Bion in Beijing, 2017

Photo of the Beijing skyline
The Beijing skyline

The online teaching organised by Shirley Hiscock at the Institute of Psychoanalysis (IoPA) offered British Psychoanalytical Socieity psychoanalysts Kate Pugh and Walter Gibson the opportunity to teach a group of students in China about the work of Wilfred Bion. They had already met many of the students online, while giving seminars connected to Chris Mawson’s lecture series, ‘An Introduction to Bion’.

For the online seminars and in subsequent face-to-face lectures at Peking University in Beijing, they had the same friendly and skilled translators, both Peking University psychology graduates. This continuity was important in aiding communication between the two IoPA analysts and the students. Throughout the analysts’ visit to Beijing, the team there took excellent care of them.

Course content – Bion’s life and theories

The students taking part on the course had varied backgrounds: there were psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists, as well as workers in unrelated fields, such as IT. The teaching analysts could not assume any previous knowledge, so they varied their presentations to accommodate a range of prior familiarity and understanding among the students. They began by discussing Bion’s life, in particular his experiences as an adolescent in the First World War, and how this informed his later theory of containment. They then moved on to explore his theory of groups and its application in medical settings.

Learning through clinical examples and literary works

Clinical examples were used to illustrate his concept of ‘attacks on linking’, ideas about psychosomatic states, and development of a theory of mind. The students were very interested in these clinical examples, which illuminated the theory being discussed and helped them to connect it with their own work and personal circumstances. These examples were also important in giving the students – who, despite their theoretical sophistication, lacked in-depth clinical experience – a grounding in basic clinical practice​.

Walter Gibson also showed recordings of work by Samuel Beckett, including extracts from Quad, Waiting for Godot and Rockaby, to illustrate some of Bion’s psychoanalytic ideas. This imaginative use of drama was very effective, and transcended any linguistic or cultural differences. Similarly, Dylan Thomas’ poetry was used on the last day in connection with ideas of ending and loss, and to make links with the life and death drives of creativity and destructiveness in Bion’s work: K and -K.

Future plans

In future teaching of this kind, Kate Pugh and Walter Gibson would aim to spend more time covering fundamental Freudian and Kleinian concepts, in order to give students a greater understanding of Bion’s theory of thinking.

The students have continued their learning beyond the end of the course, and have now formed a reading group to study key papers with further online facilitation. A more advanced course on Bion is being planned for the future.