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Etiquette and the Problem of Rejecting in Chinese Culture

As I have explained in other posts, the function of etiquette and formality in Chinese culture is deeper and more substantial than one may assume in the West. Many foreigners in the Middle Kingdom have noted the importance of ceremony, ritual and etiquette in Chinese people’s every day life. This should not be understood as a superficial phenomenon, but as a reflection of the very structure of Chinese society. In fact, formality is a result of the significance of hierarchy and social roles. 
That etiquette has always been a cornerstone of Chinese social interaction can already be seen in the works of Confucius. “Etiquette is nothing but reverence,” he argued. “If the father is revered, his sons will be happy; if the elder brother is revered, the younger brother will be happy; if a ruler is revered, all his subjects will be happy” (Boden 2008, p. 210).

As Jeanne Boden explains:

In ancient China the ‘Ministry of Rites’ was extremely important. All rites, rituals and ceremonies needed to be administered correctly to preserve harmony in the universe … For this reason, etiquette has a much deeper significance in China than in the West. Etiquette and rituals are more than manners or politeness alone. These ancient rules are to some extent still applied in today’s new China. Chinese etiquette rules are mainly connected to hierarchy and social position (ibid.).


The link between etiquette and hierarchy / social roles is fundamental. The formality of Chinese social life may not be noticed at once by foreigners. Chinese people seldom talk about their modes of social interaction in terms of formality or ritualism. They prefer to emphasize what they regard as the praiseworthy nature of their ethical norms. They tend to assume that the system of hierarchical social roles on which etiquette in China is based has a self-evidently moral quality; some people even consider it superior to the moral system of other nations. 

In ancient China, the formality of social interaction was far more obvious than it is nowadays. The following excerpt from the Book of Etiquette and Ritual shows how extreme rituals and etiquette could be in old China. The scene describes how a gentleman should behave when paying a visit to a man of higher rank:

When a gentleman visits an official, the latter declines altogether to receive his present. At his entrance the host bows once, acknowledging their difference in rank. When the guest withdraws, he escorts him and bows twice. When a gentleman calls on his former superior, the host formally declines the visitor’s gift: “As I have not been able to receive your consent to my declining, I dare not persist in it.” Then the guest enters, lays down his gift, and bows twice. The host replies with a single bow. When the guest leaves, the host sends the attendant to return the gift outside the gate. 

THE ATTENDANT: So-and-so sends me to hand back your gift. 

THE GUEST: Since I have already obtained an interview, I venture to decline to receive the gift. 

THE ATTENDANT: So-and-so has issued his commands to me, and I cannot myself take the initiative in this matter. I must press his request on you. 

THE GUEST: I am the humble servant of his excellency, and am not capable of observing the ceremonies of a visitor with his host; so I venture to persist in declining. 

THE ATTENDANT: Since So-and-do has ordered me, I dare not take it upon myself to make decisions in this matter, but persist in this request. 

THE GUEST: I have repeatedly declined, without receiving his honor’s permission to do so. How then dare I not obey? [He thus bows twice and receives the present back.] (Ebrey 2009, pp. 42-43).

Some people may question the importance of etiquette in the contemporary Chinese=speaking world, which many consider increasingly ‘Westernised’. However, I believe we should look at this phenomenon from a different perspective. Social roles and hierarchies have been changing rapidly over the past one or two hundred years due to social, political, and economic transformations. Therefore, it is obvious that the society that Confucius and later generations of Chinese thinkers described and advocated doesn’t exist any more in that particular form. 

Nevertheless, the relative importance of etiquette, ritualism and formality has remained. What has changed, are the social roles and hierarchies that they regulate. For example, the relationship between boss and employee, or that between employees, is an entirely new kind of human relationship that derives from the industrial restructuring of Chinese society. And yet, we find a high degree of formality and hierarchy in such relations. 

The relationship between boyfriend and girlfriend is also a modern phenomenon, since in old China engagements and marriages were mostly arranged by parents and the eligible age was much earlier than in contemporary society. Despite all this, we still find that social roles and hierarchy shape such unions. 

I would like to quote an excerpt from a recent Taiwanese romantic novel. Its target audience mostly consists of teenage girls. The protagonists are Boyan and Xiaowei. Boyan and Xiaowei are engaged, but at the beginning of the novel she breaks up with him because she isn’t sure she loves him. But in the course of the book, he tries over and over again to win her back. After she has been ‘saved’ by Boyan, who prevented her new fiance from raping her, she begins to change her mind about him. In the following passage, Xiaowei brings him food she has prepared herself; as I will explain in another post, in traditional Chinese thinking the act of ‘nourishing’ someone has always been a central element of filial piety, and food is a way of showing care which reflects social and hierarchical roles. 

