Second International Conference on Existential Psychology: The meaning and inspirations of Zhi Mian

Louis Hoffman examines the flourishing of existential psychotherapy in China

By Louis Hoffman, PhD

Fudan University in Shanghai, May, 24-27, 2012

Brief History of The Existential Psychology-Zhi Mian Therapy Exchange

In the midst of what many are calling a renaissance in humanistic and existential psychology, one area of growth really stands out as unique. In the last 5-years, existential psychology has begun to flourish in China. In many ways, this seems like a natural occurrence given the similarities of existential psychology and many aspects of Eastern thought. In other ways, this is a quite unexpected and unanticipated surge of interest.

A number of aspects of the Chinese interest in existential psychology make this movement unique. First, many Western approaches to mental health have found a fruitful market in China and many in the United States have worked hard to export their approach to psychology to China. Given that China has experienced great suffering and has many needs, many Chinese have been very willing to import these approaches. Yet, this too often has not been done with cultural sensitivity. Many exporters from the West emphasize the need to replicate their approach in China with little or no consideration for culture or indigenous approaches to psychological healing. This has often been minimally helpful at best, and frequently has caused harm.

The existential movement in China emerged through a different process guided by different values and inspirations. First, the existential movement began at a psychology of religion conference in China organized by Al Dueck and Buxin Han, which was believed to be the first psychology of religion conference in mainland China. At this conference, the fortuitous meeting of Mark Yang, Xuefu Wang, and myself found a shared interest in existential psychology. This meeting has now been documented in several newsletter articles as well as journal articles; however, the often-neglected piece of this meeting is the context of the psychology of religion conference. Dueck and Han worked hard to maintain a foundation to the psychology of religion conference of cultural exchange. They identified indigenous approaches to the psychology of religion as well as considering how Western approaches to the psychology of religion could be useful in China. This value system is a perfect fit with an existential approach to cross-cultural psychology and helped to provide a basis for a culturally sensitive approach to developing existential psychology in China.

Second, existential psychology values exchange, dialogue, and interpersonal encounter. Additionally, there is a strong resistance to imposing one’s values on other groups or individuals. From the outset, the approach that Mark, Xuefu, and myself encouraged emphasized dialogue, critiquing Western approaches to existential psychology, adapting existential psychology to the particular cultural context, and creatively exploring new ways to think of psychology in an existential context.

The most exciting discovery in the early development was the natural semblance of existential psychology and Zhi Mian therapy. Zhi Mian therapy was developed by Xuefu Wang drawing upon the work of the Chinese literary figure and philosopher Lu Xun (see Wang, 2009, 2011).  Sun Shijin, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, was the first to suggest to Wang that Zhi Mian therapy bore great resemblance to existential psychology. The more we dialogued about these two forms of therapy the more we came to believe that Zhi Mian could rightly be considered an indigenous Chinese form of existential therapy, and that existential therapy could rightly be considered a Western form of Zhi Mian therapy.

Inspirations of Zhi Mian & Cross-Cultural Existential Psychology

The development of the United States-Chinese exchange on existential psychology and Zhi Mian therapy has grown enormously over the past 5-years, with many deserving credit for the influence these conversations have begun to have. As with any great exchange, if it is not exposed to a wider audience its influence will be limited. In addition to groups from the United States traveling to China on a yearly basis, Wang and Yang, as well as Ren Zheng Jia, have come to the United States to present and dialogue at various institutes and to present at the Society for Humanistic Psychology annual conference. In addition to the book Existential Psychology East-West being published in 2009, recently a special section of The Humanistic Psychologist was published featuring the First International Conference on Existential Psychology.

