Bond,Michael Harris, Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology

Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at   Amazon review

Struggling with Western views

It is important to make it clear at the outset that Bond’s anthology is a description of empirical research, sometimes done first-hand by the authors, sometimes simply the results of their digestion of literature searches, about the psychological makeup and functioning of Chinese people in a variety of contexts. While some of these results yield suggestions and that could be useful in dealing with the Chinese across cultures, and improving social and business contacts, the primary objective is to explore cognitive and emotional behavior, its development and transformations where they occur and present these as a substantial contribution in the framework of Western psychology. We are not dealing per se with cultural, political or social conflict or therapeutic interventions, though it is obvious that the findings of various studies may raise questions as to how they may be applied in these areas, as well as supply suggestive theories by which behavior may be interpreted.

Psychology, as such, is an alien and relatively recent discipline within the framework of Chinese culture. The introduction of psychological studies has been a roller coaster ride of resistance, acceptance, condemnation, and currently some acceptance of Euro-American psychological thinking and practice. In addition there has been a period when Soviet Marxist psychological thinking was introduced while Euro-American psychology was out of favor.

The insertion of Western psychological thinking into Chinese culture automatically presents us with a multicultural context if not a cultural conflict. One immediately wonders if the introduction of western instruments, categories and practices into the psychological field of China and Chinese communities in the diaspora is not, at worst, a form of colonization and, at best, an effort on the part of Westerners to understand the Chinese in terms that are familiar to them. These questions can of course be rationalized with the nostrum, “You have to start somewhere.”

A number of questions, however, are thrust upon the reader, such as: Of what use is this to Chinese people themselves? What are the implications of having Western trained academics and psychologists, whether they are Chinese or not in origin, research the nature of the Chinese self and psyche in Western terms? Of course there is interest in the topic of shaping of the Chinese consciousness and what it may tell us about ourselves, how related we are to them, and subsequently how we might relate to them.

Furthermore, when it comes to therapy and applied psychology, will we find ourselves slipping into situations similar to those described in Crazy Like Us, a study of how Western psychological practices, diagnoses and illness definitions have invaded and sometimes dominated other cultures mental health practices?

The subtext of a considerable amount of psychological research is in fact, “Are they becoming more like us or not?” Looking at the initial entries in this anthology we see how psychological studies of Chinese children in age cohorts may measure the frequency and social acceptability of such traits as aggressiveness and shyness Applying Western frameworks to the parenting and socialization of children may yield some intelligible comparisons. Still, this all raises questions about the basis for making judgments, and on whose terms. The conflict of child-rearing styles may be better comprehended in first-hand accounts, as for example that found in the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, where a Chinese–American mother describes and evaluates the success of her parenting strategies.

The development of the field of cognitive science and new technologies such as neuroimaging allow all kinds of physical examinations of thinking, emotional, and linguistic processes in the human system which were hitherto impossible. The challenge is, now, how to interpret the results of these new forms of investigation.

Developmental psychology is represented in a number of essays in this book beginning with reviews of how literacy is fostered and reading disability as well as second-language acquisition challenges are identified and managed. Mathematical learning is likewise discussed. Not surprisingly though mental and pedagogical processes may be quite different, children's performance in both language and mathematics can be strongly correlated with parental support.

Many of us in the intercultural field are familiar with the differences charted by Nisbett's researches that highlight the contrast between the more holistic Chinese focus of perception and thinking and analytic central-point focus of Westerners. This has implications not only for what is seen, perceived, and described in a perceptual experience, but leads to differences in attribution, judgment and, on the interpersonal or intergroup level, as to how conflicts are perceived and resolved. Holistic focus, not surprisingly leads to lower contrast in perception as well as to lower-level affect supporting the need to harmonize or see the harmony in a contextually viewed “big picture.” This also affects decision-making in the sense that linear thinkers may be quicker to support intervention and change, while holistic thinkers are more inclined to expect change in a more random and naturally occurring fashion, but with an avoidance of excess in either direction. This may affect cause differences in decision-making and, for example, affect one's buying and selling behavior on the stock market. Not surprisingly Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist thinking support harmonious relationships among people, and between people and nature, both of which are supported by a holistic perspective.

