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psychological therapist in China

Podcast transcript #65: Through the eyes of a psychological therapist in China: How important is it to understand the psychology of the Chinese consumer in order to develop a business in the Middle Kingdom?

Find here the China Paradigm episode 65. Learn more from Zhang Ying Fei’s psychological therapist experience, about how to understand the psychology of Chinese consumers in order to set up a business in China.

MATTHIEU DAVID: Hi everyone. I am Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue Consulting, a Chinese market research company based in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and today I am with Zhang Ying Fe. So I know you from actually an interview we have done with Chinese students who want to apply for ESSEC business school. So you were part of the jury and I was part of the jury and you told me you are a psychological therapist in China. Around that time I was thinking, “I need to have therapists in the show” because I think psychological therapists in China should see China from a very different perspective as entrepreneurs are seeing China and also psychology is so different in China certainly from Europe and from America.

Let’s look at it as it is. China has no Christian background, no Roman or Greek backgrounds and not influenced by the fear of enlightenment. China has developed itself in its own environment, its own empire and its own way with sufficient thinking, in a very different way.  That has been true to the opening of China at the end of the 70’s and it is still true now. It is what we call in a podcast the China Paradigm meaning that China in itself is very, very different. So, thank you very much for being with us. I am very excited to talk about this topic with you today.  Could you tell us as a psychological therapist in China, how many years and patients or a bit of an idea of what you have done in this sector of psychology and what you do?

ZHANG YING FEI: Okay yeah. Actually you mentioned this ESSEC part and in fact, those students were namely talking about psychology at this event because of some students; as soon as they know that I am a psychological therapist in China, they come and approach me and ask a lot of questions so it is very interesting. They also ask me, “What are you doing? How long have you been doing this?’ Yes, I am a psychological therapist in China for almost 20 years. I started when I was in my 20’s and at that time I was teaching in school. I am teaching psychology and actually this is very rare in China because in the 1990s there was no psychological listen in the school and at that time, of course, we know that students need to have like a student guide or a therapist or a counselor, but there is no one doing this. So at the end of the 1990s the education bureau started Chinese psychological training for some teachers and I was one of them so I was like one of these pioneers and since then I started working as a counselor.

MATTHIEU DAVID: I see. A few questions; at the end of 1990 which age or which schools, which city; could you tell us more where you began?

ZHANG YING FEI: Oh yeah I was just a graduate from university and my major was law and politics which is actually not that close to psychology and I was teaching at one of the best high schools. Do you want to know the name?


ZHANG YING FEI: In Shanghai.

MATTHIEU DAVID: Oh in Shanghai so what is a better school in Shanghai? They already showed at that time to have a psychologist/therapist regime. I think it could have created dysfunction because you were not trained for that, right?

ZHANG YING FEI: It is not the school. It is actually the education bureau. This is something we don’t say because each year there are some crisis; some student crisis like a suicide or like attacking or things happening and the pressure of study I think you have stayed in China long enough for you to understand that there is a lot of pressure of study, of this Chinese Bangalore so students do need to have some people to talk to about their issues, their problems, their pressures, but there is no psychological therapist in China doing that. So, actually it’s the government that sees the needs and they provide Chinese psychological training for some teachers and I was like volunteering, “Hey, I want to do that.” I have a lot of interest in myself, too. So actually I kind of switched my major.


ZHANG YING FEI: I studied for quite a lot of years and then I decided to teach at the school and also being a school counselor. At that time I didn’t call myself a psychological therapist in China because the kids are comparatively lighter at that time and I was working with teachers, working with parents, working with students and for like more than 10 years. Then I quit my job. I quit my job because I feel like I would like to work more with adults. More and more when I was with students I feel a bit desperate because they are not the cause of the problem. They are just a consequence. Their problems are consequences like the family pressure, the society; give these things in their environment so I really want to work more with adults, with parents, with training teachers and having sessions with their parents and also giving Chinese psychological training to some new psychologists, new psychological therapists in China.  

I want to give training to them and at that time I already had all the certification that I needed to work as a freelancer. Like the national psychological counselling certification or let’s say license and I attained this license in the year 2003 and then each year I got lots of training and even now after 20 years; I still spend a lot of money and time every year to get myself more Chinese psychological training because this is like endless study. There is always something new happening; some new techniques, some new theories, some new trends. So I am just learning and I want to teach more people and now I am doing supervision and things like this. So, this is how my profession switched.

