Mengxuan Bai & Nurul Ihsan Arshad & Luming Gao


This paper is about the cultural concepts of linghun (灵魂) in Chinese and jiwa in Malay, which can be generally translated into “the soul” in English. The reason for comparing and contrasting linghun and jiwa is because the concept of the soul exists in many religious, philosophical, and mythological traditions. It comprises and reflects the mental abilities to live beings in different cultural backgrounds: character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc. Therefore, we can discover how cultures influence people with different values and beliefs. The purpose of this paper is to find the similarities and differences between the two cultures. There’s more since the writers of this paper are native speakers from China and Malaysia, reaching the intercultural understanding and transcultural understanding between Chinese and Malaysian culture is another aim.

In the following sections, the paper will elaborate on the origins and meanings of the two concepts, cases with examples, their functions, and related expressions by comparing and contrasting.


Linghun originates in the theory of Taoism in folk stories. According to Cheng (2019), the folk beliefs about death, soul, funeral rites were formed in late imperial China. The first usage of linghun can be traced back to the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) in what had been written in “Chuci” by the Chinese famous poet Quyuan: 羌灵魂之欲归兮,何须臾而忘反。(“My soul has always wanted to return; how can I forget to return for a moment?”). Linghun used herein “Chuci” means the poet’s thought and spirit residing in his body. It doesn’t carry meanings as complex as in modern China.

As for jiwa, it evolves from the Sanskrit word “Jiva,” which must be tied to Hinduism and Jainism. Originally, “Jiva” was attributed more to the spiritual soul, but is now also connected to artistic creativity. Despite this, both linghun and jiwa can be interpreted and used as the immortal essence of a living being, or the invisible part of a human being that is opposed to the physical body for a long history.

Now in the modern age, the meaning of linghun contains three elements according to the Online Xinhua (Hanyu) Dictionary: 1) Religion believes in a spiritual body that resides in the human body and dominates the body; 2) Spiritual consciousness: the depths of the soul; 3) The factors that play a decisive and leading role in things. It can be translated into soul, manes, anima, psyche, atman, and ka (Online Xinhua (Hanyu) Dictionary).

Jiwa in Malay is explained by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (n.d.) as 1) The soul residing in the human body; 2) Lifeforce; 3) The inner feelings and thoughts of a human. According to a study by Wikan (1989), jiwa is the vital force of human beings. It is energy, vitality, power. Health is a balance between the body and jiwa. Furthermore, it’s claimed in Weiss (2010) that jiwa is the spontaneous creativity of an artist. When the artist plays with feelings rather than the mind, it involves improvisation and going off-script.

Linghun and jiwa both encompass all the concepts of the English translations above. Whereas in English, spirit, thought, heart and soul are different words with individual meanings, only the first meaning, which indicates what is always existing in everybody even after the physical/material body dies, can be directly translated into soul/spirit. Apart from the common concepts, both linghun and jiwa also carry derivative meanings. Linghun can also mean ghosts, the core of things, or decisive factors, as the third meaning of linghun mentioned above. While jiwa also involves the meanings of life, heart, and energy in the same word.

 Based on the above-mentioned statements, it is clear that both linghun and jiwa carry the concepts of the soul that resides in a human body and the deep consciousness of a living being like feelings and thoughts. Moreover, jiwa and linghun can both express the soul of art or a technique of expression. However, the two words also have nuances on the attribute of similar concepts. Linghun is the neutral noun that can be used to describe both virtuous souls and evil ones, while jiwa is only used positively. When it comes to commenting on works of art, linghun emphasizes the common part between the target and the work itself. By contrast, jiwa focuses on the spontaneousness and improvisation of the painter.

On the other hand, jiwa also carries more meanings while linghun doesn’t. First, jiwa can mean life force in a physical body, as can be translated into power and energy, whereas linghun in Chinese culture can be thought of as a relatively delicate existence. Second, jiwa also means “mental,” as it can be used in the expression of a psychiatrist. While linghun can hardly mean mental and Chinese use another word jingshen(精神) when saying “mental.” Although the two cultures of China and Malaysia share some same concepts in linghun and jiwa, we use them in differ on cases and functions, where the following sections will discuss.