For a long time the term “inscrutable” has been used to describe people whose thought processes we have difficulty in understanding. The word itself is a form of projection of our own incomprehension as if it were a quality of the persons we cannot comprehend. There has been a tendency to dismiss the inscrutable as unenlightened and retrograde, often stimulating Westerners’ sense of having a civilizing mission toward inscrutable folk. This has been true in teaching and in attempts to transfer pedagogical method, that is, until more adequate study has revealed frequently superior performance on the part of the inscrutable in comparable learning situations. This leads Western psychologists to explore the sources and form of motivation in Chinese students that lead to their higher level of achievement. By and large economic advantage is irrelevant to performance. What seems more relevant is the Chinese sense of achievement as integral to the development and unfolding of the good person, whereas the Western students it is more in aligned with viewing academic achievement as a conquest and a possession, utilitarian rather than spiritual. Likewise Western students are perceived to achieve more when working with subjects that interest them, whereas students in Confucian contexts may turn in superior performance even in subjects that they positively dislike, motivated by identity and responsibility to their school or cohort. Efforts may indeed turn out to be more reliable in producing results than ability. The absence of diminished supportive belonging in the family and in society may be a critical factor in understanding why individual self-esteem is so valued, protected, and encouraged in US American schools. The interesting an open question here is whether increased exchange on the global level will dilute the sense of solidarity and effort in Chinese students.

It is well established that the nature, appropriateness, use, physical and verbal expression, and even linguistic definition of emotions and feelings may differ even among close neighbors. The question remains unresolved as to how universally the substratum of emotional life may be actualized across cultures. Lack of conclusiveness in this area may stem from a number of factors, one of which may be our ongoing conflicting views about the nature and extent of the influence of culture on individual behavior.

A chapter on “Beliefs in Chinese Culture” discusses a wide range of other areas of belief such as the benevolence of human nature, the importance of morality and self control, on one hand and environmental beliefs in physical order being domesticated by such disciplines as feng shui on the other. Differences between Chinese and Westerners also exist along the lines of locus of control and internal versus external.

Closely related is a subsequent chapter on values, a particularly thorny subject for researchers, given that the definition and function of values is far from being universally understood, given the competing Western theories predominating psychological research in this area. Though research has been done extensively on identifying and testing core Chinese values and contextualizing them, much more needs to be done, while at the same time recognizing that more intense cultural exchange maybe causing shifts in how values are seen and applied.

The Chinese self seems to be an endless source of curiosity on the part of Westerners, perhaps because it causes us insecurity when we see success based upon factors that we are likely to dismiss or see as inferior in our own understanding of the importance of self-esteem and self-efficacy.

One of the more interesting research projects is described in Chapter 18 of this volume, the development of the Chinese Personality Assessment Inventory (CPAI). This involved the development of indigenous personality measures adapted from Chinese culture resulting in the delivery of an instrument with potential applications to leadership and job performance.

Other researchers looked at the psychology of aging and of well being to determine the existence of cultural variations and the depth of these variations. Aging processes, perceptions and behaviors showed smaller cross-cultural variations than expected when compared with Western research populations, though it is clear that there is not a single standard for the aging process.

Research on national happiness has been an international discussion in recent years and more research on this topic is reported here. The challenge is to come up with a definition of happiness itself, defining its components and assessing how fleeting or how permanent this state may be, particularly since an exact word for happiness itself does not exist as such in the Chinese vocabulary and collective versus individual polarities are in play in the discussion. This forces researchers to look for characteristics included in the sense of harmony and good life in Chinese folk wisdom and philosophy, in coherence with what the society itself defines as individual and social well being. This is particularly challenging in the context where multicultural influences argue for differing forms of the good life, but researching the question itself is also seen as an important piece of work by Chinese psychologists, given their moral obligation fo caring for the well-being of the population.

Similarly defining the nature and components of spirituality among the Chinese is challenging. Spirituality is spoken of as the sense of understanding and managing the purpose of life, the meaning of death, and how spiritual disciplines and religious practices define and support these definitions. One asks what the influence of spirituality is on one's relationship to others, the parameters of caring and forgiveness, as well as the impact of spirituality on one's own being, e.g., such issues as hope and hopelessness, health and well-being, etc. While the major strains of Chinese philosophy are well-known and well examined, researching the nature and practice of spirituality poses significant methodological problems that again may be due to Western conceptualizations of what spirituality is all about.