MATTHIEU DAVID: I see. So, one another question I think people listening to us will have is how structured is the profession? What can be surprising? You begin your career as a psychological therapist in China and so how organized, how selective is the profession? In some way you are touching in the brain of people, the soul of people; who they are, what they believe, what they see and if someone with a background of engineering or whatever can be a psychological therapist in China then it can be a danger. On the other hand, it shows that there is a need. So, I believe the government gives authorization, is going to hire people where they can. So, could you tell us more about the organization or the profession? Is it well certified, well organized and can people trust therapists in China? How do you select your therapists; based on their degree? How do you make sure that it is very serious?

China business podcast
[Source: a screenshot from China Paradigm interview, “David questioning the basic facts of a psychological therapist in China”]

ZHANG YING FEI: Yeah okay. At that time in the year 2001 and 2 and in this country in China, we started having this license. We call that level 1, level 2, level 3 therapists and up to level 2. There was no level one at that time. I don’t even know if there is any level one at that time. So 1 and 2 are the highest levels and then there is level 3 and in order to obtain this license, of course, you need to have long-term Chinese psychological training something like a year or half a year, but according to me, that is really not enough. So anyone who passed this exam, who passed this test and obtained this license; I don’t think automatically this person can work as a therapist which is a pity, but at that time one thing good is that year one and two have Chinese psychological training and you need to have the background of education as an educational background or a chemical background or a psychological background and not the other thing like you say; engineer or let’s say something like this. Now, I think it is not that strict. Year after year there are more people who want to obtain this license, this certificate. So, they are kind of opening doors to more people.

Then, after several years I became a teacher, a trainer of this test. I noticed there are a lot of IT men or accountants or people like these, but still, I must say there is something to do with talent; some people really have more talents. How do we define that? How can we discover that? It is still through practicing and what I do is I ask those students, “Why do you want to learn psychology?” Actually 99% of them said, “Because I noticed that I have some issues.” Instead of looking for a therapist for themselves they want to learn psychology and I say, “Well that doesn’t make sense. You want to find a therapist, but now you want to become a psychological therapist in China. Why is that?’ The people said, “Because it gives me the feeling that I am in control; that I can control things.” Again no, when you are learning actually you are not receiving this service. So actually the result is 90% of them will not be therapists in the end.

Even if they have the certificate they are not going to be a therapist and the who can really be a therapist; according to what I observed are those people that are really determined to be psychological therapists in China and so they have to sacrifice many things; their time, their current job because it’s not that good if you do a part-time job as a therapist. So you have to quit your job to be a full-time therapist and that means the income; the revenue is not really guaranteed. So, you need to be financially quite independent and quite prepared to be a therapist. Being a psychological therapist in China is not to make a lot of money because at the beginning you can only charge something like 200 kuai; 300 kuai; not that much for one hour and there are some people who can charge more, but it will take years and the investment of money to do training for yourself is really huge.

Let’s say something like 100 000 per year is actually normal, but if you don’t do this investment or if you don’t have training or if you don’t have supervision then you are not going to be a good psychological therapist in China because we have many, many things to work on ourselves and many things to learn so eventually what I see; all these good or stable or reliable therapists  they are qualified with certificates, knowledge backgrounds, their own personal, individual work; as a client they have been like treated or they see their therapists. Me too, but they have supervision and they have constantly a lot of series of training. So, that’s the way. If any of your friends want to find a therapist you can tell them to ask how many hours their service is working already, does the person have supervision, does this person spend a lot of time in ongoing training or something like this?

MATTHIEU DAVID: You talked a lot about Chinese psychological training. What kind of training are you talking about costing 100 000 RMB a year; is it going to a school, is it online, is it your own training you do yourself, is it your supervisor that you need to pay? Could you explain more about the training in the environment of psychological therapists in China?

ZHANG YING FEI: Yeah actually what you said has covered most of them already. There are some institutions that you can get to the service; some quite formal. By the way, there’s one information that two years ago this level one, level two and level three certificates are already canceled which is very big… I don’t know how to say, but there is no more certificate that you can obtain immediately to say, “I am a therapist” so now actually it is the university, psychiatric hospitals, some institutions and even some therapists themselves can offer Chinese psychological training and we also have the… yeah, a lot of universities will invite experts or specialists to give training to those people who want to improve their professional skills.

