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Zhou, P.;  Critchley, H.;  Nagai, Y.;  Wang, C. Embodied 'Basic' Emotions in Chinese and English Language. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 16 June 2024).
Zhou P,  Critchley H,  Nagai Y,  Wang C. Embodied 'Basic' Emotions in Chinese and English Language. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 16, 2024.
Zhou, Pin, Hugo Critchley, Yoko Nagai, Chao Wang. "Embodied 'Basic' Emotions in Chinese and English Language" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 16, 2024).
Zhou, P.,  Critchley, H.,  Nagai, Y., & Wang, C. (2022, July 27). Embodied 'Basic' Emotions in Chinese and English Language. In Encyclopedia.
Zhou, Pin, et al. "Embodied 'Basic' Emotions in Chinese and English Language." Encyclopedia. Web. 27 July, 2022.
Embodied 'Basic' Emotions in Chinese and English Language

References to the body are one feature shared across languages, particularly when describing the mental processes of emotion, reflecting the embodiment of an emotional experience. Embodied emotion concepts encompass these categorized outcomes of bidirectional brain–body interactions yet can be differentiated further into afferent or interoceptive and efferent or autonomic processes. Between languages, a comparison of emotion words indicates the dominance of afferent or interoceptive processes in how embodied emotions are conceptualized in Chinese, while efferent or autonomic processes feature more commonly in English. Correspondingly, in linguistic expressions of emotion, Chinese-speaking people are biased toward being more receptive, reflective, and adaptive, whereas native English speakers may tend to be more reactive, proactive, and interactive. 

emotion afferent Chinese English

1. The Varied Embodiment of Fear in Chinese and English

In both Chinese and English, many words describing fear make reference to the physical reactions and expression of autonomic bodily responses (e.g., change in heart rate, temperature, sweating, and shaking of the body). Nevertheless, there appear to be more emotion words in general usage in Chinese compared with English that are coded with reference to interoceptive physiological changes and sensations attributed to specific internal organs (mainly the heart, gallbladder, and liver) to express fear.
Table 1 lists the Chinese words and idioms expressing fear with reference to physical reactions or reflexes controlled by the autonomic nervous system and visceral words such as ‘heart’ (xin), ‘gallbladder’ (dan), and ‘liver’ (gan) that are used for expressing fear.
Apparently, across multiple Chinese idioms, the expression of fear is embodied via agitation and trauma (such as shaking, trembling, dropping, tearing, splitting, and loss) of the internal organs such as the ‘heart’, ‘gallbladder’, and ‘liver’, often with reference to physical sensations attributed to these visceral organs (such as startled, panicked, broken, cold, frozen, chilly, weak, frightened, and timid).

Comparable Terms in English

The embodied words, idioms, and descriptions of fear and fearful states were collected from citations within Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus (the 7th edition) [1] (p. 337) and from [1] (pp. 70–73) as well as two on-line sources: Collins thesaurus ( (accessed on 4 January 2022)) [2] and (accessed on 4 January 2022) [3]. These terms are shown in Table 2:
As shown in Table 2, the above examples demonstrate that there are many embodied words in both the Chinese and English expressing fear, and only a few English verbal expressions for fear refer to the internal organs, yet many more words are associated with bodily parts and physiological activation controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Although in both languages such embodied emotion expressions for fear refer to internal bodily sensations and to physiological reactions controlled autonomically, words relating internal organs are used to a much greater extent and more systematically in Chinese when compared with English [4]. This increased granularity and transparency of using internal organs such as the ‘heart’, ‘gallbladder’, and ‘liver’ to label fear in Chinese may be attributed to the strong influence of traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine when compared with the paucity and piecemeal use of interoceptive words (e.g., heart, belly, stomach, and liver) in contemporary English [4].

