The annals of ancient Chinese literature are rife with fascinating tales and medical accounts, some stranger than others. Among them is ” Koro“, a delusional disorder that embodies a peculiar blend of fear, folklore, and medicine. Sufferers experience the overpowering belief that their sex organs are shrinking or retracting and will disappear, resulting in their death.
The Ancient Records of Genital Retreat
Koro, having its etymology rooted in the Malayo-Indonesian term symbolizing a turtle retracting its head, has been a mysterious and oftentimes terrifying syndrome for many throughout history. But it’s in ancient Chinese texts that we see some of the earliest and most vivid descriptions.
Highlighted in the Qing Dynasty’s “New Collection of Remedies of Value”, 221-207 BC, Koro or “yin type of cold qi invasion” was described as a harrowing event, usually occurring during intimacy, wherein the penis would retreat into the abdomen. If left untreated with specific “heaty” medicines, it warned of impending death. The ancient yin and yang theory offers an explanation for Koro, suggesting that an imbalance in the yang humour—often portrayed as the active, male energy—leads to the retraction of genitals.
The name ‘koro’ comes from a Malayo-Indonesian term symbolizing a turtle retracting its head. Source: Aurelian Nedelcu / Adobe Stock.
Folklore & Fears: The Fox Spirit and Desperate Remedies
Chinese folklore further amplified the fears surrounding Koro. The acclaimed “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio” narrates tales of the fox spirit, a cunning creature capable of sapping one’s vitality and causing genital shrinkage.
Beliefs in the disorder have spurred various desperate and, at times, dangerous solutions. In sheer panic, affected men have resorted to manual or mechanical penile anchoring with clamps or iron pins. Women, too, fearing the retraction of breasts or nipples, have adopted equally drastic measures. Tragically, these forceful attempts have often resulted in grievous injuries and occasionally, death.
Traditional remedies, rooted in cultural beliefs, have been abundant. From exorcisms performed by Taoist priests to potent Chinese medicine concoctions featuring deer or tiger penises , the quest for relief has been all-encompassing. If the malevolent fox spirit was believed to be the cause, the afflicted might endure beatings to drive the spirit out.
A Multicultural Perspective
Though Koro rooted deeply in Chinese and Malay-Indonesian cultures, its manifestations have been observed globally, dismissing earlier notions of it being a culture-bound syndrome exclusive to these regions. The late 19th century saw European psychiatry casting its analytical gaze on Koro, bringing to the fore psychoanalytical interpretations, viewing Koro as an embodiment of Oedipal castration anxiety.
In recent decades, the world has witnessed outbreaks of this intriguing syndrome in regions as diverse as North-East India, South China, and Nigeria, triggered by collective anxieties and fears, thus elevating Koro from a mysterious ancient belief to a modern global phenomenon worth continual exploration and understanding.
Top image: Koro is the extreme fear of genital shrinkage or retraction. Source: Kate / Adobe Stock.