Depressed, or is your spleen melancholic?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 June, 2003, 12:00am

An Asian worker 'falls ill' in the midst of a stressful period at work, perhaps a pivotal time involving negotiation and repeated conflict. To her western colleague, this can look fake, as if the worker is simply pretending to be sick to avoid coping with a difficult situation. From a psychological perspective, this typical Chinese pattern of reaction is thought of as 'somatising' emotions. The headache, backache, insomnia and loss of appetite are a sort of displacement of difficult emotions that accompany the stress at work. Experiencing bodily or somatic symptoms, in place of emotions, is commonplace among Chinese, Indonesians and other Asians.

But looked at from the Chinese perspective, the western pattern of reaction given the same stressful events - which might result in a bout of depression or heightened anxiety - could be considered as simply displacing the emotion in another way: by 'psychologising' it. Both patterns are culturally ingrained. Chinese tend to listen to such events through their bodies and so manifest phenomena such as an angry liver, an anxious heart or a melancholy spleen.

Emotional organs sound psychologically unsophisticated to many westerners. But this is clearly mistaken, since Chinese languages are rich in words related to emotions. Chinese emotions are, if anything, expressed in a greater variety of ways than in the west. Chinese researchers even have trouble agreeing on a translation of the word 'emotion'. Also, some words that denote emotion are sharply defined in Chinese languages, while others have fuzzy borders. The English word 'anxiety', for example, when used as a description or measurement in research and diagnosis, presupposes a universal understanding of the concept. But it is highly improbable that any such words correspond in Chinese without loss or distortion of meaning.

The emotion of shame is part of a vast family of concepts in Chinese, while in other languages the concept gets little attention. Psychologists call this emphasis hypercognition. By the age of 2? to three, most Taiwanese have an impressive vocabulary of words for shame, including diulian (losing face), buhaoyisi (embarrassing) and haixiu (shy). Virtually all mainland children at this age understand xiu (shame or shyness). By comparison, very few American three-year-olds know the meaning of the roughly equivalent, ashamed or embarrassed. One Chinese psychologist goes as far as to conclude that 'Chinese society is a shame society'.

If this is the case, then English-speaking societies could easily be called 'depression societies', based on the near-cult popularity of the concept. It has no lexical entry in Chinese, on the other hand. Cross- cultural psychologists say this is because depression has different meanings and consequences in different cultures. Categorising emotions appears to be an ancient tradition in Chinese, as shown by the radicals which make up Chinese characters and show something of their origin. Only a certain group of emotion words, for instance, includes the radical which means heart. Chinese proverbs are also revealing about emotions, such as the often-cited le ji sheng bei (extreme happiness produces sorrow).

Traditional Chinese medicine is famous for balancing emotions to treat disease. Excessive joy is fixed with a fear, and so on. Each emotion is famously linked to an internal organ. Anger hurts the liver, worry hurts the lungs, and so on. On the mainland and in Hong Kong, psychologising is still typically frowned upon. Both patient and doctor stick with the somatic idiom. Both think of these somatic symptoms in partially emotional terms, but emotions are not seen as part of the disorder, which is why treatment relies on herbs, food and rituals, and not on psychologised talk or insight.

Chinese emotions do not vary vastly from western ones. It is unlikely, for instance, that there are fundamental contrasts in how emotions are subjectively experienced. But there are subtleties in the emphasis and manner in which emotions are expressed, and in a multicultural city like Hong Kong, these are useful to bear in mind.

Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer