Why you should care
If you have to feel alone, you should at least have a way to describe it.
You wander home from work, passing groups of friends laughing at outdoor cafés and couples ambling along, wrapped up in each other’s company. It’s enough to make you feel like Peanuts’ Pigpen, except instead of being surrounded by a cloud of dirt, you’re draped in loneliness. And as the streetlights dim, it becomes clear that but for your trailing shadow, you are entirely alone.
From Sylvia Plath to Waylon Jennings, artists of every stripe have tried to capture the experience of loneliness. Many do so poetically, while others’ interpretations are just searingly sad, but most of these come to us through the English language. Not to be outdone, the Chinese have a phrase for expressing solitude, and it is particularly poignant.
Gū shēn zhī yǐng (孤身只影): A lonely body with only a shadow for company.
Gū shēn zhī yǐng is what is known as a chengyu, or four-character Chinese idiom, of which there are anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000, used to express everything from attaining instant success to responding to violence with violence. Each chengyu, originating in classical Chinese, is steeped in culture and delightfully expressive.
Generally speaking, it helps to have a detailed knowledge of a chengyu’s cultural and historic underpinnings to understand it. Gū shēn zhī yǐng is one of the more straightforward to grasp (and one of the saddest). To be “a lonely body with only a shadow for company” is, simply put, to be all alone.
Simple, perhaps, but certainly not void of cultural weight and significance. The phrase originates from a Yuan dynasty opera, written in the late 13th century, and the character yǐng (影) is of central importance. Used in this context to mean shadow, yǐng (影) has multiple definitions and can also refer to an image, a photograph or a reflection. Combined with other characters, the character takes on other meanings: Diàn yǐng (电影) is a movie; shèyǐng (攝 影) is photography.
And here’s where our phrase takes on added dimension. “When photography was introduced to China [in the 19th century], people didn’t like having their photo taken because it was said a photograph would take away a person’s spirit or their soul,” says Margaret Liu, who runs Mandarin Zone, a language school in Beijing. In essence, a photograph, or yǐng, was a person’s shadow or spirit permanently etched or captured in physical form — like the shadow that attaches to the lonely as their only companion.
And today, in China, the number of people whose sole companion is their shadow continues to grow.
Thanks to the extreme gender imbalance wrought by the country’s one-child policy, there are 34 million more Chinese men than women — leaving huge numbers who struggle to find a wife and build a family. What’s more, as of 2017, 280 million domestic migrants are living apart from their families, having left rural areas to work in China’s cities. Those separated from loved ones suffer feelings of loneliness, as do the elderly relatives left behind. Some seniors, without family to care for them, have gone so far as to put themselves up for adoption. And with life expectancy in China bumping up to 76 years old — a 10-year increase since 1990 — while retirement ages remain stagnant (50 for female factory workers and 60 for men), it’s easy to see why gū shēn zhī yǐng among seniors will likely intensify.
Loneliness is certainly not a Chinese phenomenon — gū shēn zhī yǐng is a global crisis, despite the stigma that prevents people from talking about the problem and doing what they can to help. But even a largely invisible epidemic is hard to miss at certain times of the year. “When Chinese Valentine’s Day and Nov. 11 [Singles Day in China] rolls around, it becomes much more popular,” says Liu.
Prevalent, poetic or painful, loneliness is an inescapable fact of modern life. But thankfully, there are those who have managed to find in it a silver lining. As Woody Allen once said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering — and it’s all over much too soon.”