Traditional Chinese Culture: Courtesy (Part 1)


Zhou Gong was a renowned sage in the early Zhou Dynasty. One day, his son, Boqin, went to visit him.

To Boqin’s surprise, Zhou Gong struck him once.

On another day, Boqin went to his father again, only to be met with the same response. This happened yet a third time. Puzzled, Boqin consulted another wise man, Shangzi, about his situation.

The next time Boqin visited his father, he immediately sank to his knees—which he had neglected to do three times—in the proper show of respect. Zhou Gong was pleased and praised Boqin for having obtained advice from a man of discernment.

Courtesy and Society

Why was courtesy so important to the ancients?

Confucius once said, “The tradition of courtesy was divinely bestowed to the ancestors. It manifests the law of heaven to bring order to society. Those who lose it lose their future, and those who retain it shall thrive.”

Shi Jing, or the Book of Songs, was a collection of classical Chinese poems. One of the poems puts forth the following:

“Order can be found in the body of a mouse, so how can a person live in an unruly way? If a person does not show courtesy, he will bring forth his own end.”

In fact, we have observed this pattern throughout history. When people are courteous in society, this often correlates with periods of peace; when people behave rudely towards another, society is often on a downward trajectory.

This is because courtesy is also closely related to the greater moral character of a society.

A polite society indicates that people are willing to put their own self-interest aside in favor of their societal role and duty. This sense of responsibility then paves the way for security, stability, and prosperity. Conversely, an impolite society indicates one where people disrespect others and are only concerned their own pursuits, which then leads to lawlessness, chaos, and depravity.

In traditional Chinese culture, the laws of courtesy for each type of social relationship were clearly defined. Parents treated their children with kindness, while children showed filial piety toward their parents. Older siblings cherished and protected younger ones, while younger siblings were humble in the presence of older ones. A husband was faithful while a wife was docile. The elderly were caring towards the young; the young respected the elders. And finally, an emperor should be benevolent, while his subjects should be loyal.

A Mentor with Wisdom

Zhou Gong, also called the Duke of Zhou, was the fourth son of King Wen of Zhou. He helped his elder brother, King Wu, establish the Zhou Dynasty. He established the Rites of Zhou and classical Chinese music, and was considered one of Confucianism’s founders.

In addition, Zhou Gong also wrote teachings so as to educate his nephew King Cheng, son of King Wu, and his own son Boqin. Both King Cheng and Boqin were revered by later generations. Cao Cao, a ruler of the late Han Dynasty, also admired how Zhou Gong respected the people and earned their trust.

In Warnings for King Cheng, Zhou Gong emphasized the importance of virtue in all aspects of life, from managing a country to a person’s character. The following is one anecdote documented in Zhou Gong’s writings.

Once, when King Cheng was young, he was standing with his younger brother under a tree. Holding a leaf in his hand, he handed it to his brother and said, “I’m granting you a title.”

Zhou Gong greeted the young king.

“It is wonderful that Your Majesty has conferred a title upon your brother.”

“But I was just joking,” King Cheng replied.

“Misconduct does not belong to a king. He means every word he says,” said Zhou Gong.

King Cheng thus granted his brother the title of marquis. With consistent guidance from Zhou Gong, King Cheng and his son King Kang ushered in the golden age of the Zhou Dynasty, called the Governance of Cheng and Kang.

Zhou Gong’s writings for his son Boqin were made after King Cheng granted Boqin governorship over the land of Lu—which would become the birthplace of Confucius about 500 years later. Before Boqin went to Lu, Zhou Gong wrote,

“Please remember not to be arrogant or scornful simply because you are the head of Lu. As son of King Wen, brother of King Wu, uncle of King Cheng, and chancellor of Zhou, my rank was already high. But there were times when I had to stop three times during a shower, or paused three times in a meal, to reflect upon the times that my aloofness cost me great men.”

“From what I have heard, those both virtuous and courteous will be blessed with prosperity; those with ample land and hardworking spirits will remain secure; those of high rank who are humble shall keep their titles; those supported by people and strong armies will win; those with intelligence but appear plain are wise; those with insight and knowledge but still assume they know little are truly wise. All six of these qualities are related to humility. Even a king’s wealth spanning lands and seas derives from humility.”

“Without humility, one would lose a nation and even their own life. Jie, the last king of Xia Dynasty, and Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty, are such examples.”

Boqin took his father’s advice to heart and eventually built a prosperous and courteous society in the land of Lu.

(To be continued)

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