The first year of college was lonely for the young medical student. Brought up in a poor village, he had little in common with his wealthier urban peers. He made no friends. No-one listened to him. All he did was study.
Instead of begrudging the other students their advantages, or bemoaning cliques, Zhang Yin concluded that the problem lay inside. Agonised by his sense of isolation, he turned to a counsellor for help.
What began as a search for meaning in his life became his vocation: he is researching stress and depression at Changsha University and hopes to train as an existential therapist. "I want to know how others relieve their pain and anxiety and discomfort," the 24-year-old said.
Zhang's enthusiasm for the "talking cure" reflects a surge in interest as China's citizens seek meaning beyond the quest for prosperity.
"Chinese people have been hungering and searching for something for a long time, since the collapse of Maoism. Every so often there's a certain 'fever' sweeping the country," said Professor Huang Hsuan-ying, an Australian ethnographer.
"It fits into that long-term search for something that is not only material."
Others suggest the hunger is sharpened by the traumas of China's modern history - war, famine and the Cultural Revolution - and the turn to private enterprise, which has boosted the economy but uprooted identities and dislocated families.
Although Sigmund Freud's work was translated into Chinese in the 1920s, the initial flurry of interest was soon suppressed. Under Mao Zedong , psychology was banned in 1966 and psychiatry followed a largely medicalised model. Desperate gaps remain in mental health services in general, particularly in the countryside.
Professor Zhao Xudong of Tongji University in Shanghai says there are just 20,000 psychiatrists in the country, and evidence from other countries suggests China will need 100,000 more to meet its future needs.
Although there are 400,000 psychological counsellors registered with the ministry of labour, many in the profession believe the licence is too easy to obtain.
Public interest, though, is now matched by official recognition: China's first mental-health law, 27 years in the making, came into force last year. It acknowledges the role of psychotherapy and introduces a framework for its practice.
Younger, better-educated people are more open to the idea of therapy. Zhang said his parents still did not understand what psychotherapy was.
Another student noted that older relatives had begun to turn to her for advice. Famous therapists such as Li Zixun have appeared on television show Psychology Talks and written columns on the subject. Psychological intervention is commonly used after disasters.
Broader cultural changes are helping psychotherapy flourish. Many of the generation taking an interest "can't say 'I love you' to their parents, and their parents would never say it to them - but they would say it to their children", Huang said.
At the International Federation for Psychotherapy's conference in Shanghai this summer, Chinese speakers ranged over subjects from psychoanalysis to treating children with attention deficit disorder.
At times, the event had the air of a fan convention, with young acolytes rushing up after talks to have their picture taken with the speakers.
Huang said many people had trained, but never became professionals, or abandoned the work soon after they began. Fees for public work are set low - at about 70 yuan (HK$84) an hour. While private sessions can command 10 times that, it is hard to build a stable client base.
Many of those at the Shanghai conference identified fundamental contradictions between psychotherapy as practised in the West and Chinese traditions. They argued that Western culture sought to build a stronger self, while Eastern culture tried to overcome the self. European and US thinkers tended to focus on the individual, they said, while Chinese thought considered the person in context.
"Harmony is first, the individual is second," said Zhong Jie, an assistant professor at Peking University. He cited the case of a patient who quit coming when she realised treatment was making her confront her conflict with her husband.
Others said that they saw unexpected alignments and convergences between certain aspects of traditional Chinese thought - particularly Taoism - and psychotherapy.
Bao Tiankui runs group sessions, a practical response to the lack of trained therapists, but one that might seem particularly unsuited to a culture so deeply imbued with emotional privacy.
Chinese participants had a stronger sense of self-protection at first, he said. Yet once they started to open up, they were more willing to discuss problems and get closer to the group.
"Chinese thinking and psychoanalysis - I think it's a good encounter," said Teresa Yuan, an Argentine who has been visiting China to teach since the mid-1990s.
"Maybe there will be a new beginning to psychoanalysis that can be fed by Chinese thinking."