Culture-Bound Syndromes in China

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 Psychosis.

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.

Publication History & Citation Guide

All original material in these pages is copyright Timothy M. Hall, 1998-2011, 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 3 Aug 2008, 16 Oct 2011, & 21 February 2013. Accessed on July 26, 2013

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

This constellation of pages was created in February 1998 for David Jordan’s class ANRG 170: Traditional Chinese Society at UCSD. It was updated on 1 March 1998 & 6 September 2001. It was originally hosted on the UCSD Social Sciences server as, where it was viewed some 56,800 times. It was then mirrored at where it was viewed some 5,000 times between 22 October 2006 and June 2012, when Apple ceased hosting at The current site at has been live since 12/21/2011.

The information here has been reproduced on a CD-ROM of health-related information produced by the British NGO Source as part of a mental health reference resource. It has been used in a number of courses in psychiatry & psychology, and is cited in the following textbooks:

• Brewer, Kevin (2001) Clinical Psychology. Heinemann themes in psychology series. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers. p. 21. ISBN-10: 0435806602; ISBN-13: 978-0435806606

• Ferrando, Stephen J. ed. (2008) Psychiatry In-Review 3rd Edition Study Guide. Publisher: ETAS. ISBN-10: 0976789701; ISBN-13: 978-0976789703

• Smith, Delaney; Tara Moyes, & Riley Smith (2011) “Culture-Specific Diagnoses.” In: Sana Loue & Marta Sajatovi , eds. (2011) Encyclopedia of Immigrant Health. Springer Science+Business Media. Pp: 49-64. doi.10.1007/978-1-5659-0.

• Chowdhury, Arabinda Narayan (2011) “Culture, Psychiatry, and Cultural Competence.” In: Lucian L’Abate. Mental Illness understanding, prediction and control. Rijeka, Croatia: InTech. Pp: 69-104. ISBN 978-953-307-662-1

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This site was created on 21 Sep 1996. All original textual and photographic material on these pages is copyrighted 1996-2012 by Timothy M. Hall unless otherwise noted.