While, as I mentioned earlier, the studies collected here are not focused on therapeutic practice, many of them have implications for the understanding and treatment of mental and emotional disorders. Thus central to the book, there are chapters which attempt to describe in position psychiatric disorders advancing developments in Chinese neuropsychology, how traditional Chinese philosophy, for example the Tao, functions as a coping mechanism individually and socially, as well as how one deals with illness within the individual consciousness and in terms of the support expected of or sought from others in the family or community. Is there for example a role for what we describe as community psychology, which, in the West we relate to public health concerns? The author on the section of community psychology reviews the conceptual and practical nature of this phenomenon in the West and then asks about how elements of this may be exercised in the Chinese society, the focus being largely on the Hong Kong Chinese experience, which the author hopes will have some coherence with Mainland Chinese concerns and resonate with other Chinese cultural communities. Often it takes a crisis of large dimensions to reveal the nature, organization, and responsiveness of community care for mental health and well-being, e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.

There follows an overview of the history and progress of psychotherapeutic interventions among the Chinese. This is indeed a drama of how East meets West, how helpers in Chinese societies, medical practitioners, natural and supernatural intermediaries have traditionally assisted the troubled person, and whether and how Western therapeutic practice maybe useful or desirable in the Chinese context. It seems that there can be beneficial results where the understanding of the nature of the helping relationship is clear, and the theoretical grounding of the therapeutic intervention is culturally coherent. Not to be overlooked in the East meets West paradigm is the fact that this cross-cultural encounter in therapy and spirituality has been making important inroads on the Western sense of integrity and well being. There has been both popular and academic engagement with Eastern philosophies for more than three quarters of a century in the West.

At this point the collection of essays moves in the direction of examining Chinese behaviors in the domains of face and morality, competitiveness and collaboration. While Western, particularly in multicultural societies, are drawn to rule and lawmaking, exploration of the Chinese sense of righteousness seems less focused on the guilt involved in a violation of social norms then the shame that it produces. This is coherent with a more communitarian social system where “face” that adheres to the person is built-up through right action and its acknowledgment by others, then confirmed by his or her accorded place in society. Here ethics and morality and what is appropriate behavior will be defined by the level of relationship that one has with those one is interacting with and seen in the ensuing roles and duties. Discrepancies exist of course between what is intended and what is seen even in Chinese society, and this is at play in a number of mundane contexts such as gift giving, consumption patterns, and the need for preserving face and work relationships both up and down the hierarchy and laterally with one's colleagues.

When it comes to competitive versus collaborative behavior and conflict resolution it seems that it is time to abandon the stereotypes of conflict avoidance often attributed to the Chinese for a closer look at how conflict is brought up, managed, and resolved. Yes, there may be differences in what one labels as directness and politeness, but conflict, particularly when it has to do with how one approaches the task or solves a problem can be openly dealt with. More complex forms of conflict between personalities and roles require greater attention to face-saving and face giving behaviors on the part of the parties involved, particularly when there are differences in the hierarchical relationship.

Chapters 30 and 31 deal with interpersonal relationships and gender factors respectively. Both of these topics, as the reader can imagine, are complicated both by the rapidity of social and economic change in China itself and increasingly frequent interaction across cultures in an increasingly global communication context. Love, intimacy, and marriage as well as one's choice and behaviors within friendship, appear to be increasingly liberalized, yet are practiced with a certain conservatism when it comes to showing respect within the relationship, or sexual behavior, or familial structure and connections. Some studies have explored the shape of Chinese online relationships, however this field of study is only beginning to have some definition worldwide, so comparisons are difficult.

Comparisons of Chinese with Western data tend to suggest that Chinese couples have a higher degree of closeness as well as greater separation anxiety than their Western counterparts, but the differences may be more perceptual than real. Where change is highlighted, it is often in terms of the more multicultural Hong Kong experience than that of the Mainland, but in general one must say that marriage choices are increasingly focused on attraction and aspiration on the part of women as well as men. Certainly Chinese culture is far more communitarian when it comes to obligations toward parental support, and multigenerational cohabitation.

