This chapter argues that since Chinese culture is complex and profound, uncritical transplant of American positive psychology to Chinese soil may not be fruitful. It proposes that a more promising approach to Chinese Positive Psychology (CPP) calls for ongoing dialogue between East and West and the development of research programs that meet the needs of the Chinese people in their unique cultural and political context. More specifically, it first describes the defining characteristics the Chinese culture and then outlines three related tracks of research: (1) Basic psychological research based on the Chinese yin-yang dialectics (2) The indigenous psychology movement; and (3) Cross-cultural psychology research. This paper concludes that Wong’s (2011) dialectical perspective of Positive Psychology 2.0 may provide a more culturally appropriate framework for a productive CPP and a hopeful future for China.
Since the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology, Chinese Positive Psychology (CPP) has gained much momentum as a result of several current trends. First, China’s recent unprecedented economic growth and political influence in the world has generated a great deal of interest in the psychology of Chinese people (Bond, 2010). Second, the psychology department in Tsinghua University, re-established by K. Peng, focuses on positive psychology (Kuhn, 2013). Third, two international positive psychology conferences (2010, 2012) have been held in China. Finally, there is also a state-sponsored happiness campaign (J. Yang, 2014). Given China’s influence on the world stage, a flourishing CPP could have considerable impact on the future of China, as well as future civilizations (Kyong-Dong, 2002).
While Wong (2010) affirmed the potential benefits of PP for China, he also cautioned against the uncritical and wholesale transplant of American positive psychology to Chinese soil. There were two main reasons. First, American PP had its own inherent flaws, as pointed by various scholars (e.g., Churchill, 2014); Wong’s (2011) Positive Psychology 2.0 was developed to overcome these deficits and incorporate cultural and existential concerns. Second, what works in America might not work in China and vice versa; for positive psychology to take roots in China, it needs to be at least culturally sensitive. Thus, Wong (1993) has developed the Resource-Congruence Model, which emphasizes that availability of resources and employment of culturally and situationally appropriate skills are necessary conditions for successful adaptation.
In a similar vein, Jie Yang (2014) pointed out that the millions of marginalized and displaced urban workers in China, resulting from national economic restructuring, did not have the necessary resources and skills to create their own jobs as entrepreneurs and reconstruct their own happiness in the midst of misery. In other words, a state-sponsored happiness campaign that focuses on individual responsibility for one’s own happiness, without the government providing job opportunities and mental health services, may have the opposite effect of generating resentment, in these unemployed workers, towards the State.
We should also keep in mind the fierce competition in China because of the size of the population; the national university entrance examination (Gaokao) and financial costs of higher education can keep millions of young people, especially those in rural areas, from university education. To further compound the social problem, when getting a good job depends on quansi (who you know is more important than what you know), many talented young people are frustrated in their career aspirations, and feel helpless to change the system. In this kind of social climate, the positive psychology of flourish (Seligman, 2013) would appeal to the well-heeled middle-class and well-connected privileged class, but may not be relevant to the marginalized and suffering masses, who are only familiar with failure, despair, and unhappiness.
A stronger reason against the uncritical transplant of American PP through translation is that PP is inherently culture-bound (Wong, 2013). What is happiness or what constitutes a good life depends on a priori value judgments based on social norms and the cultural context (Ho, Duan, & Tang, 2014; Lu, 2008, 2010). The experience of what is meaningful or worthwhile is also grounded in the historical and cultural context (Zevnik, 2014). The vast country of China is populated by very diverse peoples, with their own social and cultural traditions. Therefore, for CPP to take roots in China, it needs to be predicated on both cultural specific characteristics as well as universal human propensities.
This chapter argues that a more fruitful approach to CPP emphasizes dialogue between East and West, as equal partners, and the development of research methodologies that incorporate the best from Western psychology and Chinese indigenous psychology. More specifically, I first describe the characteristics of traditional Chinese culture and then propose three related tracks of research: (1) Basic psychological research based on the Chinese yin-yang dialectics (2) The indigenous psychology movement, and (3) Cross-cultural psychology research.
Key Characteristics of the Chinese Culture
Culture is a multidimensional construct that encompasses people, history, geography, politics, customs, language, and influential philosophies and religions. Being Chinese means at least three things: being descendants of the Chinese race, bearers of the burdens of Chinese history, and recipients of traditional Chinese cultural beliefs. These are the three common elements shared by Chinese people everywhere.
