Empty heart disease

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In "Life is Meaningless, Say China’s Top Students:  A Peking University professor reports that students have full course loads and ‘empty hearts’", Fu Danni (Sixth Tone, 11/23/16) introduces us to a newly minted term:  kōngxīn bìng 空心病 ("empty heart disease").

The first known usage of kōngxīn bìng 空心病 ("empty heart disease"), which sounds like a serious, heavy designation in psychology and psychiatry, was by Professor Xu Kaiwen, the deputy head of the mental health education and counseling center at Peking University, in a presentation at an education summit in Beijing earlier this month.

Xu described the symptoms of “Empty Heart Disease” as: feelings of depression, loneliness, and indifference; a sense of not knowing what life is for, despite outstanding achievements; maintaining good relationships but feeling that they are based on social obligation; and even suicidal thoughts.

The transcript of Xu's speech spread like wildfire on the Chinese internet, and soon everybody was talking about kōngxīn bìng 空心病 ("empty heart disease").

A Google n-gram search on kōngxīn bìng 空心病 comes up as empty as the empty heart that it designates.  Even a Google search has results that all seem to be from the past few days.  So this is a certifiable neologism.  It will be very interesting to track its usage over the next few weeks, months, and years.  Will Xu's coinage last?  Will it take hold and fulfill a useful function in Chinese vocabulary in the future?

We have been talking about the life and death of dialects and languages.  Words too have their birth, life, and death.  In some (probably most) cases, expressions can be highly ephemeral; in other cases, the most unprepossessing locutions can have amazingly long durability.  I will write about one of these ("oh, woe [is me]") in my next post.

Just as I was about to terminate this post, I realized that, in a much less fancy way, "oh, woe [is me]" is describing the same gestalt as kōngxīn bìng 空心病 ("empty heart disease").

[h.t. Geoff Wade; thanks to Randy Alexander]


  1. Guy A said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

    Another one of the many symptoms of 空心病 is a strong craving for 空心面 (macaroni) and 空心菜 (water spinach).

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

    From Brendan O'Kane:

    Google's n-gram search tool works on books, if I understand it correctly, so it isn't much help for neologisms of this sort. Looking at Google's search trends for 空心病 (https://www.google.com/trends/explore?q=空心病), it looks as if there were a couple of small spikes in 2013 and 2014, followed by a sharp rise in late 2016

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 4:04 pm

    From Jichang Lulu:

    Ngram search gives no results. A quick search for old-ish web occurrences yielded only pages on plant diseases.

    Marginally topical: kōngxīn luóbo 空心萝卜 ("empty heart [i.e., hollow] turnip") as someone/something boastful/promising but disappointing.

    Here's the voice of Science (or at least a Fudan U prof)
    (content could be nicked from elsewhere).

  4. Michael Watts said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

    "Less fancy"? "Woe is me" uses a word which is not part of the productive vocabulary of modern english, inside an expression the grammar of which is not legal in modern english. How could it get fancier than that?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 6:16 pm

    Viewed in the longue durée, "oh, woe [is me]" could hardly be plainer or simpler. That will be evident from my next post, as I indicated in the penultimate paragraph of this one. "Oh, woe [is me]" is one of the most elemental expressions in our language.

  6. hanmeng said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

    Plenty of hits for 空心 in the Daizōkyō. Awakening to the vanity of life is not a disease.

  7. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

    Ah, now I know what I was suffering from in my second year at university.

  8. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 8:27 pm

    I endeavored to capture my 2nd year student anomie (kongxinbing) in a diary entry of October 25th 1961 by describing my room (above the main entrance gate of King’s College, Cambridge overlooking the front court and the chapel): “A clap in this sarcophagal box is echoless—dead in the vastly small emptiness of thickly enclosed silence, which is my room. Here I sleep. Here I read. But it is dead and it makes me dead too. Thick horrific lifeless silence. Jeering heavy furniture. Never moving, eternally the same.”

  9. AntC said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 5:30 am

    @Endymion overlooking the front court and the chapel

    Without wishing to denigrate your undergraduate angst (so eloquently evoked): luxury!

    All I got was a pokey concrete box, ten storeys up, overlooking other concrete boxes overlooking a concrete campus.

    "Silence"!? I used to dream of silence. I got noon-to-small-hours heavy metal. Bad heavy metal from above, below, clashing with punk to the left, to the right and from the facing concrete boxes.

    "Heavy furniture"!? I should have been so lucky. I put the mattress on the floor for fear the bed would collapse beneath me.

    However depressing it was, we were cossetted compared to going out into the world and getting a real job.

    But even back then (mid-70's), the pressure on the Chinese students was hideous. And several did throw themselves from the high-rise concrete boxes around exam time.

  10. Veronika Vinogrodskaya said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

    Discussion on Fenghuang TV:

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