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Positive Psychology and the Chinese Mindset

written by Yee-Ming Tan 23 January 2010

Yee-Ming Tan, MAPP, provides executive coaching services and leadership development training to senior executives. Recent clients include: Cathay Pacific, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft. Yee-Ming also publishes a series of tools, RippleCards, for people who choose to cultivate greater well-being in their lives.

Her articles are here.

Third Thinking Workshop in China In my workshops, I find that Chinese executives are receptive to positive interventions but something about Chinese culture gets in the way of their pursuit of happiness, and until these concerns are addressed, their pursuit of happiness will be a futile endeavor. Two weeks ago, I facilitated a resilience workshop for a group of middle managers from the logistics industry in Beijing, and last week, a stress management workshop for executives in Shanghai. I thought I’d share some insights from these two workshops, and in general about the psychological well-being of Chinese professionals.

Geert Hofstede in his work “Culture’s Consequences,” probed deeply into the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures. An individualist culture encourages individual preferences and dynamics in a society, setting the individual ego up against others, while a collectivist culture, of which Chinese culture is one, stresses the collective interest and downplays personal preferences and interests. According to Chinese culture, the relationship between the individual and the collective is intimately linked with social norms, which are tied to value systems shared by the majority. The following concepts may help you understand the causes of stress and adversity from the perspective of Chinese people.

Guanxi ??

Guanxi literally means “relationships.” It is the network of relationships among various parties that cooperate together and support one another. It can be seen as who you know and what they perceive to be their obligation to you.

Reciprocity ??

This concept can be defined as individuals and groups exchanging favors. People will ask for favors from those with whom they have guanxi. The recipient of a favor or gift will feel obliged to return the favor. It sometimes causes unnecessary stress and strain on a relationship because we do things out of “have to” rather than “choose to” or “love to” motivation. Every time I share something with my neighbor, some fruit or homemade cakes, my neighbor will reciprocate the next day with something of equivalent perceived value. My generosity actually put them on the spot, scrambling to find something to reciprocate!

Face ??

Sense of social image in front of another person is perceived as critical for many in China. Losing face, saving face and giving face is very important. A person can lose face as a result of failure or not achieving goals, losing his or her temper, confronting an individual or putting people on the spot or acting in an arrogant manner or failing to show appropriate respect.

Harmony (hexie)

Harmony (hexie)

Hexie ??

People will go to great length to remain polite and courteous in order to maintain surface harmony, even when it is false harmony. Disagreement is not expressed in fear of disrupting surface harmony so intermediaries are often used to deliver bad or unpleasant news. Confrontations are to be avoided. Disagreeing or asserting oneself, especially in front of someone perceived to be higher in the hierarchy of relationship, is seen as being rude and disrespectful.

Status consciousness ????

Chinese people are very status conscious.  Hierarchical structures of the society and business organizations are based on a strict observation of rank where the individual is subordinate to the organization, to the elders, to the majority, and so on.

Culture in Action

Here are a few typical stressful events that emerge from these cultural qualities:

  • You are going to Paris on a business trip, and a business associate wants you to help her buy three Hermes handbags. You have a tight schedule and don’t want to spend your spare moments running around Paris looking for these bags. You feel you can’t say no because it would upset your business associate and this might affect the working relationship in the future. However, you feel bad because you really don’t want to do it, and you resent the fact that the business associate put you in this situation.
  • Your peer in the U.S. headquarters asks you for some product information that is not a priority of the operation in China. You are already overloaded with your work and do not have any spare resources to meet this request. You tell your counterpart, “I will try,” when you know there is not a chance you can deliver because you don’t like to turn down a request. You are also stressed out because you are put in the position of having to say no, repeatedly. You wonder why your counterpart makes things difficult for you. He should be more considerate.