The special issue of The Humanistic Psychologist has several articles of particular importance. First, Wang’s (2011) article, “Zhi Mian and Existential Psychology,” is the definitive source on Zhi Mian therapy in English. It is evident that this brief article serves only as a starting point. Second, the article by Moats, Claypool, and Saxon (2011) serves as an inspiring documentation of the heart of these exchanges. Although an increasing number of articles, including several in the Society for Humanistic Psychology Newsletter, have provided the history of these dialogues, none have been as effective at getting to the emotional level of this exchange as the article by Moats and colleagues. The special issue also has an article by Dias, Chan, Ungvarsky, Oraker, and Cleare-Hoffman (2011) focusing marriage and family therapy from an existential perspective as well as versions of keynote addresses provided by Ed Mendelowitz (2011) and Kirk Schneider (2011).

The interest that Zhi Mian therapy is beginning to garner in the United States as well as the excitement the United States-China dialogue is creating is indebted to a number of impressive early career psychologists who first became involved as graduate students. Trent Claypool, Jason Dias, and Michael Moats, in particular, caught the fire of this exchange when participating in the 2009 trip to China. Since this time, these three scholar-clinicians returned to China and have played a significant role in deepening the dialogue and advancing the conversations while truly embodying the values of exchange and cross-cultural respect. Elizabeth Saxon, who has participated in three of the trips to China involved with the exchanges on existential psychology and the psychology of religion, has also played an important role in the development of this exchange. She now has participated in numerous presentations and publications related to these trips.

In addition to these early career psychologists, Jim Ungvarsky, Jim Oraker, and Heatherlyn Cleare-Hoffman are three professors who have helped bring students to China and worked hard to maintain the integrity of the cross-cultural exchange. For each of these professors, their participation has been much deeper than participation in an international trip or conference; they have brought the richness of what they have learned to their teaching, writing, and relationships. Furthermore, they have developed relationships of mutual learning that have sustained, including engaging in cross-cultural research and writing. They have not hid behind titles or roles, but rather allowed themselves to be transformed by the experience while sharing from their expertise.

In China, Wen-Ching Niou has been an inspirational voice and powerful force. Niou has long worked in human resources bringing to these roles a deeply caring approach that embodies humanistic and existential ideals. Niou has been working on her doctoral degree at Fudan University and recently began apprenticing under Xuefu Wang. Niou demonstrates that existential psychology should not be kept just within the bounds of therapeutic practice. In her own intuitive and natural way, Niou was applying an indigenous existential approach to her work as a human relations officer.

Ren Zheng Jia has also been an influential voice in China. With a background in traditional Chinese medicine, Ren became actively involved in psychology when he spent several years committed to working in the relief efforts following the Sichuan earthquakes. After experiencing many trainings in therapy and crisis intervention from experts from the West, Ren became disenchanted and critical of Western psychology. In our first meeting, he gave a presentation that has now become well-known titled, “Psychology is Dogshit.” He felt too many Western approaches, and Western experts, did not show respect for the need to develop a relational foundation and take cultural issues into consideration when working with the earthquake victims. Ren developed an effective, culturally-appropriate helping approach not through books and training, but often in spite of them. After traveling with us for a few weeks, it was evident that what Ren came to understand about therapy on his own was highly consistent with an existential approach. Although there never has been a label attached to what Ren was developing, it could righty be considered that he was formulating another indigenous Chinese existential approach to therapy (see Ren, 2009).

For anyone who has been involved in the existential psychology and Zhi Mian dialogues, it is evident that mutuality is at the heart of all that has occurred.  Yet, it has not just been exchanges relegated to solely the level of scholarship, it has been exchanges of friendship and of lived experience. The heart of what has occurred remains firmly rooted in relationships that have been built and maintained. Today those involved talk little of being colleagues, although indeed we are colleagues. Rather, we talk of being friends.

The Chinese inspirations spoken of here – Xuefu Wang, Mark Yang, Wen-Ching Niou, and Ren Zheng Jia – have lived what we speak of in the West as existential psychology, but have done this in very different ways. Wang, without doubt, is a great scholar. He earned his doctorate in Chinese literature before becoming a therapist. He has authored many books and is a highly regarded presenter. Certainly, he earned the title of scholar and much of his Zhi Mian approach emerged from his scholarship. Yet, his scholarship is consistent with, and reflective of, his personhood. Yang, originally from Taiwan, earned his degree and practiced in the United States before moving to Hong Kong where he has been involved with teaching and training therapists. He is a scholar and practitioner who has brought his existential approach to every aspect of his professional roles.

