By Sin-Ping Hsu and Kwang-kuo Hwang. Psychology, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan.
During a person’s lifetime, cultural traditions may operate psychologically through heuristic processing. Accumulated through time and life experiences, these cultural traditions gradually become thoughts or habits that can be used to handle problems by the majority of the people in a society, which forms a cultural mentality unique in comparison to other societies.
Such cultural mentalities affect how people adapt to their lives, and can be used as a method for self-healing. Since Chinese cultural societies are affected by relationalism, people tend to be very different from their Western counterparts, who take on individualistic ways in dealing with interpersonal problems.
According to Hwang (2011), if a person can use the habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) of normal action to smoothly handle life events under certain social conditions, it is unlikely that they will engage in deep reflection.
However, if habitus cannot be used to resolve a problem, the person will attempt to seek solutions from their personal stock of knowledge or social stock of knowledge. The former include schema, as proposed by Piaget (1977), while the latter are cultural traditions (Shils, 1981). In other words, some cultural traditions are instrumental to problem-solving, and provide the crucial origins for the creation of cognitive schemas. When a person encounters difficulties and a certain method from social stock of knowledge is found to be effective, it may be incorporated into one’s personal stock of knowledge for future application.
In Chinese cultural societies of relationalism, the psychological stresses elicited by interpersonal incidents tend to arise from significant others. For instance, the marital tensions between a couple may not necessarily be caused by themselves, but due to the involvement of their natal families. Therefore, in dealing with interpersonal issues, one cannot overlook significant others and situational contexts. Based on their life experiences, people are accustomed to appeal to yuanfen to convert negative feelings, awkwardness, or setbacks caused by interpersonal incidents, into a type of belief that can be used to combat anxiety. Its true functional mechanism is in embodying the perspective of the mandate of Heaven (Wang, 1987; Lee, 1995; Yang, 2005; Hsu and Hwang, 2013).
These beliefs become practical wisdom or mechanisms of psychological adaptation for handling interpersonal problems. People use yuanfen to interpret the problem, and in turn adopt suitable actions to achieve psychological adjustment. Yuanfen demonstrates that people who live in Chinese cultural societies are accustomed to taking a continuous rather than fragmented perspective toward various interpersonal issues. They believe that the formation and destruction of various relationships may connect the past, present, and future as causes and consequences on the same timeline. This is particularly true for expressive ties that satisfy personal, intrinsic needs for love, warmth, security, and sense of belonging, such as parent-child, romantic, marital, and intimate relationships (Hwang, 2012), and may produce different judgments based on whether such expressive ties are inherent or learned.
In the field of Eastern psychology, guan-xi, a similar concept but not the same as “relationship” in Western psychology, has long been an important issue. However, existing literature has tended to focus on the explicit “guan-xi as it ought to be” rather than on the implicit “guan-xi as it is.
According to Zhai (1993), in Chinese society, there are three localized concepts for interpersonal relationships: personal appeal (ren yuan), human sentiment (renqing), and human relations (renlun). These three concepts correspond, respectively, to psychology, values, and norms, in turn creating an overall framework for the exploration of interpersonal relationships. This study postulates that human sentiment and human relations correspond to the explicit “guan-xi as it ought to be,” which can satisfy the expectations of Chinese social values and norms, but are also the sources of psychological disturbances.
Since personal appeal corresponds to psychology, and is related to the overall configuration of the model of interpersonal relationships, it should have the most direct impact on psychological adaptation as part of relational interaction. For example, when a person forced to accept a breakup and attribute the failure of the relationship to lack of yuanfen, the relationship has also been framed as something that does not have to be taken seriously. Since there is a lack of yuanfen, the relationship should not be fought for. This interpretation is actually beneficial for psychological adjustment in terms of achieving a positive outcome.