Having been engaged in gender studies for quite a number of years, this reviewer has tended to approach gender issues as the “ultimate cultural difference” and in this domain women's liberation has become a universal concern, so the question is not whether relationships are changing, but how, to what degree, and with what speed. Then there is the question of how one perceives and values oneself as a man or woman in mixed gender academic and work contexts, as well as how one uses one's gender for empowerment with the other sex. The move in the direction of an egalitarian gender ideologies demand new strategies for maintaining relationships particularly in dual career situations. Not surprisingly marriage dissolution has become more common on one hand, while violence in relationships and sexual harassment remain concerns, not just in China, but worldwide. Researchers see Chinese society at a crossroads between tradition and modernization and the changes involved are not gender-neutral but affect men and women differently. Here as well as elsewhere in psychological studies reported in this volume, one has to realize that targeted research populations are drawn largely from urban and academic groups, leaving us wondering about their applicability to the great majority of the Chinese living outside of cities and universities.

Chapter 32 is a fascinating look at Chinese communication particularly interesting because the authors base their examination on indigenous concepts that underlie and describe the mental paradigms that are engaged in the communication process. This chapter is all too short in the sense that much of what it treats should be known and applied in other attempts to study Chinese thinking and communication patterns and their outcomes.

The next three chapters concerned political and social structure, how authority is exercised, particularly the role of what we would describe as paternalism, and how people participate in society and engage with each other in intergroup relationships. When it comes to political participation, it is difficult to sort out what might be “typical” Chinese behavior, given significant differences in the actual political structures of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. Researchers are interested to know why and how people become politically involved both at the level of participating in elections, as well as becoming more active in other political processes. Surprisingly Mainland China seems to show a higher level of expectation that government will be responsive to popular pressure, while at the same time holding stronger belief in the legitimacy of a benevolent, paternalistic and morally guided authority and hierarchy, attitudes not true of Chinese elsewhere.

It has been easy for Western thinkers and psychologists to think of the primacy of the individual and the process of individuation as defining the healthy trajectory for a truly fulfilled human personality. Most interculturalists today are fully aware that the dimension of individualism–collectivism has been the most overused and abused polarity in the classical repertoire of cross-cultural dimensions. Nowhere has this been truer than in producing simplified notions about “the Chinese.” Fortunately, contemporary researchers are starting to break down these dichotomous mindsets about Asian and particularly Chinese culture. Collective behavior is a proven requisite for human survival and success on the planet, so it is not a matter of whether one behaves collectively, but rather where, when, under what circumstances and, in what sort of relationships it is important in a given culture. In the case of Chinese individuals it is a matter of perceiving the degree to which the web of social obligations is fixed in the identity and ethics of the individual person. Some scholars speculate that the open geography of the Chinese mainland and the historical paucity of significant regional competitors played a role in the development of Confucian philosophy and social morality, allowing the civilization space to regenerate itself repeatedly without interruption over long periods of history. Psychologists, on the other hand, are suspicious of such historical narratives and prefer to inquire into indigenous mental patterns and markers of social identity in research populations as the elements through which the population responds to hierarchy, both benevolent and authoritarian, and pushes toward the ideal of benevolence and moral behavior in its leadership.

Comparisons of Chinese and Western leadership theories and models show significant differences in the expectations of how leadership will be exercised. Yet leadership in China as elsewhere lies at the multicultural interface of increasingly globalized politics, economic policy and trade. Chapter 35 provides clear models that help our understanding of paternalistic leadership in Chinese society, how it best works, and how the behaviors of both leaders and followers are interrelated, communicating with each other and providing motivation to meet a society’s or organization’s objectives. Far from being deprived of innovation and charisma and lacking in creativity and power-sharing, as Western bias might suggest, these factors are capable of being produced in either system. Future research on the topic may profit from a deeper look at and a more detailed understanding of indigenous concepts surrounding leadership as well as by a reassessment of Western terminology hitherto used to describe Chinese behavior. For example, the word “authoritarian” with all of its pejorative overtones might be replaced with “authoritative” as better expressing Chinese reliance on legitimate authority and expertise. Moreover the Taoist mentality is high in its respect for change, flexibility, reciprocity, and exchange, suggesting that there is perhaps much more ground for the integration of Chinese and non-Chinese perspectives and theories in multicultural collaborative environments.

