busyness ≠ heart + killing

I have previously written an essay on the false interpretation of the Chinese word for “crisis” as allegedly signifying “danger + opportunity.”

Now, by chance, I have discovered another, similar instance of pseudo-Oriental wisdom spreading like a kudzu vine across the Internet. Compared to the lamentable ubiquity of the phony explanation of “crisis,” however, the present case is still germinating. So I thought I should nip it in the bud before it does serious damage to countless unsuspecting innocents who would fall under the spell of the supposedly ancient Oriental wisdom that it embodies.

The contagion is usually met in some such form as the following: “I’m told that the Chinese word for ‘busyness’ is made up of ‘killing’ and ‘heart’” or “I have heard/learned that the Chinese character(s) for ‘busyness’ consist(s) of ‘killing’ and ‘heart.’” Perhaps most frequently, it is simply stated that, according to the Chinese, “Busyness is heart-killing.” It is somewhat odd that most of the examples of these formulations that I have encountered occur in the context of Christian homilies and sermons. The implication of this fake etymology is that we should slow down and reflect, not run around heedlessly and thoughtlessly. While the advice proffered is undoubtedly well intentioned, it is thoroughly vitiated by attempting to ground it in counterfeit Chinese sagacity.

Although I haven’t yet come across any citation of the specific Chinese word or character(s) in question, I’m pretty sure that the reference is to máng, which does indeed mean “busy.” Now, the character used to write this word is 忙, which is made up of two components, a “heart” radical on the left (忄) and a phonetic element on the right (亡). The latter, by itself, is usually pronounced wáng and means “lose, disappear, perish, flee,” and, by extension, can also mean “to have none, there is not,” and so forth. As combined with the radical “heart” in the character for máng (“busy”), though, it functions strictly as a phonophore, or phonetic indicator. As to how máng and wáng are phonologically related, that would require a detour into the arcane science of Sinitic historical reconstructions, which I shall avoid going into here.

Suffice it to say that all of these grandiose claims about busyness being heart-killing are figments of the imagination of the Occidental purveyors of sanctimoniousness who mouth them. No Chinese thinks that he or she is “killing his/her heart” when he/she is máng. He or she just feels harried and overwhelmed, the same way we do in the West when we are too busy.

Victor H. Mair
Professor of Chinese Language and Literature
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Webmaster's note: For comments on this piece, see Orientalism and Chinese characters: the case of 'busyness'.