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Liu Mengxi: Politeness at the Heart of Rites

Source: people.cn Date: 2016-04-26
It is widely held that men should be polite. How important is politeness? One needs to pay attention to who is concerned and what impact it may have.

When individuals interact in the absence of others, politeness or the lack of it only has direct influence on themselves. But the indirect impact may go beyond them, as behind each person is one family and a social network. Any impolite act in public presence will incur a higher cost.

People have no reason to be rude even if they are right. On the contrary, if they make mistakes but are polite, they could minimize the cost of their mistakes. In most cases, you offend others not because of doing wrong things but due to impoliteness. Take the following scenario for example. On a certain occasion when you are late, you apologize and give the other people a gift. But only one person does not get one. If you do not explain it, that will be an impolite act. That’s why people in China often say one person neglected at the table will spoil the whole party. It is better to ignore the entire village than leave one person unattended to.

The consequences of impoliteness have to do with the persons involved and the occasions. In the scenario above, if the person who did not receive a present is tolerant and open-minded, he may not care at all. Such a plain truth is revealed in a Chinese saying “it is all right to offend a gentleman, but never a person with a narrow mind.” On important occasions, for instance a ceremony or a diplomatic function, impoliteness may create big troubles. It was not unusual to see disputes arise from impropriety.

Why is politeness so important? The essence of rites is respect. Just as Confucius said, if protocol and respect are lacking at a ceremony, it is not worthy watching it. Confucius’s student Zixia said it is important to be respectful and not lacking in protocol. Mencius said,“That whereby the superior man is distinguished from other men is what he preserves in his heart - namely,benevolence and propriety.The benevolent man loves others.The man of propriety shows respect to others.He who loves others is constantly loved by them.He who respects others is constantly respected by them.” In human society, respect is reflected in people’s interactions. Respect is more about self-respect than respecting others. Only when you are mindful of others’ dignity can others respect you. This is what is meant by “He who respects others is constantly respected by them.”

A country and a society have their traditions of rites to abide by. Erya, the Chinese classics on the origins of characters, explained the character for “rules” as respect. Respect is part of people’s conduct. People should be respectful in doing things. There are always emergencies in the world. What should people do during emergencies? They should also be respectful to handle the emergencies. If you have a guest come uninvited, it requires wisdom of the host to cope. If there is any sign of impatience, the result may be out of expectation. As Sima Qian said in the Historical Records, respect fosters harmony and stability.

(The author is a researcher of the China Central Institute for Culture and History)