Tracing the word history of “releasing your mind” (放心)

[This is a post I shared on my personal social media.]

I feel like literature people might know this, but I wonder if anyone knows when the negative connotation of “放心” became predominant in Chinese.


I remember studying Mandarin for the first time many years ago. I was struck by how words related to 心 often share the same underlying meaning, yet with a drastically different connotation. And this difference made the definitions of the words dissimilar in real life. For example, in Korean, “放心” means to be careless (because you are releasing your mind); “小心” means to be petty-minded or cowardly (because your heart isn’t big enough). Both are used exclusively with negative connotations.

The difference between the Chinese and Korean usages was even more intriguing because the Japanese meaning is rather similar to Korean. “小心” is used in the same way. “放心” is slightly different but still has a negative connotation: the state of being absentminded, often from a shock (Unsurprisingly, the Japanese took a Buddhist word, “油断,” to refer to carelessness). Anyway, while you can find the positive meaning of “放心” as a secondary meaning in a Korean or Japanese dictionary, a negative connotation became predominant in real life. And the same thing can be said about Chinese but in the opposite direction. “放心” isn’t used positively.

I wasn’t studying Confucian texts at that time, so I simply concluded that the meanings would’ve changed as the words traveled to Korea and Japan and didn’t look into this matter. But now, of course, I know that this is not the case because “放心” had been used in China with a negative connotation for a very long time, as one can see in the demands of Mengzi from pre-Qin or Wang Yangming from Ming. One should save or recover one’s “lost mind” (求放心 / 收放心). You can even find a negative usage of “放心” in 禮記, a pre-Confucian Classic.


I thought about this again today, and, out of curiosity, I decided to find the period when the shift happened in China while relaxing in the evening (but this quick search turned out to be much more intense than I had expected). Thinking that the positive connotation appeared later in time, my first hypothesis was that “放心” became predominantly positive during Mao’s period. But on second thought, I realized that this is unlikely because Taiwan also uses “放心” in the same way. So perhaps the late 1800s/early 1900s, when the Confucian concepts were fervently revised or discarded? But then, I found the outburst of the positive usage of “放心” in late Ming and Qing novels, such as 紅樓夢, 儒林外史, and 西遊記. The negative usage also appears a lot in the Confucian text, so the positive connotation hasn’t replaced the negative one altogether. Rather, there’s a clear genre difference, which I hadn’t considered because I’m not knowledgeable in premodern literature. Anyway, so can we say that the positive usage of “放心” emerged in late Ming literature…?

But before I make my best guess, I wanted to make sure if it’s “emerged” or “popularized.” And I found this “昔密有卜成者,身遊九山之上,放心不拘之境,謂是山也” from a text written in 魏晉南北朝. So the positive (or at least neutral) usage of “放心” appears way before late Ming, and the best guess I can make is this: The positive usage of “losing one’s mind” wasn’t taken up by Confucian literati, but it was popularized when romanticism was in full swing in late Ming and Qing literature. Considering how the volume of printed materials, trade, and private libraries by bibliophiles skyrocketed during this period, the popularization of the term through a novel seems to make sense. So my question to my more knowledgeable friend is: Is my guess correct? Does anyone know how the public use of “放心” evolved?


This still does not answer two things: (i) When did the positive connotation replace the negative connotation of “放心” in Chinese, at least in daily use? The two meanings appeared a lot in two separate spheres in late Ming and Qing. Even though a Chinese dictionary still lists both meanings, the Chinese don’t use both meanings equally often in the contemporary era. (ii) If it was popularized in late Ming, why didn’t it transfer over to Korea and Japan (if it did transfer over, then why did the positive usage disappear)?

I don’t think I can deal with (i), so I searched some Korean materials for (ii). I searched “放心” on the Institute for the Translation of Korean Classics’ online database and went over 259 search results. I found two entries that use “放心” positively: One is a poem written by Sim Du-yeong 沈斗永 (I couldn’t find any information on him, except that he became 進士 in 1819, quoted by Kim Jeong-hee 金正喜 (1786-1856): ” 落落飛騰如共怒 / 群群拱揖似相憐 / 放心萬二千峯上 / 下界前生五十年。” The other one was published in 1832, written by Yu Mong-in (柳夢寅): “漢京春酒放心傾”. They are poems, i.e., pieces of literature, celebrating being carefree, so it makes sense to use “放心” in this way. But as I said, I only found two out of 259 entries, so this usage was very rare in Korea.

But this could be because the ITKC database hosts texts written in classical Chinese. In the Joseon Dynasty, novels were considered “womanly stuff,” and thus they were written in Korean characters, which were also deemed to be lowly, feminine, trivial, emotional, etc. I need to do more research, but I did find a novel that uses “放心” exactly in the way contemporary Chinese people use it: “아무조록 방심(放心)ᄒᆞ고 어마님게효양(孝養)ᄒᆞ오 [Anyway, take it easy and take good care of your mother].” The novel, 배비장전(裵裨將傳), was published in 1916, but it’s an adaptation of musical storytelling (pansori) that was mentioned for the first time in 1754. Pansori is part of oral tradition, and this wasn’t particularly a popular story, so this is the earliest written text that’s available. I don’t know if the orally shared stories also used the word “放心” in the same way. I found other texts from 1929, 1930 1934, and 1937, but all of them used “放心” in a contemporary Korean sense. I really want to see how “放心” was used in a Korean-text novel from the Joseon dynasty (roughly, before 1900), but I don’t know if there’s any online database for them and if there is, where that’s available (my impression from taking Dr. Chizhova’s seminar was that there isn’t one). That said, I can’t find an answer for (ii) because I don’t have enough data to observe what happened with “放心” in Joseon literature.

This is a digress, but a particularly interesting one was a work written by Kim Dong-in in 1908. He uses “放心” in the way Japanese would use it these days: neither being relieved nor being careless, but spacing out. But Kim changed his name to a Japanese one and supported the Japanese government during the colonial period, so this is no surprise.

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