Psychology in China

During the Cultural Revolution in China, the western psychology was regarded as a bourgeois pseudoscience. It was said that the science of psychology was a false ideology of individual differences; something who led to a total closing of mental institutions and psychological research institutions, and the few psychologists that existed were sent to the countryside to work. It is important to remember that during this time period most sciences were discredited. Today, we find psychology stronger than ever in China. It is regarded as both an important part of the country’s growth and help for the population to cope with the rapid changes. The psychology within China is greatly afflicted by the national policy, – politics and the social setting and environment in the country. Within this habitat we will see the western psychology become chinaized and possible evolve as a new science in the coming 20 years, Sino-Western psychology or more correctly Sinopsychology. Most likely we will see aspects from the traditional Chinese psychology emerges within the western psychology. Something who means that the psychology as we know it today will become remarkably changed, both in theory and practice. The western heroes like Freud, Jung, Piaget, Milgram, Bandura, Erickson and so on will be replaced with their Chinese counterparts.

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Unfortunately it is presently a shortage of psychologists in China. It is estimated around 50.000 psychologists in a country of more than 1.329.111.520 persons (Almanaque Mundial 2010). It is also important to remember that the criterias in China to become a psychologist is more flexible than in the west. A normal college degree and working experience is often enough to be called a psychologist. Even psychology professors at universities in China often lack a formal training in western psychology and a formal degree(!). Leaders within the educated psychology community in China urge for more – and higher education for the poorly educated and gradual replacement of some psychology professionals. Universities are gradually starting to teach psychology due to increased interest. Often we find psychology classes with combined western and eastern psychology. It is two dominating camps within psychology universities in China today: the first one treat psychology as a universal human phenomena (the normal person) and the other emphasizes respect for the cultural context (persons are different according to what afflict them).


Until year 2000 the main focus for psychologists in China was on pedagogy and education. The recent years we see a growth within counseling (Anxiety and depression mainly due to social change), human resources (Changes in work and the new possibilities regarding to change job) and health psychology (mainly to stop the spread of AIDS and HIV).

Modern psychology arrived to China around 1850, but the science of psychology as a matter of psychological thinking had been there for millenias. Often as a integrated part of other human practices. Today, we often speak about the influence of Chinese philosophists on the western way of thinking. In this book we will explore the roots of that influence. We will go behind the discussions like if Confucius really determinate if the human nature is good or bad. It is important to go behind the philosophical limitations like molding theory of Confucius that included the thought that the people are born similar, but socially shaped different through learning. Chinese psychological models teach us different as you will see later; in the name of justice I presume Confucius have been quoted wrongly in several aspects of Analects. Since we know the Taoist influences on Confucius and his deep respect for Taoism. We quickly understand that the central aspect of opposition that forms an integrated hole can not have been ignored by him. In the book 黄帝内经, Huang Di nei jing, we see a biopsychosocial model being presented. This model was the main focus in all medical treatment. It was a tradition for the Emperor in China to conduct psychological tests on his subordinates for thousands of years. Its fame made the British diplomats to recommend the Chinese national psychological testing system in the 1832 to the British East India Company before selecting employees. 13 years later we interestingly find a variant of this system copied by the British government in testing for civil service. Governments in other countries like Germany, France and USA later copies the British system. One interesting aspects is the early psychological experiments in China; perhaps the first real one in the world. Lin Xie was a scientist that lived in the 6th century AD. The famous experiment of Lin were to test vulnerability of distraction. He tested this through making people draw a square with one hand, and at the same time with the other a circle. He showed that the interference from the second task made the first task impossible to complete correctly. A French in 1890 with the name Alfred Binet made a similar test; about 1600 years after Lin.


When the western psychology entered China we find a sadish welcome. The new “Western psychologists” in China basically nullifies the old psychology knowledge and makes the chinese embrace the new western knowledge without questions. We have to wait until the beginning of the new millennium for seeing the fusion of the two sciences. In the meantime we see the (then) Soviet dominated research (Bekhterev, Komilov and Pavlov) being implemented in the psychology in China. In 1917 a western psychology laboratory was opened at the Beijing University by Cai Yuan Pei. Three years later a western psychology department was opened at the South Eastern University in Nanjing. A year later the Chinese Psychology Society was founded. Of course, we find as mentioned before some turbulence during “the hard core Mao period” or the Cultural Revolution (that ended in 1976) with closing of studies and political directioning of permitted studies. The dominating psychological branch in China were for many years behaviorism, and it would dominate until the late 1970. Where we find the concept of culture coming back to the psychology in China, and from there we again find the old roots of Chinese psychology slowly return to the psychology in China. Provoking a huge change for the imported psychology (first western, then Soviet and finally western again) to a genuine updated Chinese psychology. Today after year 2000 we find this profession growing rapidly all over China under the slogan: “Building a psychology with Chinese characteristics”.


The theories of Chinese psychology are teaching the children to grow up as responsible persons. As mentioned before, it is important to remember that Chinese philosophers and now also Chinese psychologists emphasize that development of human beings is a lifelong process and not a process that stops after early childhood; as we often get the impression after reading modern western developmental psychology. The main focus in Chinese psychology is to activate the mind or shen sufficient enough to navigate through life by ourself. Through acquiring this level of self control it becomes possible for Shen to make the correct decisions. Within Chinese psychology it is normal to make this through rewards or 貤, Yi. Yi is a way to motivate behavior. It exist many types of motivation ranging from nice words to costly gifts. As we see the Chinese philosophy speak about 道, Tao or “the way”;life as a journey; as the popular proverb nicely puts it: “The journey is the reward”. Rewards will reinforce behavior. When a person has done something positive, a reward will make this behavior more likely to be repeated. Both consciously and subconsciously the behavior will be segmented in the repertoire of prefered actions. This is not the same as 賄, Hui or to bribe someone. This is a way to motivate and encourage behaviour.