Chinese people may have been selectively bred for their capacity to endure and adapt to adversities over the past five thousand years. Being the largest nation with the longest history gives the Chinese people a sense of national pride; their experience of humiliation over the last 200 years has served to strengthen both their patriotism and their motivation to regain former glories. The accumulated wisdom from historical lessons and the teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism have provided an optimistic framework for the Chinese to cope with the hardships and vicissitudes of life; an optimism akin to Viktor Frankl’s tragic optimism (Frankl, 1985). At a more molecular level, Chinese people’s ways of thinking and their unique language system have restructured their brains and predisposed them to perceive the world in unique ways. Together, all of the above factors shape the Chinese mentality.
Three Dominant Chinese Philosophies
This article first briefly introduces Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism as the cornerstones of traditional Chinese culture. These dominant schools of philosophy provide three useful conceptual frameworks for CPP.
Founded by Confucius (Kung Fu-tze, 551–479 BC) and elaborated by Mencius (372–289 BC), Confucianism is most responsible for shaping the Chinese culture. Witnessing the decay of social order and escalation of wars, Confucius sought to realize the ideal of social stability and world peace through the cultivation of individual virtues. His teachings on personal and political ethics were recorded by his students in the Analects. Confucius taught that educated gentlemen should practice the following five virtues in order to live a happy and harmonious life:
- Yen is the virtue of benevolence, kindness, compassion, and humanity.
- Yi is the virtue of righteousness and uprightness. Yi also encompasses zhong (faithfulness, loyalty, and conscientiousness) and shu (forgiveness, altruism, and consideration of others).
- Li is the virtue of propriety, politeness, and good manners. It dictates what constitutes correct behavior in different kinds of relationships, e.g., filial piety for children towards parents and respect for authority.
- Zhi is the virtue of knowledge, prudence, and wisdom, which can be acquired from studying the classics and learning from others.
- Xin is the virtue of faithfulness and integrity, which inspires trust.
In sum, the good life consists of finding one’s proper place in society and dutifully performing one’s role. Confucianism discourages the self-centered pursuit of individual happiness and success, because such a pursuit will disrupt social order and harmony. Such emphasis on collectivism may be responsible for holding the country together throughout its long history.
Taoism advocates the ideal of returning to the simple and natural way of life as a way of coping with the hardships and uncertainties of life. It was founded by Lao Tze and elaborated by Zhung Tze. The word Tao literally means “the way” or “the way of nature”– the ultimate creative principle that gives birth to the universe and nourishes everything in the cosmos.
One of the profound insights of Lao Tze is the duality of nature. All things in nature exist in duality or dialectics. The two opposites complement each other and make the existence of each other possible. Goodness does not exist without evil. Happiness does not exist without unhappiness. Lao Tze observes: “Fortune owes its existence to misfortune, and misfortune is hidden in fortune” (quoted by Chen, 2006, p. 92).
When the negative and positive are seen as an integrated whole, problems and stress disappear. According to this dialectical view, one’s strength may contain the seed of self-destruction, while strength may be hidden in one’s weakness. It is never wise to exclusively focus on developing one’s signature strengths or maximizing positive experiences without addressing the negative aspects of life.
Related to dialectics is the ubiquitous pattern of change. Things in nature are cyclical – day and night, change of seasons, life and death, etc. Everything reverses to its opposite. Reversals of fortune are the way of nature. Therefore, we should not be overjoyed when times are good or be depressed when times are bad. To know the principles of duality and change is the key to adapting effectively to the vicissitudes of life. The wisdom of being flexible and accepting setbacks enables one to takes things in stride.
Taoism teaches contentment as a natural way of life. It teaches us not only how to be free from worries, but also how to achieve happiness even when the problems are pervasive, chronic and beyond one’s control. Taoism emphasizes that craving for happiness and success leads to moral depravity and personal destruction, while contentment leads to happiness and health. Contentment involves overcoming cravings when times are good and overcoming worries when times are bad; thus, contentment is always there regardless of reversals of fortune. Contentment leads to humble, selfless devotion to the well-being of humanity.