In this section, the functions of jiwa and linghun are described. The functions are split into the micro-level and the macro-level. At the micro-level, both jiwa and linghun serve the same general purpose. For an individual, this purpose is to describe and express abstract and complex personal feelings or experiences that cannot be seen by the naked eye. This is so that other people can understand him or her.

For example, if asked to describe what someone feels about a deeply moving art piece, he or she may use jiwa or linghun to describe the depth of the feeling, in that it touches him or her to the very core. On a macro or societal level, on the other hand, jiwa and linghun differ. At this level, jiwa may be used to explain concepts not yet understood by science, such as spirit, soul, and creativity. For example, in the song “Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa,” the concept was used to foster feelings of patriotism and national identity by tying the use of a national language with the core or soul of a nation’s people. Besides, the concept of jiwa may also help preserve a historical connection of Malaysian society to the past, which had ties to animism as well as Hinduism (Asiapac Editorial, 2003).

In contrast, linghun does not serve a function at a macro-level. This is because, in modern China, linghun is used more on a personal level, often on a spiritual and emotional basis. There may be some individuals who use linghun as opposition or supplement to explain things that science cannot currently explain. Moreover, in the past, there existed 心学(Xin Xue), a branch of philosophy that prevailed in the Ming Dynasty (“Xin Xue,” n.d.). It emphasized observing the physical world through one’s heart and soul.  However, in the present day, the Chinese government generally discourages this type of thinking as it instead advocates Marxist materialism, where there is no discussion about the soul (“Marxism and Religion,” n.d.). When the word “linghun” is used in official documents, it only means “the core of something.”


In this section, cases of jiwa and linghun are described. The cases show examples of how the two concepts are used in specific situations and popular media. Below, Table 1 illustrates several examples of jiwa along with their definitions (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, n.d.).

Table 1

Examples of cases using jiwa

1. Mengusik jiwa(Mengusik: touch)   Literally: Touch the soul/spirit. Something touches your soul, invoking deep feelings.
2. Jiwa seni(Seni: art)   Literally: Art soul/spirit. Talent in creativity. Such as when an artist improvises music based on feeling. The artist is said to possess “jiwa seni”.
3. Ketenangan jiwa(Ketenangan: calm, peace)   Literally: Calm soul/spirit. It is used to describe inner peace and solace.
4. Doktor sakit jiwa(Doktor: doctor; sakit: pain/hurt)   Literally: Doctor of mental illness. Psychiatrist, mental health expert

Additionally, from a religious and/or spiritual perspective, jiwa is seen as what keeps a check on “nafsu.” Nafsu in the Malay language means base desires such as eating and reproduction. Without jiwa, humans are only driven by these base desires and are prone to immorality, similar to the likes of an animal (Monbaron, 2002).

In popular media, jiwa has appeared in various films across countries where the concept exists. In Malaysia, there is the film entitled “2 Hati, Satu Jiwa” (2 Hearts, One soul) about two conjoined twins and their life together. In Indonesia, there is “Belahan Jiwa” (Soulmates), described as a drama-thriller, and in Singapore, there is “Gurindam Jiwa” (Sonnets of the Soul), a film about a humble village farmer who is appointed court poet under a sultan. Jiwa has also appeared in well-known songs in Malaysia. Some examples are the songs “Belaian Jiwa” (Caress of the soul) by Innuendo, and “Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa” (Language is the soul/core of our nation). The first song is one depicting a deep longing for love, while in the latter example, the song is used for nationalistic purposes, emphasizing that the use of the country’s national language is what unites the people under one identity.

Next, cases involving the concept of linghun are examined. Table 2 below illustrates these examples (Online Xinhua (Hanyu) Dictionary, n.d.).

Table 2

Examples of cases using linghun

1. 灵魂出窍Astral trip. “灵魂(linghun)” here indicates what controlling the humans’ physical body subjectively and intangibly, similar to the concept of consciousness or mind.
2. 伟大的、自由的、永恒的灵魂,  灵魂伴侣The great, free, eternal soul. Soulmate. “灵魂(linghun)” here in these examples means the thoughts, moral character, and spirit of a human being.
3. 灵魂人物, 灵魂画手Soul figure. Soul painter. “灵魂(linghun)” here means the decisive leading factors and core, the essence of an entirety (often in literature or artworks).