2. The Embodied Conceptualization of Anger or Being Angry in English and Chinese

In Chinese, the majority of the words and idioms labeling anger are embodied, which means they are related to specific bodily sensations and actions, including facial expressions, skin complexion, physical reactions, or behaviors encompassing changes or agitation within visceral organs, notably the heart, liver, and lungs. In addition, there are numerous anger words that refer to natural phenomenon words such as qi (air), fire, wind, and thunder, as shown in Table 3.
Comparable terms in English can be found in Table 4.
As shown in Table 4, within the English-speaking North American culture, anger has been proposed to be metaphorically and metonymically conceptualized as output energy accumulated in the body as internal heat [5][6]. This may originate in a Western cultural understanding of physics, in which ‘emotional effects are understood as physical effects. Anger is understood as a form of energy[5] (p. 61). Thus, input energy accumulates within a body until it reaches a pressure point, at which the energy erupts as steam, externally radiating heat and agitation that may pose a danger to others.
However, within the same formulation, it is acknowledged that the‘lexical approach’toward mental structure (i.e., speculating about the mentalization of emotions via the words used in a particular language [5]) is likely to reflect more received ‘folk theories’ rather than the logic of scientific cognitive theories, particularly the updated modern affective neuroscience, even though Kövecses acknowledged those influential psychologists (e.g., [7][8][9]) by claiming that physiological reactions and bodily changes such as heat, internal pressure, redness of the face and neck area, and agitation are the essential components of angry emotion (and interfere with normal perception and reason [5]). Such theoretical logic is, however, somewhat obsolete and at odds with new evidence and emerging theories within affective neuroscience which highlight the fundamental, imperative role of interoception in emotional experiences.
The comparison of the embodied expressions of anger between Chinese and English (see Table 3Table 4) demonstrates both similarities and differences in the two cultures. On the one hand, in each language, the facial expression, hair, teeth, eyes, and eyebrows, alongside physiological responses such as increased body temperature and redness of the face, are regarded as essential components of emotional experiences [5]. On the other hand, the Chinese and English languages differ in the following aspects: First, the way in which anger is typically conceptualized in English suggests a process that involves increasing temperatures within a fluid inside the body, leading to (implicitly through the evaporation) the build-up of pressure within the container (the body) and finally to the explosion of the container as a result of excessive pressure. Anger is construed more as the agitation of qi (in a gas or air state) in Chinese. This difference in the conceptualization of anger may be attributed to the distinct philosophical traditions of China and the West, in particular with regard to fundamental assumptions concerning the mind–body relationship [4].
More specifically, in traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, everything in the universe is proposed to originate from the ever-changing and volatile primordial qi. In contrast, in early Western traditions, namely in the writings of Hippocrates, disease was associated with an imbalance or disturbance from the natural state of the body. In his On the Nature of Man, Hippocrates proposed the Theory of Four Humors, in which blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile were the four elementary components of human bodies, and the imbalance or disproportion of the humors in the body may cause disease. Thus, a healthy state is conceived as the right balance in the intensity and quantity of the humors within the body. If one humor is insufficient or in excess, or if it is dispersed in the body and fails to mix with the others, disease will result [10]. Thus, in accordance with the theory of traditional Chinese medicine, the embodied words expressing anger that refer to the heart, liver, lungs, and other internal organs and to the flowing or circulation of qi between these internal organs are in compliance with the conception of mind–body relationships within Chinese philosophy [4][11], while references to bile and the spleen in English can be traced back to the historical origin of Western medicine [10][12].

3. The Embodied Conceptualization of Sadness or Grief in Chinese and English

A comparison of how sadness or grief is conceptualized in the Chinese and English languages showed the following: (1) There are far more words using tears and snot to express grief in Chinese than in English (merely with the more general word ‘weep’). (2) Sadness and grief terms in Chinese draw reference to trauma to and pain in the internal organs (notably the heart, lungs, liver, intestine, blood, and even all five viscera), while embodied grief in English is typically constrained to the heart. (3) The expression of sadness in Chinese idioms uses many sadness-related behaviors including wailing, lamenting, thumping one’s breast, and stamping one’s feet, as well as lamenting to heaven and knocking one’s head on the earth, but these are rarely mentioned in the English emotional language. (4) In Chinese, body parts associated with sadness or grief include the bone, bone marrow, skin, and eyes, while English lacks this specificity and granularity, using the general word ‘hurt’. (5) As for gustation, bitter and sour are the flavors for sadness in Chinese, while only bitter is used in English. (6) In terms of temperature sensing (thalposis), there are numerous words connected with coldness or chilliness in Chinese to express sadness. In addition, compound emotions are frequently produced by cold and other emotions, such as qi can (miserable = cold + wretched), qi liang (bleak = cold + cool or desolate), qi qie (plaintive = cold + sad), qi ku (miserable = cold + bitter), qi wang (desolate = cold + disappointed), qi shang (melancholy = cold + hurt), qi mi (gloomy = chilling + sorrowful), qi chuang (wretched = chilling + mournful), and bei liang (desolate = sad + chilling). In contrast, in English, these feelings are expressed with discrete abstract words such as bleak, desolate, sorrowful, mournful, miserable, and so on and so forth (see also [4]).
In short, comparatively, Chinese people tend to conceptualize sadness via physical perceptions (including exteroception and interoception), in addition to emotional behaviors, actions, and facial expressions, while in English, the lexicalization and conceptualization of sadness or grief is more impoverished, with a more limited range of words describing physical sensations, postures, and behavioral and facial expressions.

