Cultural Concept of Politeness in Japan and China: “li” and “reigi”

Yihan Zhang, Kana Orita

1. Introduction

Politeness is one of the major concepts to be discussed in cross-cultural or intercultural communication. It is hard to imagine any existing society without its concept; however, the ways to express politeness often differ among cultures. Therefore, it is important to mutually understand the concept of politeness beyond the language levels when people contact someone from different cultural backgrounds. Japan and China are not exceptions in that both countries highly value the strong emotional bonds among people and call for various discussions on what is considered polite. Although Japanese people and Chinese people share some common sense of politeness to keep harmonious relations, there are some differences in the ways to express politeness. Some unique forms of politeness in Japanese context often result in, for example, difficulties to be adopted to Japanese companies and struggle with learning business manners or what Japanese people call Reigi (礼儀) (Moriya, 2012). This paper aims to compare and contrast the concepts of Japanese reigi (礼儀) and Chinese li (礼). This paper first discusses the definitions of the concept, shows the functions of politeness in Japanese and Chinese contexts, and then further explains its concepts with cases and examples, related expressions in both languages, and finally concludes by analyzing some similarities and differences of the concept in Japan and China.

2. Definition

Japanese reigi consists of two Chinese characters “rei” (礼) and “gi” (儀) which respectively refers to “a normative form of respective expression that is habituated in the society” and “well organized ritual” (Shin Meikai Kokugo Jiten, 2020a; 2020b). According to Fumizawa and Yoshida (1970), Japanese reigi is generally defined as an external behavior performed on daily basis to maintain harmony and show respectful affection to others. Polite behaviors usually entail mercy, sympathy, trust, and other thoughtful emotions or attitudes toward others (Fumizawa & Yoshida, 1970). 

The corresponding Chinese word for “reigi” is “li” (礼). Li is a complicated concept that rooted in Confucianism. We can trace it back to the Chinese ancestor worship tradition (Radice, 2017). Moreover, Radice (2017) discusses the scope of li, which includes all sorts of rites, such as marriage ceremonies, funerals, mourning rites, as well as interpersonal etiquette. To some extent, we can say that li and the Japanese word “reigisaho”(礼儀作法) share the same meaning when it comes to ritual propriety.

Besides the broad range aspect that li covers, some contemporary interpretations shed more light on the role thatli plays as an essential role in the socialization and civilization process (Martin, 1995). For instance, Pan (2011) refers li to the use of moral rules to regulate individual behavior. Li (2007) sees li as a cultural grammar. Hagen (2010) introduces a spectrum of contemporary interpretations of li, starting with Huang (1997) depicting li as a code of propriety. Most of these definitions of concepts view li as something static. However, li is evolving and changing through the times as conventional norms or cultural rites. Sometimes when the traditional li can no longer be applied properly into contemporary circumstances, it may be appropriate to alter it (Radice,2017). Lu (2020) suggests that as a moral, sometimes li is not moral itself, such as killing people and burying them with aristocrats or emperor. This is the time when “li” should be changed.

Interestingly, these interpretations do not cover the implicit “cultivated disposition” (Hagen,2010). On the one hand, these conceptualizations of “li” focus on the external part, considering li merely as the rules existing outside ourselves. On the other hand, Hagen (2010) discusses li as developed dispositions and as personalized exemplary conduct. Therefore, we can conclude that the concept of li in Chinese culture can be perceived as “ritual propriety”, but also as “a sense of ritual” internalized in individuals. 

3. Functions

One of the most prominent studies of politeness was conducted by Brown and Levinson (2006) who advocated politeness theory and the concept of face. According to Brown and Levinson (2006), people emotionally invest face, which can be lost, maintained, or enhanced during social interaction, and it is defined by personal desire or wants. There are two types of face suggested by Brown and Levinson (2006), namely, positive face and negative face. Brown and Levinson defined a positive face as the desire for one’s personality or goals to be understood or accepted as admirable, and a negative face as the desire for freedom to act without being impeded by others. Brown and Levinson (2006) also advocated the concept of Face Threatening Actions (FTA hereafter) which is defined by any type of verbal or non-verbal behaviors that run against personal face or desire. Criticism and complaints are typical examples of threatening positive face, and suggestions or requests might threaten the negative face by refraining someone from doing something or giving pressure to do in a certain way (Brown and Levinson, 2006).

Liu and Allen (2014) conducted linguistic observations to associate Japanese linguistic discourse with face and support applicability of politeness theory to Japanese reigi. Liu and Allen (2014) point out that Japanese people attempt to make the impact of FTA as minor as possible. In oral communication, Japanese people use hedges immediately before the FTA and justification immediately after the FTA (Liu & Allen, 2014). Some of the typical examples of hedges to redress FTA include apologizing such as “sumimasen ga…”  “Excuse me, but…”, “shitsurei desu ga…” “This is rude but…”, “ano…” “uh…”, and so on (Liu & Allen, 2014). It is easy to imagine a situation when Japanese people get lost and want to ask a stranger for directions, they often say “Ano…sumimasen, michi wo otazune shitainodesu ga…Keitai no juden ga kiretesimatte…” “Um….excuse me but, I would like to ask for directions… since my phone died…”. This utterance starts from the hedging “Ano…sumimasen ga…” “Um…excuse me, but…” to show that the speaker is hesitating to stop a stranger to show directions, followed by the FTA of asking a favor, and finally justifies the FTA by explaining the condition that the speaker is unable to find the way and asking someone for help is an inevitable decision. What Liu and Allen (2014) imply is that Japanese people avoid or soften the FTA by performing reigi in linguistic form.

