Existential Psychology In China

This month we re-examine existential psychology in China and update our original 2007 report
By Louis Hoffman, PhD, Xuefu Wang, PhD, and Mark Yang, PsyD

In early 2007, the authors of this report engaged in initial dialogues on existential psychology in China. At that time, we never could have imagined that these conversations would be the beginning of a movement that in the course of less than 4-years involved thousands of people in China and many of the leading existential scholars in the United States. The dialogues and presentations were so well- received that we soon began planning the First International Conference on Existential Psychology, which was held in Nanjing, China, April 2010. Since the initial discussions, the progress has been nothing short of inspiring.


The past four years has included the development of a book, Existential Psychology East-West (Hoffman, Yang, Kaklauskas, & Chan, 2009), the establishment of a Chinese web site on existential psychology, numerous United States scholars traveling to China for dialogues and presentations, several existential psychology forums and workshops in China, one international conference, and three Chinese scholars presenting on existential psychology in the United States.

The most important accomplishments have been recognizing Zhi Mian Therapy, an approach to therapy developed by Xuefu Wang, as an indigenous Chinese approach to existential psychology. Wang (in press) developed Zhi Mian based, in part, on the writings of the Chinese philosopher and literary figure, Lu Xun. Zhi Mian, along with many ideas parallel to existential psychology in other Chinese religious and philosophical thought, has helped build the foundation for a true exchange of ideas.

Currently, The Humanistic Psychologist is in the process of publishing a special issue of the journal including papers from the 2010 conference. Additionally, plans are underway for the Second International Conference on Existential Psychology to be held in Shanghai, China in May, 2012.

Lessons From The Cultural Exchange

From the outset of the dialogues on existential psychology in China, we have maintained a strong focus on exchange. Our purpose has never been taking existential psychology to China. Instead, we have discussed existential psychology with the encouragement of critical thought about how existential psychology may not fit Chinese culture or may require adaptation before it can be applied in a culturally-sensitive manner. This information has been used to inform the practice of existential psychology in China and advance existential psychology in the West. Several lessons, in particular, stand out.

One of the authors (Hoffman, 2009) has maintained that existential psychology focuses on the existential givens, which are universal conditions that all people must face that require culturally and personally specific answers. This provides a foundation for existential psychology to be adapted and applied in different cultures. In a sense, one eye must always be on the individual and one on the culture. For too long, existential psychology has not given adequate attention to the challenges and opportunity of culture. Through the cultural exchange between China and the United States, this is changing.

The various existential givens – 1) death and human limitation, 2) freedom and responsibility, 3) isolation and relationship, 4) meaning, and 5) emotions/embodiment – all need to be closely considered in the Chinese context. On past trips, we have focused heavily on the theme of emotions. It is commonly asserted that the Chinese either do not have emotions or do not express emotions readily. However, one of the authors (Xuefu) has maintained this is not correct. Instead, people in Chinese culture express their emotions differently. For example, on one of our trips we visited the Chinese opera in Nanjing, China. After the performance, Xuefu explained the subtle level of emotions expressed through this artistic form. It is not that Chinese do not express emotions, but rather they do not express them in a manner such as is common in the United States. 

In 2011, the focus of our trip was on the topic, “Preparing for and Facing Death.” Beginning in Hong Kong, many of the audiences were asked to reflect on common responses they have heard in response to hearing that someone is dying or facing a terminal illness. The answers paralleled many common answers to what are heard in the United States, but they were often expressed differently. For instance, many of the responses included denial, avoidance of talking about the issues, and superficial reassurances. Particularly in Hong Kong, there was discussion that the processing of death was increasingly rushed due to the pressures of the increasingly common fast-paced life style.   As a point of comparison, Dr. Mark Yang and one of his students both lost their fathers within one week of each other.  Mark’s father passed away at the palliative care center at the University of California, San Francisco.  His family was offered a 3 – 4 hour window in which to be with the body of the father at his bedside.  Conversely, the family of Mark’s student in Hong Kong was given 10-15 minutes in which to be with the body given the crowded conditions in the hospital.

Another common theme in the response to death was a movement away from many of the traditional cultural and religious rituals of Chinese culture. Some Chinese expressed deep regret over this loss of ritual. Yet, it was also evident that there were many cultural rituals and beliefs that were great resources to help people authentically face death.

The 2012 Conference: The Meaning And Application Of Zhi Mian

The theme for the 2012 Second International Conference on Existential Psychology is Zhi Mian. The literal interpretation of Zhi Mian is “face directly”; however, the meaning is much more complex. For example, it can refer to facing life directly, or facing life as it is. It can refer to facing oneself directly, or honest self-exploration. Last, it can mean facing one’s relationships directly, paralleling the theme of genuine and authentic relationships in existential psychology. The conference preparation committee encourages people interested in attending the conference to submit proposals that are relevant to the concept of Zhi Mian, particularly proposals exploring the meanings and applications of this concept.

The 2012 conference also intends to advance the cultural exchange component of the conference. Thus, participants from the West not familiar with Chinese or other Eastern cultures will be expected to prepare for the conference through engagement with materials on Chinese culture and psychology (resources will be provided). The conference will be held in Shanghai, China, May 24 through May 27, 2012. For more information about the conference, or if you are interested in submitting a proposal to the conference, please contact Louis Hoffman.


Existential psychology is quickly and forcefully gaining momentum in China. Yet, it is not just the introduction of Western existential psychology, but the discovery of indigenous existential psychology in China that is paving the way. The 2012 conference is expected to build upon the excitement already established, while also deepening the conversations.


Hoffman, L. (2009). Gordo’s ghost: An introduction to existential perspectives on myths. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. J. Kaklauskas, & A. Chan (Eds.), Existential psychology East-West (pp. 259-274). Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

Hoffman, L., Yang, M., Kaklauskas, F. J., & Chan, A. (Eds.). (2009). Existential psychology East-West. Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

Wang, X. (in press). Zhi Mian and existential therapy. The Humanistic Psychologist.


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