Following the natural way of life also means learning the wisdom of “do nothing.” If we learn to let go of our striving and accept life as it is, we will be freed from many unnecessary pains. Surrender our own impulse to strive and control, and let nature take its course. The art of “do nothing” comes from meditation and learning the wisdom of the Way, which is the ultimate guarantee of happiness and contentment.
The Buddhist Perspective
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama as a system of mental cultivation in order to achieve spiritual liberation from suffering through awakening of the mind from delusion and greed. Mahayana (“great vehicle”) Buddhism was later developed in China, stressing the ideal of Bodhisattvas – enlightened individuals who are moved by compassion to save all sentient beings from sufferings.
The basic tenets of Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths:
1. The Truth of Suffering (Dikkha). Life is full of suffering. This realization is the necessary first step towards enlightenment. Suffering includes not only pain and distress caused by adversities, but also mental vexation, frustration, disappointment, and anxiety that come from greed, ignorance and attachments to worldly possession.
2. The Truth of the Cause of Suffering (Tanha). Suffering comes from craving for happiness and aversion of pain; both of these psychological mechanisms are rooted in primordial ignorance and delusion about life. Craving for happiness necessarily causes us to fear or reject anything that causes un-happiness or pain. Attachment to possessions and achievement invariably leads to disappointment and disillusionment, because everything is impermanent. Thus, failure to embrace life’s experience in its entirety is at the root of suffering.
3. The Truth of Liberation from suffering (Nirvana). We can be liberated from suffering by transforming our craving and aversion through enlightenment. When we attain this state of perfect peace, serenity and compassion, we are free from greed, hatred and delusion. This state also transcends all dualities, such as death and rebirth.
4. The Truth of the Eightfold Path (Magga). Liberation through enlightenment can be achieved through the eightfold path. The eight disciplines can be grouped into three categories:
(a) Morality – right speech, right action, right living, right effort
(b) Meditation – right mindfulness, right meditation
(c) Wisdom – right thought, right understanding
Mindful meditation is an essential exercise in the process of attaining enlightenment. It cultivates awareness and concentration, while remaining non-judgmental, regardless of what happens externally or internally. It develops the mental condition of focusing, self-acceptance and self- transcendence.>
Compassion is a natural outcome of enlightenment and wisdom. An enlightened view of the self leads to compassion. Wisdom leads one to surrender ego to be part of the larger self; the practice of love and compassion leads to wisdom. Buddhism does not seek to relieve people’s suffering and make them feel happy. Instead, it seeks to free them from ignorance and craving. Healing and happiness are the by-products of enlightenment and compassion rather than the results of worldly success.
Cultural Beliefs or Worldviews
Worldviews are assumptions and beliefs based on history, experience, and influential thinkers of a particular culture. The following six cultural beliefs are dominant in the Chinese way of thinking: uncontrollability of the world, ubiquity of change, fatalism, dualism, collectivism, and utility of efforts.
The first two worldviews reflect the perceived harsh realities of life; the other four worldviews reflect psychological adaptations to such perceptions and beliefs. Thus, unlike American PP which begins with neutral and positive territories, indigenous CPP begins with the negative territory – with the assumptions that normal life is mostly negative and beyond one’s control. As a result, CPP focuses on strengths and virtues that enable the Chinese to survive extreme adversities.
Uncontrollability of the world.People perceive the external world as largely beyond their control. Individuals are not able to prevent or control powerful cosmic, natural and political forces that impact their lives. Earthquakes, floods, draughts, and hurricanes often claim hundreds or thousands of lives. Historically, Chinese people rarely had the power to select their government through voting. Imagine yourself among the farmers living in a remote village. The only life you know is unrelenting poverty and hunger in spite of back-breaking labor. Life is at the mercy of not only the natural elements, but also the bandits and corrupt officials. There is no security and protection from anyone. When people grow up in these kinds of harsh and unyielding conditions, it is only natural that they formulate a view that the world is uncontrollable.
Ubiquity of change. To the traditional Chinese people, the world is not only uncontrollable but also unpredictable. Since individuals have no control over most events and situations in their lives, they have no way to predict how life will turn out. The vast sweep of Chinese history further reinforces the perception that everything is in a flux and life is often characterized by reversals of fortune. For example, the underclass in one regime may suddenly become the upper-class when there is a regime change. As the axiom goes, life is as predictable as the weather. Confucianism tries to reduce chaos by emphasizing social orders and stable relationships. Taoism emphasizes the need to be as flexible as water in adapting to changes. Buddhism teaches people that the world as we know it is just a passing delusion. All these teachings help people face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity.
