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Broken Hearts and Broken Livers

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Mar 28, 2012 2:53 AMNov 5, 2019 12:14 AM


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In a new paper, Beyond the Blues

, German psychologists Postert et al discuss how the Hmong people of South East Asia talk about sadness - or rather, how they don't, because they don't really have a word for it.

Based on anthropological fieldwork in a number of Hmong communities in Laos, the focus of this article is on the Hmong term tu siab, literally "broken liver". This is usually translated as "sadness" in the dictionaries, but the authors say that, although it is certainly the closest thing the Hmong have to a word meaning sadness, it is not the same because:

The instance of becoming ‘sad’ in Western contexts is that ‘something bad happened’... This may involve disappointment in personal relationships, but also other afflictions beyond the social realm. At the core of the emotional experience of ‘sadness’ are basic violations of values deeply embedded in Western conceptions of the individual. The afflicted individual feels resigned, passive, out of control...

In Hmong language, the concept of ‘broken liver’ has a strong emphasis on kin relations. It pertains very often to social situations of isolation and neglect from one’s kin including consanguines, patrilineal ancestors, or affines or their unmarried daughters in cases of romantic love. Persons with a ‘broken liver’ may have been voluntarily offended, excluded, or separated from these persons by bad fortune...

One of the highest Hmong values, a person’s vital social integration, is at stake here. However, a state of ‘broken liver’ is usually far from resignation. Contrary to the assumed passivity of a ‘sad’ individual, a ‘broken liver’ is an affective marker highly mobilising social relations and interdependencies ... having a member in one’s group whose liver is ‘broken’ appeals to the collective commitment of all relatives...

[like the English "guilt" and "shame", but unlike "sadness"] ‘broken liver’ demonstrates characteristics of a socio-moral emotion in everyday pragmatics of Laotian Hmong villages. It is typically evoked in a – conscious or unconscious – transgression of an important sociocultural rule. When a man is assumed not to accord to basic principles of social reciprocity by keeping substantial gains from an opium sale for himself, close relatives may develop signs of a ‘broken liver’ signalling their disapproval...

In short, the argument is that the Hmong "broken liver" differs from our "sadness" in being an active response rather than a passive reaction, a social statement rather than an individual feeling, in having a moral dimension, and so on.

But isn't that much like our "broken heart"?

"Breaking someone's heart" is a moral issue. It's not good to be a heartbreaker. If someone broke your friend's heart, you'd be angry. It's a specifically social emotion in the sense that it generally results from betrayal, abandonment, or disrepect. It's true that while the Hmong's "liverbreak" seems to extend to all close relationships, "heartbreak" often has a romantic connotation; but we do talk about "breaking your mother's or father's heart", so even that's not an absolute rule.

Consider this recently broken heart. Doesn't Tulisa's heartbreak fit the tu siab bill?

If so, then the main difference between Hmong and English terminology is that they only have a concept of 'heartbreak', and lack a general concept of 'sadness'. That's quite interesting, but I'm not sure how much to read into it. English doesn't have a word for 'déjà vu'; we had to borrow it from the French, but surely that doesn't mean that no English people ever felt it until the French explained it to them.

I'm no expert but judging by this paper, Hmong emotion terminology is really very similar to ours. The big difference is that the Hmong (in common with other East Asian cultures) link emotions to the liver, which to Westerners sounds silly, but it's no more silly than our talk about emotions being in the heart. They're both just metaphors.

Replace "liver" with "heart", and the following Hmong terms (listed in the paper) look very familar -

  • zoo siab ‘pleased, happy’ (lit. ‘good liver’)

  • siab npau ‘angry’ (lit. ‘liver boiling’)

  • chob siab  ‘inwardly offended’ (lit. ‘pierced liver’) etc.

Don't those all make sense? We talk about being "hearty" or "heartened", "taking heart" or having our "hearts lifted" when we're happy or confident; our "blood boils" when we're angry; we talk about feeling "cut", "stung", "pierced" by criticism or insults, and we suffer "heart-rending" traumas.

This is certainly a very interesting paper, but it didn't leave me feeling that the Hmong's emotional life is all that different to ours.

Postert, C., Dannlowski, U., Müller, J., and Konrad, C. (2012). Beyond the Blues: Towards a Cross-Cultural Phenomenology of Depressed Mood Psychopathology, 45 (3), 185-192 DOI: 10.1159/000330944

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