4. The Embodied Conceptualization of Joy or Happiness in Chinese and English

The comparison of the concept of joy or happiness between Chinese and English shows the following: (1) Joy is conceptualized as smiling, laughter, uncontrollable crazy behavior, celebration, excitement, and an energetic mental state in both languages. (2) Each language uses tactile sensations (e.g., itching) to describe joy. (3) Many Chinese idioms describing joy are underpinned by concepts of beaming, glowing, and radiance, such as shen cai yi yi (with shining and beaming spirit) (beaming), guang cai zhao ren (radiant with glamour and charm) (glamorous and charming), and man mian chun feng (the whole face in spring breeze) (overjoyed or beaming with joy). Likewise, in English, joy is conceptualized as glowing, radiance, and beaming of the face or body.
Nevertheless, there are variations in the conceptualization of joy between the two languages: (1) In Chinese, joy is mainly described with facial expressions (e.g., the stretching, lifting, and stirring of the eyebrows and eyes), postures and gestures (e.g., the shaking, stamping, and dancing of hands, feet, and the head) and bodily sensations including both somatosensation (e.g., itching) and interoception (e.g., kai xin (open heart) (joyful) or xin hua nu fang (flowers in the heart are in full bloom) (be elated or overjoyed)). Meanwhile, joy or happiness is less likely to be described with physical sensations in English, except for the itching and redness of the skin and the relaxation of the heart (e.g., heartening and lighthearted). (2) Joy is metaphorized as the abundance, fullness, freshness, smooth flowing, and stable state of qi inside the body in Chinese, while it is often conceptualized as lifting, flying, or floating of the body in the air in English.
In summation, the comparison of the four ‘basic’ emotions in Chinese and English indicates the following:
  • Chinese uses more interoceptive words to describe emotions than in English. The Chinese emotion words with reference to the sensation and agitation of internal organs is not only abundant but systematic, likely due to the pervasive influence of traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, whereas the adoption of interoceptive terms to describe emotions is not only far less common in English but also lacks granularity and systematicity (see also [4]).
  • Under the influence of traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy, many Chinese emotion words are associated with qi, while in English, emotions such as anger, under the impact of the ancient theory of humors, are viewed as the changing energy of fluids inside the body and the increase in their temperature, vaporization, expansion, and explosion.
  • Generally, ‘coldness’ or ‘chill’ is metaphorically projected to the concept of sadness in Chinese. This cold sensation, when combined with other feelings, generates more complex emotions such as bleakness, desolation, sorrowfulness, mournfulness, misery, and melancholy. In contrast, the sense of being chilled is more directly connected with fear in English.
  • Incidentally, as pointed out elsewhere, there are far more emotion words and phrases using bodily sensory-motor systems such as facial expressions, bodily movements, and internal and external sensations in Chinese than in English, in which emotions are more likely to be conceptualized with nuanced abstract concepts [4].
In short, the interoception-centered embodiment of emotion concepts and their lexicalization in Chinese encapsulate the holistic body–mind–emotion relationship of traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy [4][11]. In contrast, a more dichotomous model of body–mind interaction underpins the assumptions of Western philosophy regarding the role of the body in emotion.
Therefore, what might be the impact of this divergence in embodied emotion concepts in Chinese and English on the everyday perception and experience of emotions? Moreover, do such linguistically diverse conceptual systems for emotions correspondingly shape or nurture distinct cultural values expressed by groups of Chinese and English language users as suggested by the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis and the theory of constructed emotion (e.g., [13][14][15])? Researchers propose a tentative hypothesis that the prominence given in Chinese to interoception (i.e., the cerebral sensory representation of inner bodily processes and the feeling states that are generated through this afferent body-to-brain route in the conceptualization of emotions) places bodily sensations underlying emotions in the foreground for the mind to receive, process and adapt to. In contrast, the prominence given in English to physical actions controlled by the autonomic nervous system and to reactive behaviors transmitted along the efferent brain-to-body pathway implies that bodily reactions are the principal expression of the embodiment of emotions and are subject to overarching control by the brain (and mind). In this latter context, across Western culture, the brain is viewed as the ‘master’ or ‘commander-in-chief’ that plays a steering and directing role in emotion, while the body is reactive and subservient to the brain’s wishes within the affective brain–body dynamics.
Arguably, the idiosyncratic embodiment of emotion concepts in the two geoculturally remote languages (i.e., Chinese and English) may be attributed to their distinctive conceptions of the body out of their distinct cultural or civilizational origins. In other words, the divergence in how the body is conceived can primarily explain the structural and systematic variation in the embodied conceptualization of emotions between English and Chinese (e.g., [13]). 


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