Difference between Chinese and Western views of the Self

Bruce Dickson
4 min readJun 5, 2023

Difference between Chinese and Western views of the Self

Slightly expanded for clarity from pg 71–72 Bodymind Energetics; Towards a Dynamic Model of Health (1989) by Mark Seem, PhD.

NOTE ~ This was written in 1989 is not meant to portray Chinese as they are in 2023. However the patterns described are useful. The below is not to imply one concept of the Self is better or superior to the other.

The Self in ancient Chinese culture was essentially a social Self. The Chinese Self only exists in the context of other people, face to face encounters and how your behavior affects others.

Inspired by Confucius, rather than an abstract psychology of the individual, the Chinese, developed a practical sociology based on how the individual lives within and connects with a web of family and local relationships.

Behavioral problems which we understand in the West as personality problems are viewed in China as essentially social problems. The remedies looked to are:

- What support does this individual need?

- What social adaptations has this individual failed to make?

- What social adjustment will restore harmony for the greatest number of people?

An individual whose behavior deviates from the normal isn’t referred to a medical or psychological specialist. They are referred to a communal group. They would attempt to understand abnormal behavior on a social level, how the abnormal behavior did or did not affect other community members; especially, those personally known to the “client.”

This contrasts strikingly with the Self as conceived in the West. In the West, all agency is invested within the individual. The individual is in effect raised above society (in China society is raised above the individual). In the West, personal autonomy and freedom are highly regarded. Unnecessary intrusions on personal autonomy and freedom are almost a sin.

Especially among males and especially among males in power, the Western Self is conceived as an isolated, alienated being.

From the end of the 1800s on, the Self in the West has, on one hand, been conceived as divorced from both connection with Nature and spiritual realms; and, on the other hand, alienated from fellow human beings. Existentialism and more recent atheism both exemplify this.

NOTE ~ Until about 1990 existentialism and atheism paralleled the development of mainstream psychology and psychiatry, especially in Western academia. After 1995 to various degrees, all Western psychology became more humanistic, holistic and female-friendly.

The Western psychological Self — very close or synonymous with the Western ego — is virtually nonexistent In China. Up to 1989 at least there was no psychotherapy in China. Western psychological concepts have not been adopted. This is despite the widespread acceptance in China of the Western medical model.

How “depression” is treated in China (1980s)

A patient in China who experiences what in the West is called “depression,” will not have pop-psychology language to talk about how or why they are depressed in mental-emotional terms. The depressed Chinese patient will tend to somatize their feelings, conceiving of their problem as a physical symptom to focus on. In addition, the Chinese patient knows if he goes to a Chinese acupuncturist wishing to talk about mental-emotional causes, the practitioner will be unable to process or address such causes. In the 1980s in China, social support for reframing depression as mental-emotional or psycho-somatic is virtually non-existent.

Therefore, a depressed Chinese patient will consult a Chinese acupuncturist and/or Chinese herbalist. Both will focus primarily on specific bodily symptoms and dysfunctions; such as, tightness in the chest; or, a closed feeling in the throat.

Chinese practitioners will then prescribe an acupuncture treatment or a formula of herbs to restore harmonious function in the constricted zones of the body. In the Chinese TCM paradigm, when the constricted bodily zones are relieved, anything called “depression” is also relieved. In 1980s Chinese culture, even a discreet inquiry on the part of the practitioner into the mental-emotional-social life of of the patient is virtually impossible. This works against Chinese patients making useful connections between bodily felt experience and mental-emotional disturbances.

In contrast, even before the patient arrives at the office, Western practitioners often find patients have already made multiple associations between physical concerns and their mental-emotional state (yet often inaccurate).

The above is not to imply one conceiving of the Self is better or superior to the other.

To Learn More

Some readers will recognize the above discussion bears on the contrast between external locus of control and internal locus of control.

“Internal vs External Locus of Control: 7 Examples & Theories” (2021) by O’Bryan, Ph.D. — https://positivepsychology.com/internal-external-locus-of-control/