Paving a Path for Psychology Research in China

Professor Xuan Li (Source: Xuan Li)

For the Fall 2022 semester, a waitlist of 15 quickly piled up within days of course registration opening. Across China, the field of psychology is experiencing rapid growth, with related programs gaining greater traction in Chinese universities. 

When Xuan Li, Assistant Professor of Psychology at NYU Shanghai, responded to the question of what drew her interest in psychology, she promptly flipped it: “People want to learn more about others and themselves, who wouldn’t be interested in psychology?” 

For Professor Li, 35, psychology was not always her intended path, joking “I’m not the kind of person to have my research idea at five years of age.” Rather, psychology was a natural interest that conveniently fit into her schedule as a double major with German Literature as an undergraduate student at Peking University. 

Fresh from completing her degree at one of China’s top universities, Professor Li, a native of Nanjing, initially looked into graduate programs in German universities to continue with German Literature. But in a twist of fate, she ultimately received an offer to study psychology at Cambridge University, where she eventually completed her master’s and subsequent Ph.D. Under the large umbrella of psychology, selecting a specialty seemed an obvious choice for Professor Li. 

“I’ve always loved children,” she said, beaming. “I love them. I want to work for them, work with them. And so, I decided quite early on that I would do developmental psychology. I wanted to understand kids and how they’re thinking and what’s the best for them.”

With an impressive resume, Professor Li returned to China in 2016, where she was offered a position as a founding faculty member of the psychology department at NYU Shanghai alongside professor Lixian Cui. 

She thought this position “would be interesting” given that the corresponding New York researchers behind the role were people she had cited before and whose writing she liked. With the unique opportunity in Shanghai, Professor Li was motivated to “get to know the people behind the papers.” 

Additionally, Shanghai was an especially attractive location. “It took me closer to the shared space with my potential research participants, and of course, being closer to my family as well,” she said. It also brought Professor Li closer to her favorite aspect of research: data collection. Or, in less scientific terms, getting to personally speak with Chinese families and understand their experiences. 

“The end goal of that research is always on child welfare and child benefit,” she said. “What is the best possible way to ensure that children grow up in an optimal environment? What is the best that we as adults can provide for them?” These are just a few of the questions Professor Li investigates in the field.

Although her research at Cambridge was still focused on the Chinese context, being able to be on the ground gives her the most fulfillment.

“When you have done all these interviews, where you’re anxious to put together all these different transcripts to compare and to try to identify patterns, I think that’s extremely interesting as well,” she said. As she spoke about her favorite steps in the research process, she exuded contagious energy on screen throughout the interview, showing a fervor for what she does.

During her research, Professor Li discovered a major gap of inquiry into the topic of fatherhood in the Chinese context. While there is substantial literature on Chinese mothers, she intuitively thought “if you look at one parent, you would include the other parents in that scholarship as well, but that wasn’t the case.” She saw this as an opportunity and a starting point for her research career. 

Within this niche, Professor Li has made substantial contributions, published in leading journals and featured in BBC and South China Morning Post, just to name a few. But throughout the lively discussion with Professor Li, her personable and humble character shone through the brightest as she detailed her study into the field of psychology in China. 

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Professor Li focuses her research on fatherhood in the Chinese context (Source: Trần Long).

For the past decade, her research in China has progressed alongside the development of the field of psychology itself. “I’ve only been in the field for about 10 years, but I guess even in that very short period of time, you just see a lot more people getting interested, which is great,” she said. Professor Li has not only witnessed a general rise in the public’s interest in psychology and mental health but also, as a young researcher, she has noticed more young Chinese peers at international conferences. Having more like-minded junior researchers in the field is a refreshing sign of progress and makes her excited about the future.

However, she also acknowledges that furthering an underdeveloped field is not always easy. “Child development, in general, is still mostly focused on western, white, middle-class U.S. families, and there is a lot less being written about the Chinese concept of child development in general,” she said. Because of this, Professor Li and her colleagues not only face limited foundational theories but must also localize traditionally western research methods to the Chinese environment. 

Since coming to NYU Shanghai, she has taught a variety of courses, including Intro to Psychology, The Chinese Family, and two that will be offered in the fall: Cultures of Psychology and Adolescent Development.

Her involvement with the NYU Shanghai community extends beyond the classroom. In addition to research, she supervises master’s students and works with student research assistants who want to gain more experience in her field. 

“Many of them have their own independent research projects, or have their own interests. I try to find ways to combine their interests with mine,” she said. Whether it’s having them compile data or organize meetings to discuss what research they have read, Professor Li emphasized her goal to serve as a mentor and help students realize their research aims.

NYU Shanghai has also been a thriving environment for Professor Li to explore other research interests. Joining the community allows her to observe “the intercultural interactions among students.” She vividly recalls how, before the pandemic, having the entire community together in person cultivated an utterly unique environment. 

The “wonderful student body, faculty and staff come from very interesting and rich backgrounds” and “they each bring very interesting stories.” By seeing how people of diverse cultures and backgrounds mingle and interact, Professor Li draws inspiration for future research. She is also involved with the university’s Diversity Initiatives to help address issues on campus. 

Professor Li’s determination to make a difference not only in the NYU Shanghai community but also in the greater body of psychology research in China was evident as she described her experiences. When she did not see a clear path in her area of interest, she paved the way, serving as an inspiration for NYU Shanghai students who are considering a career in psychology.

Author: Celia Forster

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