So there is a lot and there are online lessons and there are workshops. There are some lectures, conferences, seminars and there are many, many different forms of Chinese psychological training and it is like the whole menu and according to what you need you can select; like I have a lot of time and then I can take part in the long-term Chinese  psychological training like, for example from the year 2011 to 2014 I took a three-year training about self-psychology which is not full time, but part-time training doing three years and then now I am still in a class of three year’s training of  body focusing, trauma focus training which is taught by my supervisor; a brother and a sister therapist from Canada. It is also part-time training. So there are many, many things that we can get, actually.

MATTHIEU DAVID: In order to make sure your therapist has enough background within an institution are they linked to a hospital, are they linked to a university because we know that doctors have to be in hospitals in China. It is not like in the west where you can have your private company and so on and actually treat people. Is it similar for psychological therapists in China or is it more independent here or it is freer? Could you tell us more about that?

ZHANG YING FEI: Yeah it is a very interesting question because we don’t have this certificate test or exam anymore so then who can give this authority or like who can give a person who wants to be a therapist with authority? Now, what I can see is that we have 3 powers exactly like what you say; the university, the hospital and let’s say the social therapist in society. Okay let’s say in the university they have a psychological department and they also have some psychological centers and some people; they stay in the university because there are lots of resources; doing research bla, bla, bla, but they don’t really face the whole society. Their clients and not paying that much or the cases are not that complicated or so deep, but really they can do a lot of research.

So there are a lot of professors, teachers in the university and they want to set a standard like, “This is the standard of being a psychological therapist in China”, but in the psychiatric hospital there are doctors and those doctors… in the psychiatric hospital, there is a very huge debate like how can we treat the patients; we give them a pill or we talk? You know, less than 10% of the doctors will talk because they are way too busy. I have a lot of psychiatrist friends because we need to work sometimes or cooperate with each other; they see their patients every day like 30 or 40 patients and they can give them only 5-8 minutes per person or patient. So they can’t really offer this service of talking and then they have their standard in another way, but I am like one of these therapists who is working for the open society.

Some people even professors, teachers and even psychological therapists in China quit their job and become freelancers or therapists; freelance therapists or they work not as a freelancer, but they form this agent. It is like a platform and then we work together, but we are not having this standard like a university or a hospital. We have our own standard and those three standards are actually not that agreeable to each other. So, in the future for example if you want to be a psychological therapist in China, you will go through some tests or some exams and training given by whom; given by a hospital or a university or by some institution and then maybe you will have a different kind of certificate and I think the whole market is under a bit of chaos.


ZHANG YING FEI: And the patient or the clients; they have actually no way to know where this therapist is coming from and that is why I always told my clients, “If you want to find a therapist or your friend or family member wants to find a therapist, then I can help.” Yeah so I am hoping for the future that really we can have a much clearer let’s say guide of the rules, you know because it can really separate their market; the Chinese psychological training market, the therapy market and then it will be clearer.

MATTHIEU DAVID: When you say the institution is it private institutions or public?


MATTHIEU DAVID: Private, okay I see.

ZHANG YING FEI: There are a lot of things run by the government. The school is run by7 the government and the hospitals are run by the government, but when I say this company; they are all private.

MATTHIEU DAVID: I see. Let’s talk about now what you see in Chinese society. As we agreed before we talked and as an introduction; China and the west have very different cultural roots, very different perceptions of the society, very different perceptions of commitment you have to take the three principals of thinking, the commitment you have towards your parents, the commitment you have toward your husband or wife or the commitment you have to the emperor at the time that is a society now or let’s say to authority, generally speaking. Could you mention a couple of topics or a few topics that you feel are very China-specific compared to the west or that you see much more in China than in the west in terms of psychological issues, difficulties or challenges or maybe your interaction has been very similar? What is your perception in terms of the differences?

ZHANG YING FEI: Oh yeah you know I have a lot of western friends and my husband is a western guy. So, he has his own therapist. He is doing his own therapy. I guess he is experiencing some middle-age crisis. According to what I know is that Chinese people really do care a lot about little groups; the collective environments and the family. Chinese people don’t see themselves as one individual like a hero walking in this world. They always see a group of people, you know? So they are kind of comparing themselves to others and being accepted or not is very, very important and being accepted in Chinese collectivist culture means accepted by your family, your company, by the friend groups and the Chinese people tend to really alter themselves or suppress themselves in order to satisfy others and they really sacrifice a lot their true feelings and this is something that I can see quite different and the root – I don’t know if it is the root –

I guess it is because we have different concepts of loneliness because loneliness can be creative, it can be a space that you can create yourself; your own identity, but Chinese people have problems of being lonely. We are not used to being lonely. You can see that a child is not really alone in China. The kids are always with parents. What I can see in the western country is very little kids or young babies can be put aside and the adults are talking, the parents are talking and having their adult life, but in China; no, the kids are in the center and as soon as there is a kid all the eyes are just looking at the kid and there is no normal conversation just going on.

