Chasing Calm: The Rising Cost of Spiritual Healing in China
Surrounded by flickering candles and shimmering crystals in the middle of a dimly lit room in the eastern city of Hangzhou, a mentor begins an unorthodox therapy session with a couple: They must dance to depict their everyday life.
Lying down, the woman reaches out to her hesitant husband in an attempt to draw him back into their shared, imaginary house, each step and gesture a reflection of their relationship. By the end of the session, both are in tears.
Around them, a dozen others watch in rapt silence. “This experience,” the mentor, a middle-aged woman, declares, “is a gift from the universe, a chance for you to explore and release your deepest emotions towards each other.”
Witnessing such a performance for the first time, Shu Meng recalls breaking down. “The aura in the room was so powerful, I was completely caught up in the moment,” says Shu, who paid 2,000 yuan ($281) for the class last summer and has since become a regular visitor.
Shu’s experience is a microcosm of a larger cultural phenomenon in China. Looking to balance the demands of a fast-paced, competitive society with their own mental health, an increasing number of young Chinese are turning towards such alternative methods, more rooted in personal belief than science.
Across the country, such sessions, and a myriad of similar activities, are collectively known as shenxinling, meaning “body, mind, and spirit,” or spiritual practices.
They range from the impromptu dance workshops that Shu attended to bowl-singing, meditation, and tarot card reading. Some even buy items like crystals, Bodhi bracelets, and other talismans, believing they enhance well-being.
The industry’s sway is evident on social media platforms, which not only serve as forums for sharing experiences but also as marketplaces for spiritual services and products, attracting a wide audience.
For instance, the hashtag “spiritual practice” on the lifestyle app Xiaohongshu has almost 113 million views, all linked to themes like enhancing mentality, self-improvement, and inner peace.
“It’s hard to define everything encompassed in spiritual practice. It’s too mixed,” says Zhou Xiaopeng, a psychologist with 18 years of experience. “Generally speaking, it is based on meditation and different kinds of props.”
But it doesn’t come cheap.
Many influencers encourage their followers to buy charms or bracelets, typically costing around 500 yuan or more; special sessions average over 3,000 yuan. These products and services are often advertised as having various benefits, from reuniting couples to bringing fortune and warding off illness.
The sector is rapidly expanding. According to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, China’s pan-mental health service market, which includes spiritual practices, will reach 10.41 billion yuan by 2025.
The survey, released last February, links the industry’s growth to several factors: the large number of people in China suffering from depression and a shift in public consumption patterns towards service-oriented products.
But with low-quality barriers to entry, a lack of standardized management, and reports of spiritual practices forcing individuals deep into debt have drawn not only public ire but some regulatory attention from China’s Cyberspace Administration, the country’s top internet watchdog.
The administration is imposing stricter controls on such content, including tarot reading and the use of crystals, which are often labeled as superstitious.
Despite the outcry, the spiritual practice industry continues to thrive, particularly since professional counseling in China is often expensive and lengthy, making it financially inaccessible for young Chinese, who may turn to more affordable and socially appealing spiritual practices for quick solutions.
Experts say that this lack of oversight raises concerns about unqualified mentors entering the field, as only a limited number of qualified mentors can be screened, potentially jeopardizing the quality and safety of spiritual practice courses.
Last September, the tragic account of a woman who spent her entire savings at a spiritual workshop brought the extreme spending practices encouraged in the industry under public scrutiny.
A woman quit her job with just 4,000 yuan in savings to join an online workshop by Xuebamao, a well-known influencer in the spiritual practices industry. During their sessions, she was encouraged to spend extravagantly on items like luxury watches and hotels on the principle that “the more you spend, the more you’ll earn.”
Weeks later, she found herself mired in significant debt; a situation soon echoed by many other followers of such practices.
The incident ignited widespread criticism on social media, with netizens questioning the ethics of such practices and the judgment of those who participate in them. Xuebamao’s social media profiles, especially on platforms like Weibo and Xiaohongshu, have since been inundated with negative feedback.
“I was part of Xuebamao’s community, and there’s nothing embarrassing about it,” Shu, who is from the northern Shanxi province, tells Sixth Tone. Initially, she paid an entry fee of 300 yuan to join the community, which has since increased to 3,000 yuan, and an additional 3,000 yuan for subsequent courses.
Shu, now 27, first became interested in meditation towards the end of 2020. She researched spiritual practices in 2021 as a film studies student, grappling with the intense pressures of recruitment season.
“The pandemic severely impacted the domestic film industry back then,” says Shu, who currently works at an advertising agency in Hangzhou. “Overwhelmed, I turned to spiritual practices.”
