The Chinese Word for Anger Shows the Best Way to Get Mad

By
Photo: Ben Akada/Getty Images

All languages are vessels of their home cultures. For English-speakers, foreign words for emotions can be especially revealing, since they give glimpses into the human condition with greater precision than the native tongue.

Science of Us has highlighted a few of the we-don’t-have-words-for-this variety, like malu, an Indonesian word for “the sudden experience of feeling constricted, inferior and awkward around people of higher status”; ilinx, French for “the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction”; or torschlusspanik, German for “gate-closing panic.”

But foreign words for everyday feels can lend a new perspective, too.

This occurred to me in reading a new post on the always-stimulating Language Log linguistics blog. In it, Penn sinologist Victor Mair counts several Mandarin words for anger, with his favorite being the most common, shēngqì 生气. It translates as getting mad, becoming enraged, or taking off. The direct, literal translation is the most telling: “generate qi.”

Qi, Mair explains, is as mysterious as it is crucial:

[Qi] is one of the most elusive and multivalent terms in Chinese chemistry, cosmology, physiology, medicine, etc.: “gas; vapor; odor; air; breath; spirit; vital energy; energy of life; material energy”).

Qi / ch’i is comparable to pneuma πνεῦμα in the Greek tradition, prāṇa प्राण in Sanskrit, and Hebrew ruach / rûaħ רוּחַ.

As such, it is often simply transcribed in translations from Chinese texts, thus qi (or as we used to write it in Wade-Giles romanization, ch’i), ki in Japanese, gi in Korean, and khí in Vietnamese. It is the qi in qigong, the ki in aikido, the ki in hankido, the khi of Tam Qui Khi-Kong, and so forth.

I’ve usually seen qi described as life force, vital energy, or intensity. When a millennial friend implores you to get hype for a big night out, they are asking you to summon qi. This is also, as the literal translation from the Mandarin attests, what happens when you get angry: You get lots more energy.

In psychology-speak, the nervous system becomes “highly aroused”: heart rate and muscle tension go up. In Tibetan Buddhism, the gentle Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, takes the wrathful form Mahakala, who protects practitioners from harm. Popular culture speaks to this archetypal process, too: the mild-mannered Bruce Banner, when sufficiently angered, bulks up into the Incredible Hulk. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” he warns.

While anger is a big, unwieldy emotion that’s super uncomfortable to experience, it can, as shēngqi suggests, be put to good use. Take that model provided by mythology, with Avalokiteshvara to turning to Mahakala: Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do in a relationship is to draw (and enforce) boundaries. Similarly, the qi stirred up by the election can be invested into creative work or civic action. Anger generates energy, and the key is to put the qi to good use.