Fatalism. It is the belief that spiritual and cosmic forces are deciding the fate of individuals and their daily affairs. Since the world is uncontrollable and unpredictable from the perspective of individuals, belief in fatalism seems to be inevitable. Divining and fortune telling have remained popular among Chinese people since the ancient days of I-Ching.
One benefit of belief in fatalism is that it makes unexplainable adversities more bearable. When one attributes suffering to karma, fate or bad luck, then one is liberated from the bondage of shame, guilt, or anger.
The duality of nature. Emphasized by Taoism, the belief in duality recognizes the co-existence of opposites and accommodates discordant ideas. The symbol of Yin Yang expresses best the dynamic balance between opposites in human nature as well as in the human condition.
Chinese people have learned from thousands of years of history that suffering and evil will be forever with us and the best one can do is to maintain an uneasy balance so that good will not be overwhelmed by evil.
Collectivism. Crowdedness and the enormity of life’s problems make it necessary for the Chinese people to learn how to get along with each other and how to work together to find solutions. Confucianism has also instilled into the Chinese mindset the imperative of collectivist beliefs. As a result, collectivism is widespread in East Asian cultures.
Traditionally, Chinese people invest in developing and maintaining good relationships, and would not want to ruin friendship because of expedience or temporary gains. Loyalty to family and friends is highly valued. While expression of gratitude is considered by American PP as an exercise to increase individual happiness, it is considered by CPP as essential for maintaining good relationships. To show gratitude for the good things people have done for you will enable you to forgive the bad things people have done to you. Collectivism becomes especially important when people need to depend on each other to survive corrupt and oppressive government officials. Collective coping (Wong, 1993) stems from the Chinese culture of collectivism.
Utility of efforts.If the first five cultural beliefs make Chinese people feel helpless and powerless as individuals, belief in the utility of effort reminds them of their personal responsibility to do their very best in areas where they can exercise some control. Their dialectical thinking allows the Chinese people to two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. (1) Leave everything to fate and Heaven, and (2) Sincere determination can defeat fate.
Utility of efforts includes work ethics (being studious and conscientious), self-cultivation efforts (cultivation and accumulation of various virtues), and relational efforts (filial piety, loyalty towards friends, respect for authority, and harmony within the group).
Combinations of the above traditional Chinese worldviews have served the Chinese people well in maintaining 5,000 years of uninterrupted existence as a sovereign country as well as the prosperity of overseas Chinese around the globe. These worldviews should inform the development of a scientific CPP. It would be a shame for China to import American positive psychology at the expense of her own rich cultural tradition.
Basic Psychological Research from a Chinese Perspective
The above traditional Chinese worldviews have already had considerable impact on research in mainstream psychology. Peng & Nisbett (1999) showed that Chinese thinking is dialectical rather than logical. Similarly, the wisdom of yin-yang dialectics has informed most of Wong’s research relevant to CPP.
Wong and Sproule (1984) have argued that Chinese people can hold an external and internal locus of control simultaneously. Therefore, their locus of control cannot be accurately measured by unidimensional scales; it can only be a captured by a two-dimensional space that includes external and internal locus of control as two independent scales. Such dialectical thinking poses a challenge to any psychological measures that depend solely on unidimensional rating scales.
According to the same dialectic thinking, pessimism and optimism can co-exist, resulting in tragic optimism (Wong, 2009). Death fear and death acceptance can co-exist, resulting in the multidimensional Death Attitude Profile (Wong, Reker, & Gesser, 1994). Resources and deficits can co-exist, as conceptualized in the Resource-Congruence Model (Wong, 1993). Thus, family can be resources for coping, but intra-family conflict can also be a deficit or stressor (Wong & Ujimoto, 1998). These are just a few notable examples to illustrate how Chinese dialectical thinking can significantly impact mainstream psychology research.
The same kind of dialectical reasoning is also behind Wong’s development of Positive Psychology 2.0 (PP 2.0; Wong, 2011), which posits that every positive emotion or experience has its downside, and every negative emotion or experience has its upside. In addition to correcting some of the deficiency of positive psychology, as proposed by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), PP 2.0 provides a dialectical, balanced, and cross-cultural perspective – a blueprint more relevant to the future development of CPP than American PP.
