Thirty years ago in China, there were only a few people called psychologists, and no college students had the opportunity to obtain a degree in psychology because no Chinese universities had psychology departments at that time. Today, however, there are more than 180 psychology departments and teaching units in Chinese universities and research institutes that award students bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in psychology. And the Conference of the Chinese Psychological Society received more than 2,000 abstracts in 2007. How did all this come to be true in such a short time?
During the 1960s and 1970s in China, psychology was criticized as a pseudoscience and almost no psychological research was conducted during that time. It was not until the late 1970s that psychology was accepted as an independent discipline in Chinese universities and research institutes. For example, the department of psychology at Peking University, where I have been working as a professor for the past six years, was re-established in 1978, giving birth to the first modern psychology department in China. The department has grown slowly but steadily over the last 30 years, during which time more faculty positions have been created and more students have been recruited. Currently, the department consists of 32 faculty members and annually recruits about 40 undergraduate students and 45 graduate students in both master’s (three years) and doctoral (five years) programs. The department’s research extends to most of the major fields in psychology, including clinical, developmental, industrial and economic, and cognitive neuroscience.
Most of the psychology departments in Chinese colleges were established during the last few years, however, and are housed in schools of education. But as the Chinese economy continues to grow rapidly, the public, particularly those in cities with incomes large enough to satisfy all of their physical needs, are beginning to pay more attention to their mental and emotional health. Most universities noticed students’ need for a basic understanding of psychology, as well as companies’ demands for psychology students. I believe this helped stimulate the introduction of new psychology departments across China in order to meet the demands of the education system and market economy in China.
During the early 1980s, Chinese psychologists established connections with American psychologists and later with European psychologists through student exchange and visiting scholars programs. Such relations between Chinese and overseas psychologists contributed significantly to the development of psychological research in China by introducing new psychological fields to Chinese psychologists. In addition, the communication between Chinese and overseas psychologists helped to gradually internationalize psychological research in China.
Before the 1990s, most of the research conducted by Chinese psychologists was reported in Chinese. Most of the Chinese psychologists did not realize the importance of publishing English-language research papers until the beginning of the 21st century, when a number of Chinese psychologists, who had either obtained their PhDs or finished their post-doc research in America or Europe, received faculty positions in Chinese universities and research institutions. I obtained my PhD from the University of Science and Technology of China and then spent three years in England and America conducting my post-doc research. When I obtained a faculty position at the department of psychology at Peking University, the faculty members in the department published less than five English-language papers in Science Citation Index or Social Science Citation Index journals each year. In recent years, however, university authorities have begun to advocate for the use of international standards when evaluating faculty research and psychology departments have endeavored to boost the international reputation of their research by publishing papers in English. This has now become one of the key indexes used to measure faculty members’ contributions to the department. In 2007, we published more than 30 English-language papers in psychology journals, with each faculty member producing at least one paper.
Currently, psychological science covers a large variety of topics in China. While most researchers use traditional methods to conduct psychological studies, such as questionnaires, case reports, and behavior measurements, new techniques like brain imaging are now frequently used by Chinese psychologists. For instance, a large number of EEG/ERP laboratories have been set up in China, and several functional magnetic resonance imaging laboratories have been established as well. My Chinese colleagues use brain imaging methods to investigate a variety of research topics including perception, attention, memory, emotion, Chinese language, reasoning, social cognition, etc. These studies have produced an increasing number of publications in journals with relatively high impact factors and make it possible for overseas psychologists to understand the development of psychological science in China.
The development of psychological studies has been strongly supported by the Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). NSFC funds about 40 research projects each year, and each project usually lasts about three years. NSFC also supports joint research projects between psychologists in China and other countries, which further facilitates the internationalization of Chinese psychological research. In addition, NSFC provides special support to outstanding young scholars for their research in different fields in psychology. Although only a few young psychologists have received these research grants thus far, such funding inspires more students to get involved in psychological research in China.
What China needs now are highly qualified psychologists for both research and education. Although psychology departments are flourishing in China, only a small number of psychologists have published research papers in journals with high international reputations. Most Chinese psychologists have never had the opportunity to attend an international conference, let alone to join international research teams.
As more Chinese students move to the United States and European countries to acquire doctoral degrees in psychology, I believe that some of them will come back to find faculty positions in China in the near future. This will not only strengthen the quality of psychological research in China, it will strengthen the connections between Chinese and overseas psychologists as well. Currently, the Chinese government advocates developing a harmonious society, and most Chinese believe that such a society should be built upon psychological harmony. This provides a great incentive for Chinese psychologists to make their contributions.