For instance, the Book of Rites, a Confucian classic, prescribes that children or daughters-in-law should never refuse the food offered by parents even if they dislike it. When parents give children food they show care and love, and children, who are hierarchically inferior to parents, are not entitled to refuse. Here we see how social roles are not based on feelings, dialogue, or mutual understanding, but on standardised patterns of behaviour, and on codified norms. 

In the following scene, Xiaowei, faithful to her social role, shows care by preparing food for Boyan. He dislikes the food, but he eats it, pretending to like it. On the other hand, Xiaowei refuses the drink offered to her by Boyan, but she expresses her worries that he might feel hurt by her refusal. Here we see the result of the relative disruption of old social roles, which have become somewhat more ambiguous. Having said that, Xiaowei’s social role as a woman is still relatively fixed, and it is her being a woman which makes it more acceptable for her to refuse. On the contrary, a man is expected to show that he takes care of his woman, that he spoils her and perhaps, from a Western perspective, treats her as a child. His role as a saviour, caregiver, and family-oriented man is in many respects typical of the image of a man who can fulfill his social role properly.

The question asked by Boyan at the end also shows how the old practice of arranging marriages has not disappeared. In fact, after Xiaowei broke up with Boyan, her family, worried about her marital status, hurried to find for her another fiance, making it clear that it was her responsibility to get married soon. Overall, we observe in this passage that many of the elements of the past still exist, but that they are in a process of change and readjustment which does not necessarily lead to a ‘Western’-style society. 


她打開便當盒, 拿出裡面的食物。 『算了。說了半天, 你應該俄了吧?』

『其實我…』剛吃完午飯不久。

『這是我親手煮的義大利麵, 還熱騰騰的, 你快嚐嚐看。』

李曉薇帶著一臉期待, 笑吟吟的看他。

『還有南瓜濃湯。』

『好。』

她開朗的笑靨, 讓柏岩不知該如何拒絕。

『味道怎麼樣?』

看他拿起刀叉, 捲起麵條, 她立即屏住呼吸, 揚起眉梢。

『很好吃。』

將過於綿軟且微冷的麵條放進口裡後, 柏岩卻給了她一個讚許的眼神。

『 沒想到, 妳這個太小姐也會自己煮東西吃。』

『其他我不會。但在米蘭待了兩年, 簡單的義大利麵還是會煮的。』

李曉薇滿意的喝了一口柏岩遞給她的綜合果菜汁,然後坐了個魁臉。

『我 向來不喜歡喝這種果菜汁, 覺得有股怪怪的味道。』

他立刻將手裡的柳橙汁換給她。『不喜歡喝就早點說。』

李曉薇若有所思地笑了笑。『說出來更好嗎? 如果我說我不喜歡, 然後拒絕你給的飲料, 會不會顯得不夠禮貌? 我好像… 向來不太懂得該怎麼拒絕別人。』

『幹麼勉強喝討厭的東西? 不懂得拒絕的後果, 只會讓自己感到不舒服。』

柏岩不贊同地皺起眉, 繼續吃著他無法『拒絕』的義大利麵。『所以, 妳也不懂得拒絕妳父親給妳安排的婚事。』

 

  

She opened a lunchbox and took out some food. “All right. We’ve been talking for a while. You must be hungry.”

“Well, actually …” I’ve just had my lunch.

“This is pasta. I cooked it myself. It’s still hot. Try it!”Li Xiaowei smiled at him with an expression full of expectation. “I’ve also brought pumpkin soup.”

“Okay.” When he looked at her bright smile, he didn’t know how he could possibly refuse.

As she saw him take up fork and knife and roll the noodles, she held her breath and rose the tip of her brow. “How does it taste?” she asked.

“Delicious,” he answered. He put the noodles – which were way too soft and already cold – into his mouth, and then he looked at her with an expression of praise.

“I didn’t know you can cook.”

“I can’t cook anything else,” she said. “But I lived in Milan for two years, and at least I learned some simple pasta recipes.”

With a complacent air, Li Xiaowei took a sip of the fruit and vegetable juice that Boyan had given to her. As she drank, her face twisted into a grimace.

“I never liked this kind of juice,” she said, “I always thought it tasted weird.”

He immediately gave her the orange juice he was holding in his hand. 

“If you didn’t like it you could have just told me at once.”

As if lost in thought, Li Xiaowei smiled at him. “Is it better to say it directly? If I’d said I didn’t like it, and then had refused the drink you’d given me, wouldn’t it have been too impolite? Apparently … I’ve never quite understood how to reject other people.”  

“Why force yourself to drink something you don’t like? If you don’t know how to reject others you’ll just make yourself feel uncomfortable.”

Boyan disapprovingly knit his brows as he spoke. And yet he went on eating the pasta he didn’t dare refuse. 

“So,” he continued, “don’t you know how to reject the marriage your father has arranged for you, either?” (Tang Xin: Zhe Ci Wo Aishang Ni. Taipei 2013, pp. 72-73).

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