Then the kid is specially combined with a single tie to the policy then this child is the center and when you receive so much attention… attention is energy. “I used to get so much energy by attention.” Then it is painful to not having that anymore when you grow up. So, when people grow up and when they have to be alone they are so eager to grasp some relationships immediately in order to have the attention again. That causes a series of problems like in the school feeling lonely is a shame and in the working environment, people also like to be in groups and then they don’t share their real ideas or opinions. They are like just nodding and my mother used to tell me when I was a high school student or middle school student she said, “You always say your opinion directly. You think the other people don’t know it, but maybe everybody knows it, but they just don’t say it.”

So maybe you don’t have to say it in order to be safe in Chinese collectivist culture. So, otherwise, I would be like excluded and I would be alone, but honestly, I am okay; maybe partly because I was not really growing up with my parents so I didn’t get that much attention on me. So when they say this; the society yes, you can say it’s a philosophy that we are not an individual in Chinese collectivist culture. We are part of this construction; the whole construction that you are a party. You are just a part and there is a father, there is a husband and if you have children there are children. As a woman, you give yourself to this family. You are just a part of that. As a man, you give yourself to this society because you are part of that. You are never really like a lonely hero in those American films.

MATTHIEU DAVID: So you mentioned about this concept of group and an individual hero or within Chinese collectivist culture; what is socially valued in China? What do you see in China which is socially valued or valued by society or people are involved in a society which is not in the west or vice versa? It is guided in the west, but not in China. For instance in the west someone who is right against society, right against everyone that he is right or he knows the truth or he made things, but alone like a hero it is going to be socially valued, he is going to be like a hero. So, what is the hero in China? What do people think of when they want to do good, when they want to be the one that is socially valued, respected? What do they have in mind to be very accepted in the Chinese collectivist culture or to be within them with no conflict, to go along with everyone? What do they have in mind in terms of social image?

ZHANG YING FEI: I think a hero; this word is not that much mentioned in China because a hero is usually like a single person doing something, but since here we don’t consider ourselves single people. So, harmony is more our value and being in peace, not in conflict, not in a crisis. It is more our value. When I say our value it does not mean that it is my value because I am working as a therapist and my personality is not really like that, but of course I grew up here and I take some part of this and I can see it as so many people; they try to avoid conflicts and like what you said; truth is truth and even if I create or I confront the conflict because I want to maintain the truth, I want to defend the truth. That is worth it, right? But in China, we always say, “If we can have a more peaceful way or a more twisted way, a more clever way or wiser way to let people eventually know the truth, we don’t mind how long it will take.” It’s not that important that you see the truth and you show the truth. The more important thing is that you make everybody slowly gradually understand and the whole process is better to have harmony. It is better to be calm and peaceful in Chinese collectivist culture.

MATTHIEU DAVID: In what you say I already see some conflicts meaning that you say that the child that is attracting the eyes of the entire family, but when he grows as an older child or an adult he has to conform to the group, he has to go well with the group and not to be the one with attracting the eyes of everyone out of the family sort of thing. So you think this says that harmony, peace and going along with everyone is a big matter? On the other hand, we are in a society that is very competitive, actually and I think it is very assessed and very well-known that Chinese society is a very competitive society. At school, at work and even some private life when you see people doing exercise; how much you want to do good, they want to be smart and so on. So, I see already some conflict. Could you tell me more about the conflicts you see among your patients? What are they conflicted with? What are the topics? Why do they meet with you?

ZHANG YING FEI: Okay I have really more than half of my clients are working on themselves like they are depressed or they have some physical issues, but still this learning can always discover that they have the trouble of leaving family or let’s say quit their family. So I was very curious. I sometimes ask them, “When you were a kid, which kind of kid were you?” Many of them will say, “I was a very nice kid.” Boys and girls say, “I was a very quiet kid.” “Oh, so you were not naughty?” “No, no, no I am not that naughty. My parents were very satisfied with me.” “Okay so when you were a teenager, what kind of teenager were you? Did you have this rebellion age like, whatever your parents said you didn’t want to listen?” “Not really. I was this quiet teenager. I don’t feel I need to fight against my parents.” Then when they become young men or women or they become parents or they become employees in a company or when they have reached this middle age they feel no, there is something wrong and they don’t feel fine. Why; because they have never really, really fought against the powers in Chinese collectivist culture. What are the powers? The powers are like the parents’ influence, the social influence; they had to never really say no to that. So, you are right.

