of art therapy was already linked to oriental ideas such as meditation, mindfulness, and Zen Buddhism.

On the other hand, art therapy as a non-verbal expression can minimize biases and barriers posed by language, so that it can be experienced by all humans. When we look at the ink paintings and calligraphy of Chinese masters, we feel touched. When you watch a Michael Jackson concert, you also feel touched. Although human feelings and experiences vary, there are some common threads.

I would like to compare art therapy to a human being, which is a highly sophisticated living system full of unknowns. What we’re going to do (with art therapy) is identify these unknowns and take control.

As for the location, I am thinking of Gilles Deleuze. His secret to keeping his philosophies creative and productive was always to go back to the origins. Hopefully, we can learn from his strategy and keep going back to our predecessors and classics, and later build a connection that goes beyond simple citation and replication. In this process, we need to be very clear when developing our new ideas, when to go back and re-read the classics, and when to work with forerunners and other art therapy practitioners from different cultural backgrounds with collective wisdom.

So far in China, it is still a budding field with limited scale. We would like to do a lot of translations and publications to provide the general public with better access to the field, and also to work hard as a catalyst for social change to dispel prejudices and stereotypes towards mental health issues.

There are challenges but also opportunities.