In the dark days of China's Cultural Revolution, the government closed the nation's psychology departments and research institutes. It banished psychologists to remote areas of the countryside to work the land. It dismissed psychology itself as a bourgeois pseudo-science promoting a false ideology of individual differences.

In the 25 years since the Cultural Revolution ended, China's attitude toward psychology has changed dramatically. Today the government recognizes that psychology has an important role to play in the country's development, whether that means helping citizens cope with rapid economic change or helping employers choose the most suitable employees.

In fact, a recent government report listed psychology as one of half a dozen disciplines that deserve high priority when it comes to government funding over the next few decades.

"In order to achieve all-around modernization, China is to draw on the achievements of civilization the world over, and to assimilate any advanced scientific and technological achievements from other countries," says Qicheng Jing, a past president of the Chinese Psychological Society and a professor at the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing. "Chinese psychology, a discipline strongly affected by national policy and social environment, is going to seize this opportunity to develop itself."

Priority areas

Western-style psychology arrived in China at the beginning of the 20th century, brought by Chinese scientists who had studied in the West. For a few decades, the discipline flourished. By the early 1920s, these psychologists had established the country's first psychology laboratory and department, first psychology journal and the Chinese Psychological Society. But with the outbreak of war against Japan in 1937 and the world war that followed, further development of the discipline ground to a halt.

With the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, psychology rebounded, but with a Soviet twist. According to a Chinese Psychological Society report, Pavlov's theory of conditioned reflexes dominated in this period. The end of Mao's decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1976 brought renewed interest in Western psychology.

Until recently, most Chinese psychologists focused on teacher training. Although about half of the nation's psychologists still work in education, new needs have emerged. According to Jing and other Chinese psychologists, psychologists' top priorities include the following:

  • Counseling. The introduction of a free-market economy has brought China increasing prosperity. But with that prosperity have come soaring rates of anxiety and depression, says Houcan Zhang, a psychology professor at Beijing Normal University and incoming vice president of the International Union of Psychological Science. "People can't adjust to such rapid economic development and social change," she says, noting that most schools and universities now have counseling centers. Although psychotherapy is catching on in the big cities, those in rural areas have little access to psychological services. Those unmet needs can be deadly. A 1997 report by the World Bank, the World Health Organization and Harvard University estimated that China accounts for a whopping 44 percent of the world's suicides each year despite having only 22 percent of the world's population. Female farmers represent a disproportionate number of the victims.

  • Human resources. The shift from a planned economy has also prompted psychologists to get involved in the field of human resources. In the old days, Zhang explains, the government assigned everyone to their jobs and expected them to keep their posts for life. Nowadays, people are free to find jobs that suit their interests and abilities. Both the public and private sector are using psychologists to find the best candidates for jobs, says Zhang.

  • Health psychology. Helping China's immense population stay healthy is another emerging priority for psychologists. Especially critical is halting a rising HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimates that a million Chinese are already infected. "Stopping the epidemic of AIDS in China has mainly been a governmental issue," says Yongming Chen, president of the Chinese Psychological Society. "However, Chinese psychologists have started to pay attention to this problem."

A shortage of psychologists

Achieving these goals will require many more well-trained psychologists than China currently has. Thanks to psychology's rocky history in China and a bad case of "brain drain," there are only 10,000 psychologists in a country of more than a billion.

And that's counting psychologists as defined by Chinese standards, which allow anyone with a college degree and a few years of on-the-job training to call himself or herself a psychologist. Even the most well-respected members of China's psychological community often lack advanced degrees. Zhang, for example, teaches doctoral-level students even though the closing of the nation's universities meant her own education stopped at the level of a bachelor's degree.

"We must strengthen the training of psychologists in order to arrive at a psychology labor pool that is adequate to meet the needs of China's social and economic development," write Jing and his colleague XiaoLan Fu, PhD, a professor at the Institute of Psychology in Beijing and deputy director of the Chinese Psychological Society's Committee for International Cooperation. "Undertrained personnel should either be given more training or gradually be replaced by qualified psychologists."

China's universities are now hard at work to fill the gap. According to the Chinese Psychological Society, 18 Chinese educational institutions now have psychology departments or research laboratories. Almost every university offers at least a few psychology classes.

Many of these students will receive training that incorporates both Western and Chinese traditions. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, for example, one of the psychology department's primary objectives is to promote a distinctively Chinese voice that will help move the discipline beyond its Western origins.

"There are two camps of people here," explains Jin Pang Leung, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the university and a past president of the Hong Kong Psychological Society. "One camp just treats psychology as the study of universal human phenomena and doesn't worry about whether the subjects of study are Westerners or Chinese. The other camp believes that psychology is only meaningful as far as the cultural context is known to us."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

This article is part of the Monitor's yearlong series on psychology around the globe.