“All disease comes from the heart” writes Freuhauf (2006). With this statement, he refers to a traditional Chinese concept of illness.
The Five Element Theory of Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine evolved in relative isolation, with little outside interference, and has held its own through time. Documents of Chinese medical writings date back to 1500 BC. Chinese medicine is based primarily on the theory of the five elements or wuxing (五行) and the concept of yin-yang (balance) and the idea of correspondence between organism (microcosm) and its environment (macrocosm). It is dependent on the natural rather than the supernatural. Hence there is belief in the connection between the body and nature. Human emotions are considered the “vital air” in the body, and are viewed as equivalent to nature, and that, which in turn connects the body with nature. The organs are considered to affect emotions (Tseng, 1973).
The wuxing is used to describe almost everything that is tangible and intangible in the universe. In the above diagram, the elements are represented by organs. Emotions are also allocated elements. We can see from the table below how the wuxing is used as metaphor to explain the flow of relationships between objects and concepts.
Wang Fengyi uses this principle as a guide to connect the illness affecting particular organs with emotions and relationships, etc.
Psychopathology and Chinese Medicine
The Chinese character for madness, feng 疯, is etymologically composed of two parts: wind 风 and illness 病. This indicates that such illness is brought about by extraordinary “wind”, a word which also implies emotions.
It is no accident that the modern Chinese term for psychosomatic medicine is xingshen bingxue, literally the science of how (primary) physical form and (secondary) spirit relate in the disease forming process. (Freuhauf 2006)
Since traditional Chinese medicine is characterized by the concept of visceral organs, patients frequently describe their psychiatric problems in terms of organs, like “exercised heart,” meaning apprehension, “injured heart” to mean sadness, and “elevated liver fire” to mean agitation and tension (Tseng, 1973).
Psychological problems are therefore deemed somatic- and organ-based, the Chinese never separated psychiatric disorders from other medical illness. Mental illness was never of particular pre-occupation in Chinese culture as it is in the west. Large mental asylums therefore have never been known to exist in pre-modern China (Ng, 1997).
Wang Fengyi’s Emotional Storytelling as Treatment for Somatic and Relationship Problems
When Wang Fengyi passed on in 1937, he left behind followers of his technique; one of whom is featured in the video above. The method of treatment is story telling. The practitioner sits among a group of people and tells a story (or something like a story). His story induces emotions in the individuals. From the video, we can see how the group dynamic plays an important part in the field. Even as a observer, emotions are induced in us. People laugh and cry at the same time. Some even throw up.
The explanation is that locked-up painful feelings (the practitioner in the video terms it poisonous feelings) are the cause of disease. These poisonous feelings (hate, blame, anger, judgement and annoyance are described here) arise from relationships with others because there are things that we feel but aren’t allowed to come to terms with or say.
The negative emotions are part of the wuxing (five-element cycle) and blockage to this flow causes a blockage to the organs that are also part of the wuxing.
Releasing these negative emotions, free up the flow, and hence improves overall well-being of the person. In the video, we can see the cathartic effect at the end of the session.
Emotional Story-Telling and Gestalt Psychotherapy
Wang Fengyi’s concept of releasing painful emotions is concordant with the gestalt therapy. We do not call the emotions poisonous, but the emotions that we encourage to be expressed in the therapy sessions are nonetheless painful.
In gestalt therapy, therapists do not need to tell the stories. The stories come from the client. The therapist’s job is to support the client with the feelings that emerge from his/her narratives. Using the two chair technique, and “acting out” works in this way.
Gestalt therapy is also focussed on the somatic aspect of emotions. Very often we ask clients to locate the feelings in their bodies. Checking with the feelings in the body, brings the client to the awareness of the mind-body oneness.
The work of Wang Fengyi is very much relevant to me as a therapist. I gain much inspiration from this traditional wisdom.
Fruehauf, H. (2006). All disease comes from the heart: The pivotal role of the emotions in Classical Chinese Medicine. na.
Ng, C. H. (1997). The stigma of mental illness in Asian cultures. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 31(3), 382-390.
Tseng, W. S. (1973). The development of psychiatric concepts in traditional medicine. Archives of General Psychiatry. 29:569-575.