Given this cultural context, it is no wonder that there isn’t a word for assertiveness in the Chinese language. It is often translated as decisive, over-confident, aggressive, and it is viewed as a socially undesirable trait. In the Chinese mindset, it never occurs to people that they are equal partners in such interaction, that one can make a request and the other can turn it down politely or at least express his difficulties so both parties can jointly figure out a solution. Expressing oneself authentically is especially hard for fear of upsetting the surface harmony and damaging the relationship.

Breaking Through Cultural Mindset Barriers

I discovered an effective approach to break through these cultural mindset barriers. While it is important to understand the cultural context, it is not so useful to focus on challenging these ingrained beliefs. Instead, I introduce concepts from psychology like locus of control, self-efficacy, and assertiveness as a starting point to explore mindset barriers and then introduce the ABCDE resilience building technique as described in The Resilience Factor

Individuals with an internal locus of control attribute the cause or control of events to something inside of themselves (they are the captains of their ships) while individuals with an external locus of control believe that they are not in control of their environment and the outcomes are instead controlled by luck, destiny, or the power of others. Just knowing this concept alone helps the executives to feel more empowered. They also begin to realize that they tend to operate from an external locus of control in events they found stressful, and if they shift the control inward to take charge, they start to see options and solutions to their difficult situations.

This approach seems to work well. It does not directly challenge the deeply ingrained beliefs about the uniqueness of Chinese culture. Instead it helps them integrate the tools from modern psychology. These executives welcome the opportunity to empower (another concept difficult to translate into Chinese) themselves and be better equipped psychologically to deal with the stresses in their lives.

Culture may be a collective programming of the mind, but I hold the view that human nature is infinitely malleable and that human beings can choose the ways of life they prefer. Here in China, many people do operate according to their cultural conditioning, but the majority of people I encounter in China do want to be happier. They welcome the know-how from positive psychology to help them become more resilient.


Davis, J. S. (2009). Frames of Meaning for Life. A summary of the presentation by Professor Yong-Lin Moon at the IPPA World Congress about cultural differences in perspective.

Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations.Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. (2004). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, G. & Pedersen, P. (2002). Exploring Culture: Exercises, Stories, and Synthetic Cultures. Intercultural Press.

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Trompenaars, F. (1996). Resolving international conflict: Culture and business strategy. Business Strategy Review, 7, 51-68.

Whetten, D. & Cameron, K. (2007). Developing Management Skills (7th ed, pp. 54-55, 82-84, 105). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson / Prentice-Hall.

This book contains a locus of control instrument. It also discusses cultural differences in locus of control, as well as the pros and cons of both internal and external loci of control in business settings.

The image of the Third Thinking Workshop in China is used with permission from Yee-Ming Tan, who took it during one of her workshops.
The Hexie or Harmony calligraphy was done by Mr. Wang Man Li.

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Aaron 23 January 2010 - 4:41 pm

Hi Yee-ming, nice piece. It’s also why when Chinese rate their life satisfaction, they reflect on the strength of their relationships, whereas people from individualist cultures reflect on their own lot… Anyway, I can’t find your email address anywhere, can you send me an e-mail (aaron@jarden.co.nz) so I can share some mindset (in Carol Dweck’s sense) data from a Chinese sample with you? You might find it interesting in working with business people…
Cheers, Aaron.

Dr. Steve Wright 23 January 2010 - 6:48 pm

Culturally Western people who engage in a significant way with east Asians know that there really are some differences which run deep. Yee-min has taken an astute approach here. Often those who have cultural differences wonder why the other person is not more like themselves, and may try to directly confront the other persons’ cultural assumptions – often without examining (or perhaps even being aware of) their own. In spite of the fact that most psychology is conceived from a Western perspective, introducing some findings from empirically-based research psychology that provide tools for thinking about the situation in a new way can be very helpful and empowering. The most effective ideas from psychology for this purpose are not the ones that strike at the core of differences, but those which allow pathways to open up to a fresh perspective and course of action.

I can’t help thinking that Yee-min’s more diplomatic approach (which doesn’t directly challenge core differences and the assumptions that underlie them) might be a successful method of encouraging real and constructive dialogue among those with genuine differences in other areas too, such as religion or politics.