Another important function related to reigi is acknowledgement of social status in hierarchy. Very typical reigibehaviors can be observed in linguistic features in Japanese conversation. Japanese people use Keigo (敬語) or honorific speech to show their acknowledgement of social power distance and respect to those in higher social status (Pizziconi, 2011). For example, both utterances “Kyo wa doyobi da” and “Kyo wa doyobi desu” mean the same and can be translated as “Today is Saturday.”, but the second sentence is more appropriate when the interlocutors are in higher social status (Matsumoto, 1998). The use of honorific speech in this example is for marking the difference or distance in social class rather than redressing FTA (Matsumoto, 1998).

Different from Hagen (2010), Lu (2020) views li as external, accordingly, individuals could follow li just by externally knowing the ritual protocols. Nevertheless, Lu (2020) argues that the root of li is not external, and lifunctions in both positive and negative ways. For the negative function, li stems from the innate desires of human. As one of the greatest Confucius philosophers Xunzi said, human beings were born evil and the desires we possess will inevitably lead to conflicts. Boot (1999) argues that the kings established the rites and if the rites weren’t for the kings, it would have destroyed people’s life. What Lu (2020) tried to tell us is that the ritual could balance and harmonize people’s desire so that individuals would not become out of control, which may result in endangering public life. In this case, li and reigi have the same function as they both try to sustain the peace of society and human relations. 

In the meantime, li is often mentioned together with another key concept of Confucianism called “Fa”(法, legalism). “Fa” can be interpreted as legalism, which is another way of dealing with human desire and only describes the punishment for illegal action. Pan (2011) points out that the system of “fa” makes people behave well without knowing why they should. But the system of “li” calls for people’s internalized moral. Li was considered more effective than fa if we look back at the legal practices in China (Pan,2011). It results in people’s tendency to resolve disputes and reconcile with each other by dialogue and negotiations (through li) rather than adjudication (“fa”). Another practice that exerts the negative function of li is civility(keqi, 客气)and civility can externally avoid divisions that human competition may cause(Lu,2020). 

On the positive level of li, from Lu (2020)’s point of view, li enables people to express their feelings through religious events. In burial funerals, people bury their parents or relatives and express their sorrow and love for the dead. Li can also express respect. Lu (2020) gives us an example of showing respect in saluting. More saluting guns that people use, more respect that it shows. Besides expressing respect, li is seen in showing people’s recognition of others and giving honor to others (Lu, 2020). In Lu(2020), two different actions of li pointed out by Mencius are demonstrated, which are cirang(辞让,declining and yielding) and gongjing(恭敬, deference). Declining a gift or promotion indicates humility, while yielding shows one’s esteem for others in what they have achieved, which we can examine deference here (Lu,2020).

4. Cases

One of the most important and common social concepts that derive reigi behavior is Meue (目上) “superior” and Meshita (目下) “inferior” relationship (Haugh & Obana, 2011). Japanese people usually learn meue and meshitarelations in the senpai (先輩) and kohai (後輩) system at schools. Senpai is a senior student who enters the school earlier, and kohai is a junior student who enters the school later and usually younger than senpai (Qui et al., 2019). Since senpai have spent at the school for a longer time and have more experience, they are considered superior to kohai(Qui et al., 2019). Usually when Japanese students enter junior high schools, they start to learn how to behave in front of their senpai and learn their social expectations to show respect to their superiors. It is an important social skill in Japanese society with its strict hierarchical culture.

The social hierarchy becomes even more obvious when people start to work for a Japanese company. In Japan, workers are often seen as representatives of the company, and thus accurate knowledge of reigi is extremely important to run the business smoothly (Moriya, 2012).

Another factor determines reigi behaviors is the Uchi (内) “inside” and Soto (外) “outside” relations. Uchi refers to the people who are inside of the speakers’ social circle including close friends, family, and colleagues (Liu & Allen, 2014). Soto, on the other hand, refers to the people who are outside of the social circle such as strangers (Liu & Allen, 2014). Usually, Japanese people are expected to behave reigi for soto, and they do not perform reigi for uchi. However, as Liu and Allen (2014) point out, it is also important to note that uchi-soto relations are dynamic and can continually change. 

