Book review: A shift in paradigm: When East meets West in psychology

A review of The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology

The Oxford Handbook of Chinese PsychologyReprinted from PsycCRITIQUES and Reviewed by Alex C. N. Leung

Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology
Edited by Michael Harris Bond New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. 732 pp.
ISBN 978-0-19-954185-0. $125.00.

In my graduate school days decades ago, I never had the opportunity to learn anything about Chinese psychology. In fact, during my graduate school years, I was never even in contact with another faculty member or fellow student from Asia, let alone China. Everything I learned about psychology had to do with Western-based theories. The idea of using psychological skills to work with different ethnic groups was never mentioned. It was assumed that I would not be using my skill set learned from the graduate program to treat any non-Caucasian clients, or, if I did, whatever I had learned could be directly transferred to working with a different ethnic group.Things have changed drastically in the past couple of decades. I recently attended the 2010 American Psychological Association (APA) Convention, and at the exhibition area there were a large number of publishers displaying textbooks on working with various Asian ethnic groups, Chinese in particular. It seems that Asian psychology has become popular, and numerous graduate programs in the United States now include it as part of their core courses.

The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology traces back the first sign of interest in psychology among Chinese scholars to the translation of Joseph Haven’s Mental Philosophy by Y. K. Yen (1889, as cited in Kodama, 1991), which told the important and interesting story of how interest grew and more research was done on Chinese psychology. Chapters in this book showcased theories and research on traditional Chinese beliefs and their significant psychological underpinnings. For instance, researchers proposed that the three major philosophical systems of the Chinese, namely, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, might serve psychotherapeutic functions, given their emphasis on self-improvement and humanity (Leung & Lee, 1996; Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).

Several other similarities between Eastern and Western mental concepts have also been noted. Lee (1982) and Yang (1982) suggested that the indigenous Chinese concept of yuan, the belief that interpersonal outcomes are determined by fate or supernatural forces, could function as a defense mechanism as defined by Western psychology; yuan helps to shield one from unpleasant emotions associated with negative interpersonal outcomes, such as breaking up a relationship.

Even among Chinese medical practitioners who practice traditional Chinese medicine, "psychology" and "psychotherapy" are not considered as knowledge and skills outside their practice paradigm. A strong relationship between physical illness and emotional distress was mentioned in ancient literature as far back as 2,000 years ago, and the concept of psychotherapy appeared in classical literature (Li, 2006; Xu, 1996).

Compatibilities between the cognitive approach to therapy, such as cognitive- behavioral therapy (CBT) and Buddhism have been acknowledged by its originator (Kwee & Ellis, 1998). Beck (2005) concluded that CBT aimed at achieving the Buddhist objective of alleviating mental distress by guiding the patient to examine his or her own thoughts and focus on the logical. Also, a modified form of Western CBT that incorporates elements of Chinese Taoist philosophy used in combination with medication has been found to be effective in the treatment of depression (Wang & Xu, 2005; Yang, Zhao, & Mai, 2005).

Despite similarities between Eastern and Western psychological concepts, some researchers have reported that there are still culture-specific traits and phenomena. This is particularly true in the area of clinical diagnoses of psychological/psychiatric disorders.

Since European American influences principally dictate the formulations of both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the International Classification of Diseases, a majority of Asian mental health professionals view both systems as posing difficulties in cross-cultural applications (Zou et al., 2008). In order for nosological systems to be internationally useful, cultural variations in the presentation of different disorders and their relevance in the cultural context need to be defined and these variations incorporated into the nosological systems (Tandon, 2010). In order to accomplish such a goal, Chinese mental health professionals started their own Chinese Classifications of Mental Disorders (CMCD), which is now into its third edition (Chinese Psychiatric Society, 2001). It contains several symptom categories, including neurasthenia, mental disorder due to qi gong, koro, and traveling psychosis that are specific to the Chinese or Asian cultures.

After reading the various excellent chapters in The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology, one realizes that Chinese and Western psychological concepts can be complementary and used to generate new ideas. To make the best of this combined knowledge pool, perhaps psychologists could consider following an approach proposed by Chang Chih-tung in his book Exhortation to Study, summarized in his slogan, "Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application" (Ayers, 1971).

In conclusion, The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology certainly belongs on the must-read list for graduate training. It is a fascinating compendium that covers not only the groundwork of Chinese psychology but also research on Chinese language development, personality traits, psychotherapy approaches, psychiatric diagnoses, and consumer mentality, just to name a few notable chapters. It is an invaluable desk reference for all students, faculty members, and practitioners interested in working with Chinese populations.


Ayers, W. (1971). Chang Chih-tung and educational reform in China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Beck, A. T. (2005, Spring). From the president: Buddhism and cognitive therapy. Beck Institute Newsletter, 10(1), 1–4.

Chinese Psychiatric Society. (2001). The Chinese classification of mental disorders (3rd ed.) [in Chinese]. Shandong, China: Shandong Publishing House of Science and Technology.

Kodama, S. (1991). Life and work of Y. K. Yen, the first person to introduce Western psychology to modern China. Psychologia, 34, 213–226.

Kwee, M., & Ellis, A. (1998). The interface between rational emotional behavior therapy (REBT) and Zen. Journal of Rational- Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 16, 5–43. doi:10.1023/A:1024946306870

Lee, R. P. L. (1982). Social science and indigenous concepts: With ―Yuen‖ in medical care as an example. In K. S. Yang & C. I. Wen (Eds.), The Sinicization of social and behavioral science research in China (pp. 361–380) [in Chinese]. Taipei, Taiwan: Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica.

Leung, P. W. L., & Lee, P. W. H. (1996). Psychotherapy with the Chinese. In M. H. Bond (Ed.), The handbook of Chinese psychology (pp. 441–456). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Li, Z. (2006). Research on psychotherapy in traditional Chinese medicine. Journal of Shanghai Jiaotong University: Medical Science, 26, 1182–1185 [in Chinese]. Tandon, R. (2010). DSM, ICD, and psychiatric nosology: How do cultural and national differences factor in? Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 3, 1–2. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2010.01.008

Wallace, B. A., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between Buddhism and Western psychology. American Psychologist, 61, 690–701. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.7.690

Wang, J., & Xu, J. (2005). Effects of Taoist cognitive psychotherapy in the treatment of post-stroke depression. Chinese Journal of Behavioral Medical Science, 14, 490–491, 521.

Xu, S. H. (1996). The concept of mind and body in Chinese medicine and its implication for psychotherapy. In W. Tseng (Ed.), Chinese psychology and psychotherapy (pp. 391–415) [in Chinese]. Taipei, Taiwan: Gui Guan Tu Shu Gu Fen You Xian Gong Si.

Yang, J., Zhao, I., & Mai, X. (2005). A comparative study of Taoist cognitive psychotherapy from China and Mianserin in the treatment of depression in late life. Chinese Journal of Mental and Nervous Diseases, 31, 333– 335 [in Chinese].

Yang, K. S. (1982). Yuen and its functions in modern Chinese life. In Proceedings of the Conference on Traditional Culture and Modern Life (pp. 103–128) [in Chinese]. Taipei, Taiwan: Committee on the Renaissance of Chinese culture.

Zou, Y.-Z., Cui, J.-F., Han, B., Ma, A.-L., Li, M.-Y., & Fan, H.-Z. (2008). Chinese psychiatrists’ views on global features of CCMD–III, ICD–10, and DSM–IV. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 1, 56–59. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2008.09.007