Next, there are two chapters that deal with the quite tangible sets of behaviors surrounding consumer psychology and sports psychology. The first of these seems aligned with the considerable research on Western consumer behavior and language of marketing and advertising, which is particularly multicultural in the promotion of new products and fashions in China. The authors themselves admit this is an area requiring significantly more research, with no certainties in sight. Sport psychology is another matter. It is seen to have the practical value of enhancing performance and competitive success. It asks how one finds and develops talent and specifically what sort of mental training should one embark upon to guarantee the greatest level of performance and success. Here psychology is again abetted by technology in the form of tools and instruments that can provide feedback both during and after performances. In addition, professional psychological support has become an option both during training and in actual performance situations. While it is not expected that sports metaphor may penetrate Chinese society as thoroughly as it has in the United States, for example, Chinese interest in and dedication to sports will certainly affect thinking and behavior surrounding personal well-being as well as the pursuit of excellence in other areas such as organizational behavior.

How does one sum up this great potpourri of research studies? Not an easy task, but certainly one part of it is to remind ourselves of the diversity of the Chinese experience, given a diaspora of more than 35 million people, coexisting in cultures quite different from their own in all four corners of the earth. Certainly this is a most significant factor in defining research and qualifying its conclusions when exploring Chinese psychological makeup and behavior. This multicultural factor runs through all of the essays of the volume and not just, as we asserted at the outset, because the science of psychology has only come lately to be grafted on the tree of Chinese professional learning. Probably more psychological research has taken place in circumstances of acculturation abroad than in the more monocultural bosom of the Chinese mainland itself. Consequently, the processes of acculturation and identity bifurcation and the challenges to cope and adapt to new circumstances both as individuals and as families are easier for researchers to access in settings such as Hong Kong and Singapore, enabling them to assess the features and traditional values that both remain as well as may be challenged by life in a multicultural environment. Particularly among overseas Chinese and Chinese emigrées one looks at such things as the enduring nature of family ties, the role of the extended family, deference toward and connection with the elders, the continuation of familial piety. Also one may examine what special efforts have to be made to support these values and practices in what may be an indifferent or hostile cultural environment.

Given this, what is the nature of intercultural interactions in the Chinese context? This is the theme of the next chapter, which appropriately opens with a quotation from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, “if you know yourself and know the other, you will win every battle.” This could be a very broad topic but the authors of this chapter have a particular interest on behavior in cross-cultural negotiations and interactions in diverse groups. The authors lay out a cross-cultural interaction sequence, the steps in perception and interpretation that lead to an appropriate response on the part of parties in a mixed cultural interaction. We all engage in a process of selective perception, categorize our interlocutors into groups according to their different levels of relationship to ourselves and we tend to interpret the causes and discover the norms of other people's self-expression and behavior. So, the task here becomes one of seeing how Chinese actors populate these tasks with values and paradigms from their own background and how they are thereby hindered or enabled to respond to or even simulate perceptions and actions fitting to the new contacts.

There is an obligatory meditation on how distinctive the Chinese are as we explore their psychology. This is the perennial question as to how like and unalike we humans in fact are. Are our differences more matters of perception than fact, more the result of imperfect methodology and skewed samples? Do Schwarz's universals apply and, if so, to what degree? Is the psychology used in discussing the topics found in this book just an incomplete step in the globalization of the profession? These questions set the scene for a final reflection about the next steps of the psychological enterprise in the 21st century. This is Michael Bond’s attempt as editor to derive direction from this collection of studies and from his experience of putting it forward. Bond votes against distinctiveness and in favor of emphasizing the complexity of tools and methodologies used. This reveals both differences and similarities but also that the contrasts should ultimately be conditioned by the uniqueness of each individual. Bond proclaims his faith in shared humanness and sees it as the role of cross-cultural psychology to scientifically demonstrate the validity of this belief. What does this mean for the future of the discipline? Obviously broadening theory and tools with indigenous contributions. Bond observes that we tend to notice difference first, but observation of difference requires deconstruction and assessment of its relative strength and the degree to which it is operationalized in any given situation. Finally Bond underlines the importance of multidimensional, multicultural contextualization. This means that our primary effort should no longer be around simply putting two cultures side-by-side and measuring the distances between them, but rather that we should focus on creating what one might describe as a three- dimensional space, a universe composed not of stars planets and galaxies, but of our cultural specificities as they are drawn and balanced by motion and gravitation in an infinite multicultural space.

In sum, The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology is a massive collection of perspectives between two hard covers. It is hardly vacation reading, but its perusal can offer the interculturalist a couple of benefits. Fi

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