More recently, Wong’s Dual-Systems Model (Wong, 2012) spells out the mechanisms whereby the good life can be achieved, not by accentuating the positive and avoiding the negative, but by embracing and integrating both the positive and the negative. It integrates the dynamic complex interactions between approach and avoidance systems to optimize positive outcomes. This Dual-Systems Model can be applied to a variety of contexts, including management science (Li, 2014).
Indigenous Chinese Positive Psychology
On the basis of the above Chinese worldviews and values, it is only natural that CPP embraces life in its totality and integrates both positive and negative experiences. Balance and moderation are valued more than achieving optimal levels of functioning and happiness. Group harmony is considered more important than individual success. Contentment is the key to lasting happiness. The ideal life according to the average Chinese person, down through the years is: Live a plain life in peace and harmony with family members and neighbors. Happiness is found in harmonious relationships. Another Chinese axiom says, “Everything will be prosperous, when there is harmony at home.”
Kuo-shu Yang (1988) and David Ho (1996, 1998) identified the Confucius value of filial piety as the foundation for virtue, well-being, and social harmony in China. More recently, Hwang’s (2011) research on Confucian relationalism (2009, 2012) captures the essence of the relational self in Chinese mentality; he also proposes that self-cultivation may be a fit descriptor of CPP (Hwang & Chang, 2009).
Louise Sundararajan, a leader in the indigenous psychology movement, has critiqued American PP from a Confucian perspective. She (2014) has argued that in the Chinese cultural context, negative emotions can serve as a motivational force toward the enhancement of empathy and the pursuit of virtue. Thus, in certain situations, reflection on one’s negative emotions can result in more positive outcomes than focusing only on positive emotions.
The above examples illustrate that indigenous Chinese psychology offers a healthy balance to complement American PP, which is predicated on individualism and positivism.
The Cross-Cultural Psychology Approach to Chinese Positive Psychology
Cross-cultural research is interested in discovering both the universal principles (etic) and culture-specific aspects (emic) of behavior. We need to identify the common experiences from different cultural groups as well as the culture-specific issues. The major methodologies in cross-cultural research, such as linear research and parallel research, have been critically evaluated (Sue & Sue, 1987; Zane & Sue, 1986). The assumption of universality in the constructs and assessment instruments of mainstream American psychology has been questioned. Triandis (1972) called this ethnocentric approach ‘pseudo-etic’ rather than etic because it imposes the categories of Western culture (which is emic rather than etic) on other cultures. Such criticism is especially valid with respect to positive psychology.
Therefore, more recent research on cross-cultural psychology is more balanced and nuanced; it is more sensitive to emic difference in non-Western cultures. For example, Wong and Reker (1985) found that Chinese elderly used qualitatively different coping strategies and experienced lower psychological well-being, as compared with Anglos. K.Yang and Bond’s (1990) research on implicit personality theories with indigenous or imported constructs in a Chinese sample combines indigenous psychology with mainstream social psychology. More recently, Bond (2010) edited a handbook on Chinese psychology which includes both indigenous Chinese psychology and mainstream Western psychology.
In a multi-national, cross-cultural research project, Lun and Bond (2013) employed different measures of religion and spirituality in different national contexts. They found that in national cultures in which socialization for religious faith was more common, spiritual practice was positively related to subjective well-being, whereas in cultures where religious socialization was less prevalent, the relationship between spiritual practice and subjective well-being was reversed. Their research represents a significant improvement in cross-cultural research, as compared to using different translations of the same American constructs and measures in different nations.
The above review argues that while scientific research based on the positivist paradigm helps unpack the mysteries of happiness and well-being in the Euro-American context, such findings may not fit in the unique cultural and political context in China. The three related tracks of research indicate that traditional Chinese cultural beliefs have great potentials to influence CPP as well as mainstream psychology. In addition to individual research programs, we may benefit from a national research agenda that systematically investigates indigenous Chinese worldviews, values, and practices that best serve the Chinese people and their national interest. Wong’s (2011) dialectical Positive Psychology 2.0 may provide a culturally appropriate conceptual framework for a more productive CPP and a hopeful future for China.
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A shorter version of this article was published as Wong, P. T. P. (2009). Chinese positive psychology. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 148-156.). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.