Honesty vs Deference: Western and Chinese Views on Politeness and Etiquette
Thus dressed, they [husband and wife] should go to their parents and parents-in-law. On getting to where they are, with bated breath and gentle voice, they should ask if their clothes are (too) warm or (too) cold, whether they are ill or pained, or uncomfortable in any part; and if they be so, they should proceed reverently to stroke and scratch the place. They should in the same way, going before or following after, help and support their parents in quitting or entering (the apartment). In bringing in the basin for them to wash, the younger will carry the stand and the elder the water; they will beg to be allowed to pour out the water, and when the washing is concluded, they will hand the towel. They will ask whether they want anything, and then respectfully bring it. All this they will do with an appearance of pleasure to make their parents feel at ease….
Sons and sons’ wives, who are filial and reverential, when they receive an order from their parents should not refuse, nor be dilatory, to execute it. When (their parents) give them anything to eat or drink, which they do not like, they will notwithstanding taste it and wait (for their further orders); when they give them clothes, which are not to their mind, they will put them on, and wait (in the same way). If (their parents) give them anything to do, and then employ another to take their place, although they do not like the arrangement, they will in the meantime give it into his hands and let him do it, doing it again, if it be not done well.
If a son have two concubines, one of whom is loved by his parents, while he himself loves the other, yet he should not dare to make this one equal to the former whom his parents love, in dress, or food, or the duties which she discharges, nor should he lessen his attentions to her after their death. If he very much approves of his wife, and his parents do not like her, he should divorce her. If he do not approve of his wife, and his parents say, ‘she serves us well,’ he should behave to her in all respects as his wife, without fail even to the end of her life.
The Confucian system of social regulation surrounds the five ‘cardinal relations’ … which are characterized by social roles occupying specific positions in a social hierarchy. These five relations concern the relationships between: emperor and minister, father and son, husband and wife, brothers and friends, in which power differentials and duties prescribed for each occupant of the role relationship. To achieve harmony within a hierarchical social structure, each individual is expected to fulfill his or her role responsibilities according to the rules of propriety … which refer to the norms and rules of proper behaviors in a social context. The task for each individual is to adjust to the hierarchical order of society and to behave according to the normative expectations of this social order, so that the whole society will be kept in a harmonious and orderly state. Ideally, such a social system would function like a well-designed machine, such that everyone fulfills his or her prescribed duties … Consequently, society would progress in unity and without disorder and struggle (Huang/Bond 2012, p. 471).
There is a difference between politeness and etiquette. Real politeness is in-born, and may exist in the savage, while etiquette is the outward expression of politeness reduced to the rules current in good society. A man may be polite, really so in heart, yet show in every movement an ignorance of the rules of etiquette, and offend against the laws of society. You may find him with his elbows upon the table, or tilting his chair in a parlor. You may see him commit every hour gross breaches of etiquette, yet you will never hear him intentionally utter one word to wound another, you will see that he habitually endeavors to make others comfortable, choosing for them the easiest seats, or the daintiest dishes, and putting self entirely aside to contribute to the pleasure of all around him. Such a man will learn, by contact with refined society, that his ignorance of the rules which govern it, make him, at times, disagreeable, and from the same unselfish motive which prompts him to make a sacrifice of comfort for the sake of others, he will watch and learn quickly, almost by instinct, where he offends against good breeding, drop one by one his errors in etiquette, and become truly a gentleman. On the other hand, you will meet constantly, in the best society, men whose polish of manner is exquisite, who will perform to the minutest point the niceties of good breeding, who never commit the least act that is forbidden by the strictest rules of etiquette; yet under all this mask of chivalry, gallantry, and politeness will carry a cold, selfish heart; will, with a sweet smile, graceful bow, and elegant language, wound deeply the feelings of others, and while passing in society for models of courtesy and elegance of manner, be in feeling as cruel and barbarous as the veriest savage. So I would say to you, Cultivate your heart. Cherish there the Christian graces, love for the neighbor, unselfishness, charity, and gentleness, and you will be truly a gentleman; add to these the graceful forms of etiquette, and you then become a perfect gentleman…
Do not look upon the rules of etiquette as deceptions. They are just as often vehicles for the expression of sincere feeling, as they are the mask to conceal a want of it. You will in society meet with men who rail against politeness, and call it deceit and hypocrisy. Watch these men when they have an object to gain, or are desirous of making a favorable impression, and see them tacitly, but unconsciously, admit the power of courtesy, by dropping for the time, their uncouth ways, to affect the politeness, they oftentimes do not feel.