Niou and Ren, although solid in their scholarship, did not find their existential roots in books or learning, but rather in lived experience. From here, they found their way to existential psychology and Zhi Mian, which fit with what they were doing intuitively. This is an important lesson for cross-cultural psychology. Although it is important to look to the scholars, this is best balanced by looking to the lived experience. The dialogues in China certainly have regularly included discussions of Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Zhuangzhi, and Lu Xun, but they have not been limited to them. On my last trip to China, while reflecting upon this, I found myself scribbling this poem at the end of the meal.

Mercy of the Fruit Plate

We meet as companions, again
Some old, some new
We take turns with talks
We learn, together
It is good

But the real feast comes later
As the talks end
We meet in closer proximity
the lazily spinning glass awaits
Some pickled treats greet us
As talk prepares to go deeper
The main dish arrives and is spun
To the chosen guest
We eat
Dish after dish
It just gets better
Toasts are traded
Laughter mixed with meaning
Friendships are made, bonds sealed
Bellies fill past the point of comfort
Now gorged with food and relations
We contently await
The mercy of the fruit plate

In many ways, I think that if one does not understand this poem at the level of experience, they are not able to comprehend the exchanges that have emerged on existential psychology and Zhi Mian over the last 5-years. Meals are an important part of relationships in China and this is when the real exchange often occurs. Talking about Confucius can be a powerful exchange, but sharing stinky tofu is better.

What is Zhi Mian?

The Second International Conference on Existential Psychology will be hosted by Fudan University in Shanghai, May, 24-27, 2012. The United States sponsors so far include Saybrook Univerity, the Michigan School of Professional Psychology, and the Zhi Mian International Institute of Existential-Humanistic Psychology. As with the first conference, many leading figures in existential psychology from the West and China have already committed to attend, present, and engaged in the cross-cultural dialogues.

The theme for the conference is “Zhi Mian and Existential Psychology.” According to Wang (2011), Zhi Mian does not have a direct translation, but could be best understood as facing directly. Yet, facing directly still is rather ambiguous. As Wang develops the understanding of Zhi Mian, he emphasizes that this is to be understood in an existential sense. In other words, Zhi Mian can be understood as facing life directly, facing oneself directly, and facing relationships directly. Many of the presentations that will be given at the conference explore various applications and understandings of Zhi Mian.

Yet, the conference is not just about Zhi Mian, but rather about existential psychology in an international context, including Western and Eastern approaches to existential psychology. Even more, the conference is about relationships built along the way. It is these relationships that change the way one views the world. For those interested in attending the conference, please contact Louis Hoffman or visit the conference web page.


Dias, J., Chan, A., Ungvarsky, J., Oraker, J., & Cleare-Hoffman, H. P. (2011). Reflecions on marriage and faily therapy emergent from international dialogues in China. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 268-275.

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

Mendelowtiz, E. (2011). Transience and possibility: The legacy of Rollo May. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 253-260.

Moats, M. Claypool, T. R., & Saxon, E. (2011). Therapist development through international dialogue: Students’ perspectives on personal and professional life changing interactions in China. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 276-282.

Ren, Z. J. (2009). On being a volunteer at the Sichuan earthquake disaster area (translated version). Hong Kong Journal of Psychiatry, 19, 123-125.

Schneider, K. J. (2011). Awakening to an awe-based psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 247-252.

Wang, X. (2009). Spiritual warrior in search of meaning: An existential view of lu Xun through is life incidences and analogies. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F. Kaklauskas, & A. Chan (Eds.), Existential psychology East-West (pp. 149-164). Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

Wang, X (2011). Zhi Mian and existential psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 240-246.