Gloominess as Resilience. Contesting Hegemonic Affective Regimes in Pandemic-Era China

Talk by Anna Iskra, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen.


In this talk, we will journey through the affective landscapes of Shanghai’s middle-class urbanites, narrated by local psychological counsellors operating in the country’s vibrant and loosely regulated therapeutic milieu. Pandemic policies hit Shanghai hard, which culminated in the infamous two-month lockdown. While the authorities managed to temporarily contain the spread of the virus, negative effects proliferated in the city with a truly viral force. As gloominess spread, state propaganda and official media circulated enthusiastic reports on fighting the pandemic with “positive energy” (zheng nengliang), generating dysphoric feelings among citizens mentally worn out by draconian pandemic policies.

This study is an anthropological investigation into the frictions generated in the clash between state-constructed affective regimes that promote positive thinking and disseminate politics of hope and trust in the political status quo, and various tribes of “affective aliens” among Chinese urbanites that resist performative positivity by embodying gloominess. The accounts of psychological counsellors contest the dominant narrative of pandemic-induced anxiety and depression as primarily marked by withdrawal and passivity. Instead, such effects can be re-imagined as modes of resilience under authoritarian policies that question the censoring impact of the politics of “positive energy.”


Anna Iskra is an anthropologist interested in the intersections between state power, psy-sciences, and selfhood. She conducted research in different field sites across China, where she explored local psy-spiritual networks. Anna is a Postdoctoral Fellow, currently at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen. She can be reached at

This study is part of a larger project “Covid-19 and global mental health: The importance of cultural contexts” (Principal Investigator: Dr Ana Antić), hosted by the Department of English, Germanic and Romance studies at the University of Copenhagen and funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.