These thinkers recognised a number of mental and behavioural disorders as illnesses (bing), which were categorised and discussed in the earliest-known medical text in China, the Huangdi Neijing Lingshu Jing (the oldest parts of which date to the 4th century BCE). This text describes a number of mental illnesses, most prominently dian, marked by ‘unhappiness, headache, red eyes and a troubled mind’, and kuang, marked by ‘manic forgetfulness, flying into rages’ and ‘wild activity’, among other symptoms. Early Chinese medical scholars understood such mental illnesses to have a number of contributing causes, including overabundance of emotion, failure to control desires, the depletion of ‘vital energy’ from the organs – and the community to which one belongs.
Mental illness is linked to emotion in a number of early philosophical and medical texts. A passage from the Guanzi instructs that harmonious and effective action is possible only in the absence of the kinds of extreme joy, pleasure and anger that can disorder the mind, leading it to ‘lose its (original) form’. The Zhongyong associates harmony (he) with the proper restriction of the emotions. A passage in the Huangdi Neijing reads: ‘When anger abounds and does not end, then it will harm the mind.’ Just as in the case of tools or machines, there are ways in which we can use our bodies that overtax or harm them, and thus cause injury and illness (including mental illness), according to ancient Chinese scholars. This is an astute insight into the nature of illness.
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