Linghun has also appeared in popular media. Some examples of its use in film are in the movies entitled “Soul Ferry,” “Save your soul” and “Dangerous mind.” The movies are about the supernatural, family, and the life of a teenager, respectively.

Besides that, linghun has been used in film translations. For example, the Pixar movie “Soul” was translated into “灵魂急转弯(A sharp turn in the soul)” and “灵魂奇遇记(Adventures of the Soul)” in Chinese. Another translated movie using linghun is Netflix’s “Our Souls at Night” (夜晚的灵魂).

Also, linghun is present in songs. For example, linghun is used in the song “SUPERSTAR” by S.H.E. and the song “灵魂伴侣 (soulmate)” sung by the singer Fuzhen Tian. Besides, in recent years, a special novel/drama theme has become popular in China: soul travel. The beginning stage of this kind of entertainment is usually set in modern China; the soul of the protagonist accidentally breaks away from the body and is attached to some ancient characters. Although there is not much direct description of linghun, the popularity of this kind of entertainment also shows people’s longing for the existence of linghun to some extent.

Due to the various situations that jiwa and linghun can be used, as well as the use of the concepts in contemporary media such as film and song, it can be said that jiwa and linghun are likely both concepts still relevant to Malaysian and mainland Chinese societies respectively.

Related expressions


  • Different forms

There are 3 main different forms of jiwa according to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (n.d.):


This is an adjective word meaning to contain/possess jiwa or alive:

eg: Para penciptanya adalah orang yang pintar dan berjiwa bisnis, karena mereka berhadapan dengan tantangan besar sebagai penjahat cyber.

(Translation) And its creators were incredibly smart and entrepreneurial because they were faced with one enormous challenge as cybercriminals.


This is a noun related to jiwa, and it means the level of jiwa.

eg: ……warganegaranya kukuh dalam nilai agama dan kejiwaan dan didorong oleh tahap etika yang paling tinggi.

(Translation)……nationals who are strong in their religious values and level of spirit and are driven by the highest standard of ethics.


This is the verb of jiwa, and it means to give jiwa to something.

eg: Kemampuan untuk membawa diri kita kepada perhatian dari sesuatu yang menjiwai anda, begitu menggerakkanku sampai-sampai kanker pun tak berarti apa-apa.

(Translation) It’s the power of bringing ourselves to the attention of something that so animates you, so moves you, that something even like cancer becomes insignificant.

(2)   Set phrases:

Jiwa bergantung di hujung rambut

This phrase means “the soul hangs on the edge of the hair,” and it’s used to describe someone who is in a very dangerous situation (“Jiwa bergantung,” n.d.).

Jiwa Besar

Jiwa Besar means “big spirit or soul.” Malay people use this word to describe someone who doesn’t want to lose nor be influenced by others (“Jiwa Besar,” n.d.).

Bercakap memandang-mandang, silap lidah, jiwa hilang

This means “talking while staring, tongue (speaks) wrongly, and losing your soul.” This phrase is used to warm people to be careful when speaking about others’ affairs (“Bercakap memandang-mandang,” n.d.).

Expressions of death

Also, many phrases use jiwa to denote death, all of which represent an act or state in which the soul is detached from the body.

Table 3

Jiwa melayangsoul flies away (“Jiwa melayang,” n.d.)
Putus jiwaSevered soul  (“Putus Jiwa,” n.d.)
Membuang jiwathrow away soul/suicide (“Membuang jiwa,” n.d.)

2.  Linghun

  • Taoism concepts of Sanhunqipo / Hunpo

Taoism believes that the human soul is divided into two types, namely Hun, and Po. There are three kinds of hun, which are Heaven Soul, Earth Soul, and Human Soul, in which Human Soul comes from the combination of Heaven Soul and Earth Soul.