Haugh and Obana (2011) argue that uchi-soto relations are not always the definite determiner for reigi behavior and refer to the emic concept of tachiba (立場)or social position to explain reigi. According to Haugh and Obana (2011), tachiba is defined as one’s social role or status in a situation, and Japanese people change their behavior based on their tachiba. For example, it is common for children to give direct requests to their parents saying “Are katte” “Buy me that” or “Shukudai tetsudatte” “Help me with my homework”. However, it is also common for children to make requests in indirect speech such as “Okane, kashite kurenaikana?” “I wonder if you could lend me some money?” and “Kyanpu ni sanka shitain dakedo…” “I want to join the camp, but…”. Haugh and Obana (2011) explain these different uses of direct and indirect requests with the notion of tachiba, and they claim that children use direct speech when they request for something that parents are expected to do in raising their children, while they make indirect requests when they recognize their activity is under control of their parents’ authority or tachiba. This kind of reigi among parent and child conversation successfully depicts the Japanese proverb “Shitashiki naka nimo reigi ari” “There is always politeness even among close friends”.       

The practice of li could be associated with many scenes that happened in traditional Chinese contexts, but it also applies for modern society. One of the important functions of li is to shape and regulate people, which was ultimately aimed at bringing harmony to not only interpersonal relations, but also to domestic society as well as international society. As Pan (2011) puts li as a more effective way to regulate people than “fa”, when domestic violence happens, in this situation, it is preferred to have a peaceful talk and reconcile with each other instead of going to the court. The reason why Chinese people prefer dialogue rather than adjudication is that li instead of law is what regulates people’s behavior. In interpersonal relations, we often notice the practice of civility, which is another example of li. For instance, in the case where one compliments other people’s achievements, but may not truly believe that they deserve it (Lu,2020). 

When it comes to considering li as a way to show respect, apart from the saluting case, the action of students standing up and saying good morning while bowing to the teachers before class has become a protocol in Chinese classrooms. As is shown in the saluting case, similarly, the louder students say good morning to the teachers, it indicates more respect students show to the teachers. From this case, we can examine the unequal relations between people which are established. 

Most of the time, li is interpreted as some trivial matters of manners and etiquette. Nevertheless, li concerns deeper and wider meanings which goes beyond politeness and etiquette, including conventional forms, cultural traditions and patterns of relationships (Martin,1995). As the burial funeral attests, li can fulfill human nature and plays an important part in communal life. According to Lu (2020), in ancient times, people did not bury the dead. But animals always came to destroy the dead bodies, they began the ritual of burying, which became a convention and always with music involving (Lu,2020). In ancient China, li and music (乐,music) are the important processes to mold and train people into a disciplined person. 

From these cases, we can conclude that li is much more than politeness and etiquette. Stemming from Confucius thought, li has already developed a broad scope of meanings and has been practiced as ritualized norms for thousands of years in Chinese history. 

5. Related Expressions

Some synonyms of reigi are Saho (作法) “etiquette”, Mana (マナー) “manner”, and Gyogi (行儀) “behavior” (Weblio, n.d., a). Reigi tadasii (礼儀正しい) is adjective form to describe someone who is well mannered, and Japanese parents always tell their children “Reigi tadasiku shinasai” “You must behave yourself”. Antonyms of reigi are Burei (無礼) and Shitsurei (失礼) which both mean rude, impolite, or not mannered (Weblio, n.d., b). Japanese people usually describe a rude person as “reigi shirazu” which means not knowing politeness.  

There is one word called liyi (礼义) which has the same Chinese character as the Japanese counterpart. But liyirefers to rites and morality to carry out in the feudalistic society, which li also covers. However, besides the ritual propriety meaning, li can be interpreted as politeness and etiquette. Limao (礼貌) and liyi (礼仪) also share the meaning of politeness and etiquette. When somebody behaves impolitely or one’s behavior is rude, we often use the word “wuli” (无礼). 

6. Conclusion

Both reigi and li contain very complicated concepts that overlap rituals and etiquettes which make the concepts difficult to understand. However, it can be said that both concepts entail emotional respect to others. Also, both reigi and li behaviors are regulated by outside and inside social relations. 

The differences include; on the other hand, Chinese li overlaps the concepts of Japanese 礼儀 reigi and 礼儀作法reigi sahou. Japanese reigi refers to emotions including respect, distance, and affection. Reigisahou focuses on physical activity or ritual that visualize moral or emotional politeness, while one Chinese letter “li” depicts both concepts. 

Chinese li also works as a system for fixing immoral acts, which is not covered in Japanese reigi. In traditional Chinese contexts, the legal system was considered as an instrument for dominance, which means criminals get punished rather than arguing for legal rights. Therefore, li was viewed as more effective than legalism. Because of this tradition, in the contemporary interpretation of li, Chinese people still prefer negotiations where the moral rules regulate people rather than going to the court. 

7. Discussion Questions / Topics

  1. How do you verbally or non-verbally show politeness in your culture?
  2. Can you explain politeness in your culture with politeness theory or the notion of face by Brown and Levinson?
  3. Are there any moral rules in your society that people are supposed to obey? 
  4. How is moral educated in your country? If you had those classes, what would you learn? 
  5. Are the legal systems regulated by morality or are these separate concepts?
  6. Does politeness in western culture, or any other culture outside Japan and China, suggest social status and hierarchy?

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