Eventually, they will have conflicts because they were not used to it in their growth path or in their early years. They are not used to it so when they had to confront these conflicts they were very, very horrified and very uncomfortable and feeling guilty and feeling very bad and so I will ask them, “How about your parents? Do they allow you?” Some parents also never really fight against the bigger power you know like last time we were talking about our history we have this bigger power and our bigger powers are not really having conversations with individuals, not having conversations with people. Like on our TV shows there are never any debates. There is more information giving. That is as a way of parenting, right? So, basically Chinese people more or less are all like children. We have been told, we have been taught, we have been ordered, but it is not that you can say no to some bigger power in the Chinese collectivist culture and hence in the family, it is the same.

When I was young, when I was little sometimes my father would say, “Why should I explain to you? I don’t need to explain to you. You just listen because I am the father” and I can hear so many of these kinds of sentences from my clients. So yes, if you can’t maybe confront the power of your parents then teachers, then boss and then the whole world and people can’t really believe that through conflict there can be an equal relationship built afterward. What they can see is that the relationship can be broken or will be gone. This attachment will be damaged, it will be destroyed. So they have this horror of facing conflicts because they don’t see. After that; after the war, there will be some new possibilities coming and this is merely what I am working with my clients sometimes even through our conflicts.

I sometimes encourage them to say no to me, to say their disagreement to me and when they say that their physical reaction is like, “I am very nervous. I don’t feel well.” “I say yes, common. Do you know how happy I am to hear that because that means that you want to have a long-term relationship with me? That means you trust me, that means you support yourself and that is beautiful”, but in their past they never had anyone encourage them to challenge so that would cause a lot of problems in the future and even between a couple; husband and wife, some relationships are not equal and the wife; they don’t know how to say their disagreement with their husband. “I don’t want to go on holiday there. I don’t want to buy this. I don’t want our children to go to this school.” No, they can’t as if they don’t have the right to say it. Then they really suffer.

MATTHIEU DAVID: In the current situation where Chinese social media is so important, how do you feel that social media is playing with those conflicts and parameters? So many people are actually trying to attract the eyes of people through social media; on DouYin, on Moments, on WeChat and so on. How do you think it is impacting them here in China and how is it in conflict with the fact that they have to conform because if you want to be seen you have to be exceptional, you have to an individual, you have to be unique and on the other hand you may be actually extracted from the group if you are too unique or too individual. Do you see some conflicts with social media? Do you see that your back ends are issued with social media … it could be WeChat, it could be DouYin. Is it a topic?

ZHANG YING FEI: Okay with this question I immediately have 3 or 4 points. First, what we show is that really us… that’s a question. What we show can be a real self-presentation on Chinese social media. This social media WeChat, Waybill and of course we don’t use Facebook and YouTube that much, but we have DouYin and we have some other things. Actually what people show; I don’t think mainly themselves; their true selves, but when I am working with my clients are more and more to see the true self. What is the true self? For some very weak people; maybe they have a strong self; the strong inner self.

For some people some tough businessman or successful person; maybe they have their vulnerability and showing this to friends, to family and showing this mainly to themselves is a very brave thing and it can bring them a healthy life and a healthy relationship, but still many people are not able to do so on the social media; I think it is even somehow extremely calling out or brought out this let’s say the fourth phase; the phase of, “I want people to see me”, but what does true mean? What does real self-presentation on Chinese social media mean? They still hide behind those social phases. So that is the one point and the extreme case will be some of my clients they are addicted to plastic surgery. They do plastic surgery, they have injections of something – I don’t know an English name – just you know to get rid of their wrinkles.

They can do this injection like once every few weeks and one of my clients told me that, “Every time when I feel blue, when I feel upset I do that and immediately even my boyfriend notices that I feel better. Why?” Then, if you see her on WeChat or Moments; you will just see this doll; this plastic doll face, of course, she thinks that’s the beauty. This social media sometimes really encourages or pushes people to show more this fourth phase. That is my point, but of course about opinions; some people on social media; when they show their opinions well, that can cause some conflict like, “I agree with this or I don’t agree with this.” Even some comments about the movie stars or even some comments about some games can create some conflict or some debating or arguing and then there is another thing.