She began with meditation, a common starting point for many followers of spiritual practices, and gradually explored other areas such as Mandalas, yoga, tarot, and eventually, experimental dance sessions.
On social media, Shu candidly shared her experiences with various healing methods, underscoring how they transformed her into a more confident person. Among multiple online posts, themes that surfaced frequently included fear, reconciliation, and relief.
He Jingzhao, a state-certified psychological counselor based in the southern city of Guangzhou, underscores the need to understand why so many young Chinese are turning to such methods.
“Rather than criticize young people for spending on these services, we should consider why they seek such psychological comfort. The industry has existed for over a decade for a reason. It reflects our times, where young people in particular are increasingly focused on inner balance,” he says.
While Shu sought relief from work pressures through meditation, 25-year-old Wang Ziqi’s path to spirituality was shaped by her personal battle with depression.
Working at a tech company in Hangzhou, Wang regularly visits temples and embraces their teachings on developing self-awareness. She began just after graduating in 2021, and now owns numerous crystal bracelets, each claimed to have specific benefits such as “enhancing her aura” or “stabilizing her mind.”
She also uses tarot cards to help her decide when faced with uncertainty. For instance, before texting someone she’s dating, she consults the 78-card deck.
“The actual outcome is secondary,” says Wang. “It’s more about understanding myself and the potential paths I can take. The ability to make a decision, knowing all the possible outcomes, is what truly astonishes me.”
Attempting to manage her depression, Wang turned to professional counseling in 2021 but ultimately decided to stop.
According to Wang, and five others interviewed by Sixth Tone, a common issue was the feeling of being labeled as the problem during counseling, prompting them to explore alternative approaches for their mental health.
Lin, a 31-year-old university professor of educational technology in Chengdu, in the southwestern Sichuan province, was among the five who discontinued conventional counseling.
“My discomfort stemmed partly from feeling like I was the problem that needed fixing, and partly from feeling judged by the counselor,” she explains.
Her experience dates back to her college days when she sought help from a renowned counseling center while in a toxic relationship.
Given the center’s renown, Lin had high expectations. “However, the counselor’s approach felt more like scolding and personal judgment rather than professional guidance,” Lin recalls. She also felt a lack of connection with the counselors, describing their demeanor as distant and critical.
He Jingzhao explains that traditional counseling struggles to retain clients, especially when emotional issues aren’t severe. As an alternative, spiritual practices often seem more appealing.
His contributions include writing for YiXinli, a prominent online psychology consulting platform, and helping develop pan-mental health services incorporating spiritual practices for a tech company in the southern Guangdong province.
He emphasizes the engaging and social nature of spiritual practices appeals to the younger generation.
“You simply lie there and speak with trusted friends while surrounded by scented candles. It’s an ideal setting for young people to express their anxieties,” He says, expressing some concern over the lack of government regulation.
In China, spiritual practices sometimes fall under the scrutiny of the central Cyberspace Administration’s Qinglang, or “clean and clear,” campaign, which looks to rectify “unhealthy” online content. It covers overzealous fandom, superstitions, and content showing off wealth or wasting food.
Last September, the campaign targeted the use of astrology, tarot readings, and fortune-telling to spread superstition or to profit, aiming to curb their influence and penalize online platforms that host such content.
But He is particularly worried about the influx of unqualified mentors. For instance, while developing an online course for the tech company in Guangdong province, he could vet only 10 qualified mentors out of over 80 applicants.
“This lack of regulation is dangerous in a market driven by charisma. People expect these mentors to be all-knowing gurus who can provide instant solutions to their problems,” he warns.
Lin recalls being captivated by Xuebamao’s engaging content on Douban, China’s popular book and film rating platform, back in 2018. She began following Xuebamao online, delving into her recommended reading list, and eventually joined her community. “The cost of her course ranged from about 10,000 to 20,000 yuan,” recalls Lin.
“Xuebamao was talented and charismatic, but she eventually lost her way. That’s why I severed ties with her community last year.”
Despite some pitfalls, He Jingzhao, the state-certified professional counselor, is optimistic about the spiritual practices industry. He believes it has the potential to integrate into a more comprehensive mental health system, complementing traditional counseling and medication.
Zhou Xiaopeng, the psychologist, also sees the industry’s growth as a sign that more people are acknowledging their mental health issues. “The key is to implement proper regulations to prevent unqualified content from reaching clients,” he underscores.
For Shu Meng, practices like meditation and tarot are now integral to her life. She invests thousands of yuan each month in spiritual practices and frequently attends various workshops.
“I’ve found a space where all my emotions are accepted without judgment. There’s no judgment of good or bad,” she says. “For me, that sense of validation is all that matters.”
(Header image: Illustration by Tatiejackie匆匆过河, reedited by Sixth Tone)