You know that uneasy feeling before interviewing for a job, giving a speech in public, or making a major life decision? The Chinese have a variety of expressions to convey these universal emotions. They also embrace a wider view of the “heart” and its role in our lives.
Here are three phrases which capture aspects its essence:
1. 忐忑 tǎntè
Meaning: Nervous, apprehensive, mentally unstable
Wǒ yào qù miànshìle, xīnlǐ gǎndào yǒuxiē tǎntè bù’ān.
I’m going for a job interview and my heart’s feeling uneasy.
The radicals of the two characters 忐 tan and 忑 te say it all: your 心 xīn heart is going 上 shàng up and 下 xià down. If only more Chinese characters were this easy and expressive!
2. 七上八下 qī shàng bā xià
Meaning: An agitated, perturbed state of mind
Wǒ dǎsuàn míngtiān tíchū gēn tā fēnshǒu, xīnlǐ xiàng yǒu shíwǔ zhǐ shuǐtǒng dǎ shuǐ, qī shàng bā xià de.
I’m breaking up with him/her tomorrow and it feels like I’ve got seven buckets coming up and eight buckets going down.
Literally “seven ups and eight downs,” this phrase functions like the English expressions “at sixes and sevens.” You’re a mess, and for now, there’s not much you can do about it.
3. 才下眉头 却上心头 cái xià méitóu què shàng xīntóu
Meaning: Mind fully occupied missing someone or something
To relieve my longing is all in vain;
as the frown eases, the mind clutters.
– Li Qingzhao, Song Dynasty poet
Cǐ qíng wú jì kě xiāochú, cái xià méitóu, què shàng xīntóu
– Lǐqīngzhào (Sòng)
Just when you’ve released the angst from your face, it’s now swirling around your mind.
It’s worth noting that the Chinese concept of 心 xīn goes beyond the notions of heart (physical & emotional) and mind (thinking/cognitive) to embody a wider existential experience.
An interesting research article titled The meaning of the Chinese cultural keyword xin does a deep dive into this multifaceted character in the context of qigong and concludes:
Xin is the root of physical and mental life. It is the seat of all emotions, and embodies the inherent goodness of human nature and wisdom. Xin helps to guide the individual’s way of life and attitude, and can lead one to deep contentment.
In other words, Chinese regard xin as the seat of the soul.