The social media violence that is people really talking about what they really want to say? Are they really sharing information, opinions or ideas or are they simply relieving their anger? It is just showing their emotions. I think this is a universal thing that when you are behind this computer you say whatever you say and it’s again, not showing themselves. It looks like a conflict on appearance. It looks like, “Okay I am fighting or having conflict or crisis with people”, but no, again it is purely the emotion control thing that you don’t control this emotion and then you use some violent words and eventually what is the result? What is coming out? That is the second point and the third point is even by self-presentation on Chinese social media, if you really want to show your opinion it is not that safe sometimes. It is not that allowed according to the whole environment. Sometimes your opinion will be censored or something like that. So, I guess people can be frustrated. They are kind of showing themselves in this extreme way or to just show this emotion and partly they don’t have to touch their real opinion and what lacks in this society is opinion from individuals which can only be coming from matured and a more self-aware person and we don’t really have enough of these people.

MATTHIEU DAVID: So, those patients who are meeting with you because they are not happy within their body and you told me before we started the podcast that one of the topics you often cover with your patients is about the awareness of the body, how to be fine with your body and so you said that you had a lot of patients doing plastic surgery; what are the motivations behind changing their body? Is it to be accepted by society, is it to be successful at work, is it to find someone to be with because we know that the topic we may talk about a woman has been a very well-covered topic over the last few years by documentaries. They have used this topic to enhance their product so what is the motivation behind changing their body and what do they do to change their body; plastic surgeries, sports, exercise or over-exercising or maybe medicine? First, what do they do and second, what is the motivation behind it?

ZHANG YING FEI: Okay I can’t say I have a lot of clients that are doing plastic surgery. I said I have several and yes, there are many, many motivations. Very clearly you can say that they want to be prettier. They want to make prettier self-presentation on Chinese social media because they want to be more popular, they want to be more welcomed and to be more attractive like most girls; they believe that they are not that successful in relationships because partly, they are not pretty enough and they let’s say are more or less materialized to themselves that our body is a weapon and our body is a tour which is something I taught her against.

I taught her she can’t agree with that and then they can believe that men – it is also really – without enough men they believe that a man just looks at the face and the size of bosoms and their shape. Men or this kind of animal can only feel a woman is attractive because of this physical thing. So, that’s one of the motivations, but this motivation is just one part. The other motivation that I can see is that they simply hate themselves. They simply have this self-hating or self-ignorance and that’s due to this family background. They were not really been accepted or loved or cared by parents especially by the father because this you know man and woman thing and many of them; they have very bad relationships with their father or the father was invisible. The father was let’s say absent.

There is a lot of dynamic behind that because the mother had to keep the father. I want to keep my father. How can I keep my father? I need to be seen. How can I be seen? I need to be pretty. Okay, I need to be so pretty that my father can come back because I am this lovely little girl, but I was not that lovely so I need to change myself, but there is also a lot of self-hating by, “Okay I am pretty. My mother is not.” The whole identity; they can get from the parent are more or less confusing because we would consider the mother as a model, but doing plastic surgery means somehow betraying this mother. “I want to be a prettier woman than my mother so my mother is not someone I can learn from.” 

It’s like a betrayal and we can’t avoid that it will create some inner crisis, inner conflict and how to manage that then we go on more surgeries. So that is the third level; the third level or the fear of losing control because the world is not controllable. My family is not controllable. In my life, my relationships are not controllable. The only thing I can control is I can do plastic surgery, I can have a nose; the shape of the nose that I want. I can have these eyes changed. So, it is more like the body is the last piece of thing that I can control by myself. So if I see a client at this level I will understand how chaotic her life can be, how powerless this person can be. No matter how much money she can earn or no matter how high the status she can obtain, it does not matter. It is just that the inner world is already a mess. So when you say what is the motivation I think it is something like this.

MATTHIEU DAVID: So, there is a difference I am already seeing between the west and in China. I feel the west is much more obsessed with being natural or being close to their roots, being close to what they are really… instead of conforming to an ideal of yourself in terms of body and in terms of what you are known for and in China people will change themselves and be more eager to change their self-presentation on Chinese social media, change themselves to conform to the society or to the group. Would you agree with this statement? Do you think it is one of the differences? What kind of differences would you conclude between the west and east and China?

