The Sinophobic history of brainwashing

Acclaimed sci-fi author and commentator Annalee Newitz is currently promoting their upcoming non-fiction book Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, which — as the title suggests — looks at the real-life sci-fi-like history of psychological warfare in America. Roy Christopher already covered Newitz's recent newsletter about the classic sci-fi author who was secretly a US intelligence operative.

But last week, Newitz also took to Technology Review to discuss the history of brainwashing. As it turns out, our modern conception of "brainwashing" is mostly derived from some Sinophobic nonsense made up by paranoid US intelligence agents who basically just fucked up some Chinese translations. It mostly began with Edward Hunter, an anti-communist activist who worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the pre-cursor to the CIA). Hunter gained some notoriety for his 1951 book, Brain-washing in Red China: The calculated destruction of men's minds, about which he testified for the US Senate subcommittee focused on "the effect of Red China Communes on the United States." As Newitz explains:

When a senator asked about Hunter's work for the OSS, the operative boasted that he was the first to "discover the technique of mind-attack" in mainland China, the first to use the word "brainwashing" in writing in any language, and "the first, except for the Chinese, to use the word in speech in any language." 


The Chinese word Hunter used at the hearing—xinao (), translated as "wash brain"—has a long history going back to scientifically minded Chinese philosophers of the late 19th century, who used it to mean something more akin to enlightenment. 


Ironically, "brainwashing" was not a widely used term among communists in China. The word xinao, Mitchell told me in an email, is actually a play on an older word, xixin, or washing the heart, which alludes to a Confucian and Buddhist ideal of self-awareness. In the late 1800s, Chinese reformists such as Liang Qichao began using xinao—replacing the character for "heart" with "brain"—in part because they were trying to modernize Chinese philosophy. "They were eager to receive and internalize as much as they could of Western science in general, and discourse about the brain as the seat of consciousness was just one aspect of that set of imported ideas," Mitchell said. 

This is just the intro to the article, of course, which also goes into some Russian fear-mongering that mostly stemmed from an anonymously published pamphlet that was almost certainly written by L. Ron Hubbard that was not backed up by any demonstrable evidence. But I was mostly entertained by the frankly Orientalist mis-interpretations of Chinese culture. It is depressingly unsurprising that a pre-CIA intelligence officer would randomly decide that Chinese Mystics (presumably with long Fu Manchu mustaches) had developed a magical technique to control people's minds, and that this would directly lead to the funding of MK-ULTRA. That's honestly more perfectly ridiculous than the singer of Blink-182 using money from a hot dog cart to fund further UFO research by disgraced parapyschologist Hal Puthoff.

A brief, weird history of brainwashing [Annalee Newitz / MIT Technology Review]