If one type of behavior gives some positive benefit the person is conditioned to go for that one. Let us say you have to take a bus to work every day. It is two busses that go to your destination at the same time. At one you will be served breakfast for free and on the other nothing. There is a seat available for you on both of them. The free meal will be a motivator for you on the bus selection. This mechanism is more visible in children than in adults. Direct encouragement for the preferred behavior is possibly more needed in children than in adults. This does not need to be a physical reward for a child to feel that he pleases the parents might be enough reward. The Chinese psychology will on many aspects intersect with the western psychological view. Specially, we find the principles of behavior modification as an integrated part of Chinese psychology. Coloring behavior through different ways of conditioning is the standard entrance to learning. Further on we also find personality – and character differences that react different to unlike approaches. Later in this book you will learn this technique in detalj.

Let us see the yin-yang theory as indication for direction to start to understand the way Chinese psychology operates. It is important to notice that yin – yang is a way to divide white and black, correct from incorrect, and positive from negative. This gives an opening to give both positive and negative feedback at the same time; a method to see both in one and to separate. If a doctor, only see one polarity he will end up being “blinded”. You can not only adjust in one direction or 向 Xiang. To give Xiang you can not preselect direction of behavior. Xiang is a flexible entity; that requires a dynamic use of feedback. A behavior modification system based on Chinese psychology will use both yin and yang, meaning both negative – and positive reinforcement. The modification system in children follows the same pattern in adults; through reinforce behavior. One important aspect is the moderator give immediate feedback to the person after his behavior; negative as well as positive. In this way the person will learn lasting self-control.


The direct consequence of Hui (bribe) will within Chinese psychology be the acceptance of mirroring others or 鑒 Jian. As we know from western psychology the main technique of learning is through mirroring others. Chinese psychology explains that if a person receive a Hui reward. He is more likely to repeat that behavior; proper or not. At the same time the person will absorb the power of proper behavior from his mentor. Children copy their parents. Children will mimic the way the parents live their life, and not follow what the parents say. If parents drink, the children will drink. If the parents eat a lot, the children will do the same. If the parents smoke, the children smoke. If the parents are divorced, the children will do the same. If the parents yell, the children will probable do the same. In general the children will do the same as the parents do; their role models. This is the concept of  鑒 Jian from the Chinese psychology. The direct consequence is that the rolemodel have to behave socially acceptable. If a person is problematic we have to search for the root or the sourse, 本, Ben or 源, Yuan. Within Chinese medicine and – psychology we speak a lot about Yuan qi. Yuan qi is the energy that origen in the essence or in the source.


行為, Xíng wéi or Social behavior is another aspect that is important within Chinese psychology. Social behavior is easy to understand when exploring what is wrong. Antisocial behavior is a person that disregard societal expectations, laws, physical aggression, violating rights of others (sexual, emotional, legal and property), instability in life and manifesting excessive impulsive behavior. It is believed that antisocial behavior is learned in our early childhood and maintained through primary and secondary school. It is also believed to decline with age. Xing wei is to be seen as the correct way of behaving. Of course this totally depends on the culture where you are living. Do never forget the parents influence their children. Children with parents in prison have 600% bigger chances to go to jail than other children. Important factors in this are low social class, mental health, problems in marriage and parents frequent unemployment. Psychologists find antisocial behavior more frequent among this children. In Chinese medicine we always consider the interaction between Li and Q; the inborn and the acquired. Qi will be factors like social class and Li would be congenital factors. Surprisingly researchers have found that  adopted children of parents who is in prison are more likely to be arrested than other children. Chinese psychology is more likely than western psychology to see the multiplexity in people. Meaning reasons are always complex and have to be read in a embracing manner, rather than through a symbolic microscope.


Let us see another example of Xing wei (social behavior). If the parent and child have a problematic relation, we find the child to have more externalizing problematic behavior. It is believed that the reason for this is mostly connected to the lack of 共 Gong or togetherness, – intimacy and – mutuality. In a more common language, a family colored by anger, screaming and a constant defense between the family members lack Gong. 维护 Wéi hù or a state of defense between the family members create a problem with values. The children are 鑒 Jiàn or copying, mirroring, internalizing their parents and other close persons. The parents are educating the children to a antisocial behavior or giving them a bad quality Xíng wéi. Children need both support and a positively charged relationship with their parents to be able to use the parents like a guide (not as bestfriend!) through the ups and downs in daily life. In short, the parents need to positively communicate with their children to get positive children.


Chinese psychology say 交際 Jiāo jì (communication) is like water in a river. The river will always  have its path, just like rules of communication; but the water will never be the same, like words in a conversation. It is important to keep the flow and amount of water within levels, like the selection of quality words. Everything out of levels is not good, and can lead to disaster. That is why Jiāo jì have to be controlled and trained. All children need to train their five emotions, and experience positive and negative in life. In this way, the parents can rest in peace.


To understand Chinese psychology we need to understand many concepts. Vocabulary is different and it has a taste of philosophy. For sure you will find this way of thinking psychology appealing and addicting. It opens up your perception for the REAL and COMPLETE patient, and gives you a tool both for understanding and therapy. Let us start our journey into the depths of Chinese psychology.

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