The Proprieties of Sitting

Before the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279), Chinese people didn’t sit in chairs. They put a mat or a cushion on the ground, and sat with kneeling. Ancient Chinese people had many proprieties of sitting.

The normal sitting posture was kneel-sitting (跪坐). Not only ministers and common people, but also emperors, kings and monarchs, all sat with kneeling. If the sitting posture of someone was not kneeling-sitting, others would think that he was insolent.

In the last days of the Qin (秦) Dynasty, Li Yiji (郦食其), a wise person, visited Liu Bang (刘邦) who later became the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. At the time, Liu Bang sat with drooping legs on a bed. Two women were bathing his feet. When an attendant told Liu Bang that Li Jiyi came to visit him, he actually still sat with drooping legs (踞). Li Yiji walked into the room, and he was very disgruntled because of the insolent sitting posture of Liu Bang. However, Li Yiji was a gentleman. He saluted Liu Bang with a bow-rite (揖礼) but not a kneeling-rite (拜礼). Liu Bang thought Li Yiji was disrespectful, however, Li Yiji quietly said, “If you want to overthrow the tyrannical Qin Dynasty, you can’t sit with drooping legs and talk with an elder.” Liu Bang felt embarrassed. He apologized to Li Yiji and let Yiji sit on an honorific seat. Then Li Yiji forgave Liu Bang and started to tell Liu Bang his ideas about the war against the Qin Dynasty.

A person must take off his shoes (履) before he entered a room. In a banquet, he should take off his socks (袜) before he sat down.

In 595 B.C., when Chu Zhuang-King (楚庄王), the monarch of the Chu (楚) State, heard that his envoy was killed by the Song (宋) State, he thought he had found a pretext for attacking the Song State. Then he excitedly ran out and called ministers together. He actually forgot to wear his shoes and take his sword, so that his attendants had to hold the shoes and sword and followed him. In 470 B.C., Wei Chu-Gong (卫出公), the monarch of the Wei (衛) State, held a banquet and invited ministers. Chushi Bi (褚师比) didn’t take off his socks and he actually sat down. Wei Chu-Gong was angry because he thought Chushi Bi didn’t respect him. Chushi Bi explained and said, “My feet have a disease. If you see them, you will feel sick. So I don’t dare to take off my socks.” However, the young monarch thought his words were lies. Other ministers tried to intercede, but failed. Chushi Bi was annoyed, and had to leave the room. When he was walking out the room, Wei Chu-Gong pointed at Chushi Bi and said wrathfully, “I will cut your feet away!” Chushi Bi felt very afraid, and later he was persuaded by some persons who were against Wei Chu-Gong. All opponents of Wei Chu-Gong including Chushi Bi launched a rebellion, and then Wei Chu-Gong had to run away to other states again.

In the later years of the Eastern Han Dynasty, a kind of folding chairs were introduced into China, and Han Ling-Emperor (汉灵帝) liked this kind of chairs very much. At that time, Buddhism was introduced from India to China. Buddhist monks had a special sitting posture with crossing legs (跏趺). In the Sui and Tang Dynasties, many foreign cultures were introduced into China. However, the normal sitting posture was still kneeling-sitting, so Japanese and Korean learned this sitting posture from China, and now they still keep the posture of kneeling-sitting. After the later years of the Tang Dynasty, chairs were gradually popular. In the Song Dynasty, chairs completely took the place of kneeling-sitting. When some Chinese tried to sit with kneeling, their legs became numb and painful, because they had not been able to adapt themselves to kneeling-sitting. Zhu Xi (朱熹), a famous Confucian philosopher of the Southern Song Dynasty, sighed and said, “Our ancestors were accustomed to kneeling-sitting, so their legs were not painful.”

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