Culture-Bound Syndromes in China

By: Timothy McCajor Hall

China is one of the world's oldest continuous cultural bodies, and has one of the most extensively developed traditional medical systems. It presents a challenge to the Western anthropologist of medicine in a number of ways, not the least of which are the mysterious practices of acupuncture, acupressure, and moxibustion, or the unique pharmacopia of classical Chinese medicine.

Beyond these, however, Chinese values in general and theories of medicine and the body in particular continue to shape the experience of illness differently in China than in the West. This is true to some degree anywhere: the experience of illness is always subjective, and varies from person to person and from group to group. Among the myriad societies of the world, however, the Chinese situation is of particular interest to the Western scholar. Chinese society is one of the most different from Western societies, and the Chinese situation is better documented than almost any other.

The focus of these pages is upon a set of illnesses often called "culture-bound syndromes". These are illnesses or illness categories with a strong psychosocial component which are typically found in only one or a few cultural groups. In the current American nosology, they are classified as psychiatric syndromes. Some of the most famous of these come from China, including shen kui, suo yang (a.k.a. koro), and qi-gong psychotic reaction.

In addition, some Chinese illnesses have sufficient differences from their apparent Western equivalents that the Chinese variant has merited special treatment. Neurasthenia or shenjing shuairuo is the most famous example.

The pages linked below attempt to answer some of the questions about the way in which "mental illness" (from a Western nosology) is experienced in China, and about illnesses or variants of illnesses which seem particularly Chinese.

A note on romanization: I do not speak or read Chinese, and the sources available have a combination of Wade-Giles romanization (WG), pinyin romanization, and various ideosyncratic representations of dialectal pronunciations. Many thanks are due to David Jordan for corrections and provision of tone markings. I have attempted to standardize most Chinese words to pinyin spellings. Any remaining errors are entirely my own.

  1. Glossary and Indexes of major culture-bound syndromes:
    (If your browser does not support frames, click on each of the individual topics below.)

    1. Introduction to culture-bound syndromes
    2. Glossary of major culture-bound syndromes
    3. Index of culture-bound syndromes by culture
    4. Index of culture-bound syndromes by symptoms

  2. Culture-bound syndromes in China:

    1. suo yang (aka koro), the famous shrinking genital syndrome.
    2. shenkui, the Chinese version of "semen loss" syndrome
    3. qi-gong psychotic reaction
    4. The case of neurasthenia and the issue of somatization.

  3. References and Bibliography
  4. Links related to culture-bound syndromes

This constellation of pages was created for the class ANRG 170: Traditional Chinese Society during February 1998 and modified again 1 March 1998 and 6 September 2001. It was moved to this location on 22 October 2006 and last updated on 04 November 2006. This page had been viewed some 56,800 times between 6 September 2001 and 22 October 2006 when it was moved to the new site. It has also been cited in several textbooks and reproduced on a CD-ROM of health-related information produced by the British NGO Source.
It has been viewed times since 4 November 2006.

All original material in these pages is copyright Timothy M. Hall, 1998-2001, unless otherwise referenced, and may not be reproduced without the permission of the author and appropriate citation. Appropriate citation should include the URL and the following:

Hall, Timothy McCajor. "Culture-bound syndromes in China."
12 Feb 1998, revised 4 Nov 2006. Accessed on <date>.

See the Columbia Style Guide for further details on citing internet documents or email me for details.

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