Ping chu 23 January 2010 - 7:49 pm


I agree with you totally. However, it is understood by most people to have open mind and empathy when dealing with different culture. It is just so hard to use the tools from all research methods or theory when you are confronting with the real situation which sometime is with conflict of interest or power play. This is why we need more real coaching case like Ming’s writing here to deal with the Chinese mindset difference in business environment.

I also found out that the psyche or mindset are a little bit different among local educated Chinese and Chinese with western advanced study. It is this subtle culture evolution among all sub-culture groups that pose a bigger challenge.

This is why I think Applied Positive Psychology can play an important role to impact those Chinese who are highly educated with executive position. Normally, they are more cynical and hard to convince them self enable change is possible. Again, the face issue is in the way to free those successful executive to accept the fact that they need to be a coachee first in order to become a coach to their team.

Ming, once Again, an insightful article based on your real case practice.

Ping from Taiwan

wj 23 January 2010 - 8:31 pm

Yee-Ming – the thought that keeps crossing my mind is what can western cultures learn from collectivist cultures. For example western society is starting to embrace mindfulness as a useful adjunct to the cognitive therapy (the ABCDE’s)

Brad 24 January 2010 - 3:01 am

Hi Yee-Ming. The title “Chinese mindset” as “a fixed state of mind” certainly could explain how culture can get in the way of happiness. You speak of China’s ‘collectivist’ culture–more accurately Communism in my opinion–but isn’t the pursuit of happiness an individualist concept? In this sense I find your article somewhat contradictory.

All of us, from the East or the West, live collectively in families, neighbourhoods, communities, towns, and districts. I believe that our happiness is a function of our freely-chosen relationships within society, and in this way individualism can exist within a global context.

Judy Krings 24 January 2010 - 7:13 am

Individual and cultural authenticity are fascinatingly interesting. Thanks for shedding light on happiness and cultural diversity, Yee-Ming. I have traveled to China several times in the last 30 years, the first time with the APA. Graciousness, kindness, and generosity are art forms in China. The people, to me, unparalleled in their respectfulness and happy sharing. I know our Western culture is encroaching upon their traditions, but I hope our individualism doesn’t totally erode their collective sincerity and warmth. Curious, happy, meaningful and fulfilled me versus us is interesting ideological evolution. One does have to wonder… 1000’s of years of history in the East compared to our relatively new world West.

Ming 24 January 2010 - 8:51 am

Hi Aaron, I remember in Dweck’s study, she mentioned a research conducted with Hong Kong University students. Thank you for the generosity to share your data with me. Will be interesting to study it. By the way, my email is tanyeeming@thirdthinking.com


Ming 24 January 2010 - 9:02 am

Hi Dr Steve Wright
Perhaps my chinese background has something to do with my preferred approach? Earlier on in my career, I focused on the differences between cultures, starting with being an AFS exchange student from Malaysia to Australia, then studying linguistics especially cultural and gender differences. I was in a cross-cultural marriage and also worked in a cross-cultural work environment. After years of focusing on the differences, it was a natural transition to study the similarities among us as fellow human beings. Thank you for your encouragement.


Ming 24 January 2010 - 9:49 am

You asked a good question and I don’t have the answer. I think we need to be careful with a broad-brush description of a culture. When we talk about the West, we are not talking about one but a diverse culture within the West. Just as there is a diverse value system within Americans. Scholars like Hofstede and Trompenaars gave us some great frameworks to compare cultures, but within each culture, there are generation, gender, individual, regional and social differences too. For example, northern Chinese are quite differently from southern Chinese not just in physical appearance, eating habits but also mindset and behaviours. One hot topic in China now is about people born after 1985 who are now entering the work force. Being the generation growing up in time of affluence, and coupled with the effect of one-child policy, they are very different from their parents’ generation. They are the me-first generation and traditional description of Chinese culture may not be totally applicable to this group of people. Another situation causing great strain in the society is that the traditional values are being challenged. The old values such as endure hardship and work hard (????) for future benefit or for the betterment of others is eroding. People now want to get-rich-quick and their stress comes from the confusion stemming from the changing values and fear of falling behind. Many of the Chinese people I know are seeking spiritual fulfilment, and many told me the lack of religion (or faith) contributes to the low life satisfaction. I just came back from dinner with a Shanghainese friend who has been traveling to India to learn meditation and practice yoga. I think regardless of our cultural background, we are all seekers when the time comes and will learn whatever we need to make us whole.


Ming 24 January 2010 - 11:02 am

Hi Judy
I am glad you have experienced the wonderful graciousness of Chinese hospitality during your travels to China the last 30 years. Chinese people have experienced huge social change over the last 30 years. The young generation is internet savvy, they have seen and experienced much more than their parents?and they have become more assertive compared to their parents’ generation. The challenges they face is unprecedented and their elders cannot be the role-model to help them deal with the challenges they face today. That’s why there is now a big push on psychological health in China. Many people are qualifying for psychological counsellor certification, an increasingly popular profession in China. There are popular magazines like Psychologies Monthly http://www.psychologies.com.cn, LOHAS living http://www.lohasliving.com.cn/


Ming 24 January 2010 - 12:50 pm

Wow, lots of interesting and thought-provoking comments.

Hi Brad, I am sure people from countries falling into the collectivist culture on Hofstede’s model like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Peru, Panama, Columbia and so on, will disagree that happiness is the entitlement of individualistic culture only 🙂

The notion of happiness, I think, is both culture-free and culture-bound. There are universal elements and also culturally specific elements. Summary of Professor Yong-Lin Moon’s presentation at the IPPA World Congress about cultural differences in perspective provides a Korean perspective. https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/jocelyn-davis/200907062816

We have a concept ?? (xingfu, a blessed and happy life) and this is what we wish for each other on birthdays and Chinese New Year greetings, even though what is valued and meaningful for Chinese may be different from other cultures.

If you are interested in understanding Chinese traditional thinking, from a Chinese perspective, Qian Mu, a 20th century scholar, may be a good starting point. In his interpretation of Chinese culture, he avoided the extreme
polarities of individualism and collectivism, rather he stressed their coexistence. http://www.springerlink.com/content/0p88436158u24844/


Sean Doyle 25 January 2010 - 11:15 pm

Hi Ming,

I have recently had the occasion to work on a project with some Chinese entrepreneurs and lawyers and I have found your article and link to Qian Mu very helpful. I am going to have my whole team read your article.

Sean Doyle

Ming 26 January 2010 - 11:24 am

Hi Sean
Great to hear from you. Feel free to let me know if you need any help. As Chinese, we describe ourselves as a plate of loose sands ????. We are bound by the collective culture but within it, we can sometimes be rather individualistic.

Much love, Ming

Shannon Polly 31 January 2010 - 10:14 am

Dear Ming,

Thank you for this article. I am doing a workshop with business students from China on working in multinational companies and while my brother lived in China in the early 90s (at the Shaolin Temple) your article was very helpful in translating the differences in our cultures and how they can be successful.

Best regards,
Shannon Polly

Michael Felberbaum 8 February 2010 - 2:41 pm

Hi Yee-Ming,
Thanks for an interesting article. Although I’d like to say I understand the differences in culture between China and America, I feel very humbled by the social, emotional, political and philosophical differences. I find it very, very difficult to internalize these different views, and I welcome insights and observations like what you outline above.

Your approach makes a lot of sense to me, i.e. raising awareness of the locus of control and drawing connections between someone’s locus of control and their happiness. At the very least, I think this would challenge automatic assumptions about agreements, commitments and obligations. And at best, I think it can create a breakthrough connection in regard to taking responsibility for one’s mind-state in addition to one’s actions.

Best of luck with you future work and I look forward to additional articles in the future.
Kind Regards,


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