There are seven kinds of Po, which are tianchong, ling hui, qi, li, zhong shu, jing, ying. Hun constitutes people’s thinking intelligence for yang, while Po belongs to Yin and constitutes people’s sensory perception. There are many idioms related to these two concepts. For example:

Hunfeitianwai, Posanjiuxiao(                                    )

The idiom “魂飞天外,魄散九霄”(the soul flies beyond the sky, the soul is scattered in the sky) means someone being extremely frightened, and it’s sometimes

used to describe someone being so tempted that he/she can’t control himself.


Shihunluopo(lost one’s mind) means a state of panic, anxiety, restlessness, or abnormal behavior.

(2) Some common idioms related to Linghun Shenhundiandao

This idiom means “the spirit and soul are upside down,” and “Shenhun(神魂)” refers to the human spirit and soul. This word is used to describe a state of confusion of the soul, that is, a state of trance or loss of normality. Also, it’s used to describe being obsessed with someone or something.


This idiom means “revive the soul from the dead.” Superstitions believe that people can resurrect the dead’s soul by attaching it to the corpses of others. Nowadays, it is nothing more than a metaphor, which means that something that has been wiped out or decayed appears in another form.

(3)   Confucian views on Linghun

Compared with Taoism, Confucianism advocates a positive and secular thought, emphasizing that life should not be wasted on endless thinking about the soul and the world after death but should consider the present reality more. Some Confucian proverbs directly express this view, for example,

Weizhisheng, yanzhisi (未知生,焉知死)

“How can you know death without knowing life?”

Rensirudengmie (人死如灯灭)

“Death is like a lamp out.”

These proverbs reflect a kind of ancient naive materialism, which negates the existence of the soul and holds that after death, it is like “the lamp has gone out,” leaving nothing beyond the body and matter, and nowadays, such views are still believed by a large number of Chinese people.

3.  Synonyms & Antonyms of Jiwa/Linghun

There are many synonyms about jiwa and linghun. We can see that spirit and soul have similar meanings to some extent in the two cultures, but jiwa covers spirit and soul in a broad sense, while linghun is sometimes associated with ghosts. On the other hand, the opposite words of jiwa and linghun both denote the physical body.

Table 4 Synonyms & Antonyms of Jiwa/Linghun

Synonymnyawa = life roh = soul semangat = spirit tubuh halus = spiritual body魂魄(hunpo) = soul 精神(jingshen),精气神(jingqishen), 心灵 (xinling) = spirit, mind 鬼魂(guihun), 幽灵(youling) = ghost 灵体(lingti) = spiritual body 灵肉(lingrou) = the combination of soul and body
Antonymjasad = physical body身体(shenti) = physical body


Historically, jiwa comes from Sanskrit Jiva, which has to tie to Hinduism and Jainism, and linghun‘s earliest definition comes from Taoism. To a large extent, jiwa and linghun have similar meanings; they can be translated into the soul, indicating the presence of nonphysical presence within the body. What’s more, jiwa and linghun can also be used to describe human works, indicating that they are injected into life, with the kernel of their works. On the other hand, one major difference between jiwa and linghun is that jiwa is a positive word, whereas linghun is neutral; humans can have good linghun or evil linghun. At the same time, jiwa refers to a wider range, including spirit and soul, which are usually separate in Chinese.

We also find that Malay people treat jiwa differently from Chinese people’s attitude toward linghun. In Malaysia, most people firmly believe in the soul, but this is not the case in China. This may be related to differences among religions, mainstream lifestyles, and attitudes towards life in both countries. It is difficult to say whether the Chinese still believe in the soul, but we can find a kind of contradictory attitude in many of them, and this phenomenon can be traced back to the different theories from indigenous philosophical schools, like Taoism, Confucian, added by the Marxism advocated by modern China, maks “the questions of the soul” become a microcosm of the loss of religious belief in China.

Discussion questions

  1. Do you have animism in your culture?
  2. What do you think about the soul?
  3. Do you have a metaphorical use of the word “soul”?
  4. Do you think your lifestyle and values have anything to do with your view of the soul?
  5. Do you think the corresponding word “soul” has a positive meaning or a neutral meaning in your culture? Can it be used to express something negative?
  6. What is the attitude of the mainstream media in your country towards the “soul”? Will the word soul appear in the official documents of the government, and if so, what is it generally used to refer to?