ZHANG YING FEI: I can’t totally agree with that because I do have some western clients that are also obsessed with their beauty especially let’s say the western coast of America; I have some clients from there and my clients say that “I am from Florida. I need to be pretty. I will not be accepted if I am not pretty” because everybody is so nice, so pretty, “…and on Facebook I need to show that I am fine” and also this person will say, “I can’t show my vulnerability to my family and to my close friends” so a yes and a no. No, because I also have some Chinese people; my friends. You can use the word obsessed; of being neutral, but yes because if you see the way we talk with people; Chinese or let’s say Asian people like Japanese, Korean who are more like hiding our instant emotions, our current emotions as if the emotion can’t be really shown at that moment. We need to stay with a calm, peaceful face because this is appropriate. This is more appropriate according to what we have been taught and western people; they are like showing more, “Yeah oh that is bullshit.”

MATTHIEU DAVID: I see. We are in a society in China where actually some westerners who are not in China may not know it, but the rate of divorce is pretty high. Actually, women have been very involved in the economy and very independent since 1949 compared to other countries. They have been faster and Simone de Beauvoir is very famous. So, you have a concept or you are familiar with being independent which is some way very well-spread, well-known, but on the other hand, what you are describing is not being independent. It is to confront a group, it is to change your body to be seen more for the appearance than actually who you are and actually as Simone de Beauvoir was saying, “You are not born a woman. You become a woman” and actually it is exactly that when you do plastic surgery or you change your body to become the ideal woman or the ideal man. You don’t talk a lot about men. How do you see these conflicts and one side, a lot of freedom? The divorce rate is actually high. I think in some cities like Shanghai it is like half of the marriage would end in divorce and the same in France and on the other hand you are talking about a lot of constraints for individuals.

ZHANG YING FEI: Yeah that is really interesting. In fact, yeah I read Beauvoir’s book. I liked it very much when I was in college or university. I loved it very much and I have some clients in a couple’s therapy. When the women come actually they have money, they have good jobs. If they want to get divorced they can also have you know; money, but I discovered that the main reason why they stay in marriage; in an uncomfortable, not a satisfying marriage is for one reason. They don’t want to be a divorced woman. How about a man becoming a divorced man? It sounds okay. It sounds quite okay in this society.

A divorced man can still very easily get married, but for a divorced woman, it is very, very difficult especially when a divorced woman has a child and I talked with my western friends and they said, “Wow, a single mother is charming. A single mother is very attractive. I don’t mind dating a single mother” and it will be that the father of her child is okay. So, I don’t know if it’s a social thing or it’s an individual thing, but in China, for men to date with a woman who has a child is like, “Hey, you are mine and we are going to have children and your child is not my child.” So still we have; maybe you can also say it is a philosophy that the family name, the blood is very, very important. So, divorced women are dramatically decreased in their value. I hate to say that; the value in the marriage market. That is horrible and there will be this family pressure and also for not married women and I also hate to use the words, “leftover women” or “leftover girls”. This not married like between 28-48 or 50; during this age, the woman also struggles.

On the one hand, many of them are quite successful. They earned their life. They walked out from the parent’s home, they are working in a company, they can make money, but as long as they are not married they are a failure in the family’s eyes. The parents would not be that happy to see what they have achieved. They might just say, “Yeah it’s just a pity that you can’t find someone to look after you.” Even if the girl said, “I don’t need someone to look after me. I can look after myself.” “Yeah, you say so, but you know it’s not that good.” So I have these clients coming in so your question is like why there is an over-minded philosophy or ideas and there is movement coming on in the world, but Chinese women are still like that? I would say Shanghai is already much, much better than other provinces; Shanghai, Beijing, Kwon Jo. You can imagine how many gay, how many lesbians coming to Shanghai to those big cities just because they can finally escape from the social pressure because here, you can at least get some freedom.

You can be yourself and you can be who you are. It is really already quite better than other provinces, but still, their inner conflicts are still there especially this guilt like, “My parents are waiting for grandchildren. My parents are waiting for me to take care of them.” The parent’s needs always go; I won’t say the first, but a priority is always very high and that’s something very, very special in Asia or in China, Korea, Japan, but not in western countries. My father-in-law is living alone and we are not going to visit him all the time. I actually just see him once a year, but he still loves me very much. He loves me like, “Oh every time you come here I am so happy.” I mean he is not really taking the children. He can have his own life and his happiness is that you can have your own life in a happy way, but not Chinese parents.

MATTHIEU DAVID: It is only going to be one hour and we have talked a lot about women. What are the topics that the men are bringing to you or maybe most of your patients are women; I don’t know, but what do you see among men if some of your patients are men? What is the critical issue? What difficulties do they face in Chinese society?

ZHANG YING FEI: Yeah it’s not because I see women more than men, but it is actually because there are many more women coming for psychological counseling and therapy. I will say like 70 or 80% of the clients are women and men are not that easy to calm because that’s actually the big problem. This is the problem because men are not so easy to see that they need help and mostly as soon as a man after several therapies; they admit that they need help too and they also want to have someone listening to them and they can show their vulnerability and if they can really get that, they will feel much, much better. So, let’s say that a man’s self-presentation on Chinese social media should be tough. A man should be strong. A man should just manage his own emotions. This kind of sterile case is really hurting men; hurting men very much so that is one of the main issues for men; that they can’t be themselves.

I never believed that a man is purely a man. I mean for agenda we have a biologic agenda for a male and a female, but inside of us we have all a male part and a female part and we have these two parts and for woman, we dare not show our male part and for a man it is hard to show their female part which is a pity and I am very glad to know that one of my clients; a university student said, “In my dormitory we use facial masks sometimes.” You know a group of men using facial masks which is nice. It is so funny. Why not? So I think that the young generation can change a male’s self-presentation on Chinese social media a little bit. They can welcome more their feminine part and another main issue for a man is that they have conflicts and unfinished conflicts with the family, with the society, but as a man, they need to be themselves. They need to have their own identity and self-presentation on Chinese social media, they need to be completely becoming them and there is not really a lot of models that they can find.

Like you said in western countries in the films there is a hero. They are a hero but become an individual, but here we don’t have that much model they can learn from and usually Chinese fathers – I can’t say all of them – but many Chinese fathers are so absent even if physical presence, but emotionally they are quite absent so they cannot have a connection with the father very well and because of the only child policy I can see there is a lot of family pattern, but the mother is not very satisfied with the father and like we said; a woman – I am not going to believe this marriage. They are not going to divorce. So they stay in the marriage and now they complain in front of their son, they catch the son and they will be crying, “Oh, I am not happy. Your father is like this and that.” Then the son becomes the support pillar of the mother or replaces the father’s place and this is the sad part and then it creates again the problem of who they are. They are the mother’s baby. They are the good son, but they feel super guilty to leave their mother aside and they aren’t really able to understand the father because they don’t even have a conversation. So, that will be you know another problem. 

Also, the economic or financial situation and in this society, it is like if you are dating a girl it should be the man paying the bill. So, men have much more financial pressure or economic pressure than a girl. If you want to have a wife or if you want to have a girlfriend you need to pay for the holiday, pay for the journey, pay for the apartment, pay for the meal, pay for many things which are really very, very heavy for men. So many men just stay. Yesterday one of my clients; a boy said, “Oh recently I found a girl. I have a real interest.” “You are going to date her?’ “No, no it is too tiring. Yes I know I have an interest, but it is so tiring. I just don’t want to do that. I am so tired. I just want to be in my own cocoon.”

MATTHIEU DAVID: Interesting. As a conclusion I feel we would have to end soon, but one of the conclusions I have learned from what we said is that I feel that the issues in China and the west are let’s 70% or 80% similar, but there is a question of degree or to which extent it is deep or not. Do you agree with this vision that actually it is more a level of degree, but the fact that the society to you is also a topic in the west? It’s very, very similar and in fact, but just a degree maybe that it may be different from different levels of independence; individual freedom, independence, and intellectual freedom.

ZHANG YING FEI: Yeah let’s have this image of two trees; there is one apple tree and there is one pear tree or something like that, okay? When the trees are growing well and then they are quite close because now with the social media people can see this outside world very easily so when these two trees are growing up their leaves and branches can touch each other and sometimes the fruits can touch each other. They can mix with each other. That is the similarity we can see from a western country and a Chinese country, but the roots are different. The seeds are different.

So, I am waiting for like a next-generation when the apple tree and the pear tree grows up and the fruits come falling down and their seeds can mix and that can be more similar, but now Chinese people see the western world and we can learn about western people in the Chinese world, too like you do that and then you serve tea or you have this Chinese element in your clothes or something like this. That is all the branches crossing to each other and we can have a lot of communication, a lot of dialogues, but still there are some roots and the frustrating part for some of the Chinese students or young people is that they are kind of growing so high and they can enter as a pear tree, they can enter in this apple tree, but their roots are still here. There is something they cannot move; their family, the atmosphere, the values, the expectation from the parents; some have a mindset that they can’t really shake or change. So, that makes the whole tree very tired; quite tired.

MATTHIEU DAVID: Thank you very much for taking the time today. I hope you enjoyed it? I enjoyed it and I hope as well everyone listening to us liked the talk. Thanks.

ZHANG YING FEI: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.

China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.

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