The Bow in Qua-lun Culture

Back when I was run­ning a correspondence-style role-playing game in Qua-lun, and writ­ten descrip­tions of behav­ior came into play, I found some minor cul­tural dis­so­nance came up around the issue of bow­ing. My Amer­i­can play­ers knew “that Japan­ese bowed a lot” — and that was pretty much all they knew about that cus­tom in the con­text of an Asian culture.

At that point I needed to clar­ify when and why this hap­pens in Qua-lun, and what is sig­naled by these vary­ing grades of phys­i­cal def­er­ence. The result was this run-down of bow­ing, which I repro­duce here for your edi­fi­ca­tion.  This is writ­ten in a for­mat speak­ing directly to the player char­ac­ters (PCs), and meant to put some behav­iors in a cul­tural con­text for them.

The “rules of the road” described here are also reflected in the social set­tings encoun­tered in Drag­onsword.

Bow­ing Etiquette


Kowtowing before a customs official

Kow­tow­ing before a cus­toms official.

Bow­ing is not just cul­tural set-dressing. Whether or not you bow, plus when and how much you do it, can be a major issue. By your PC doing these things, you send mes­sages that range any­where from boot-licking obei­sance, to sin­cere admi­ra­tion, to a mor­tal insult that sparks phys­i­cal violence.

CAUTION: Do NOT assume that because your char­ac­ter is described as bow­ing humbly to assuage anger, or bow­ing deeply to some­one of higher rank, that you are being a wimp, or act­ing “out of char­ac­ter” for your brave hero. This is nor­mal social behav­ior for the area. Every­one does it. I will describe your char­ac­ter as doing it when this is in keep­ing with rou­tine behav­ior, what would be the expected response in a par­tic­u­lar social sit­u­a­tion. If you hear the word “hum­ble” in the descrip­tion this doesn’t mean the PC is always eat­ing doo-doo as he bows; it means your behav­ior is meant to at least cre­ate an impres­sion of hum­ble­ness in the observer. Which is the whole point of effac­ing your­self to begin with.

By the way: Eye con­tact is gen­er­ally avoided when you are busy bow­ing to another; avert­ing your eyes shows hum­ble­ness. (And some­times it appears that he who is more hum­ble is more morally superior.)

Nor­mally, I assume your char­ac­ter bows as appro­pri­ate to the cir­cum­stance: that is, your behav­ior is non-inflammatory, not extreme, and gen­er­ally what good behav­ior would dic­tate. If you want to be offen­sive, obse­quious, kiss up to some­one in author­ity, or grind some­one under your heel, let me know and this will be trans­lated appro­pri­ately in the turn descriptions.

Some gen­eral guide­lines on bow­ing (so if you read a descrip­tion of your­self in a deep kow-tow, you under­stand why this might be necessary):

  • The depth of your bow is dic­tated by the rank of you and the other per­son, plus any oblig­a­tion or rep­u­ta­tion that stands between you.
  • The deeper the bow, the more respect­ful and flat­ter­ing it is. By bow­ing deeper than you must you are vol­un­tar­ily demon­strat­ing that you are that much far­ther below the other per­son (which may or may not really be true) — but it is the demon­stra­tion that counts.
  • Extra deep bows are espe­cially good when ask­ing favors, show­ing grat­i­tude, offer­ing apol­ogy, or just worm­ing your way into someone’s good graces. They can also just be sin­cere, given to some­one you respect. (The reverse holds true for when peo­ple offer you a bow that is deeper than nor­mal. Your char­ac­ter would notice and I’ll point this out in turn description.)
  • A senior per­son (in rank, in your pro­fes­sion, or some­one with a big­ger rep­u­ta­tion) is given prece­dence in the polite­ness game: served first at meals, acknowl­edged before you are, and so on. Your bow to such a per­son is deeper than that person’s bow to you. If he bows equally deeply it is an honor to you, show­ing you respect.
  • When some­one is upset with you, if they are of supe­rior rank or author­ity, it is com­mon to bow deeply to avert that anger. This works lit­er­ally: you are bow­ing down before another, and thus your (appar­ent) hum­ble­ness is sooth­ing to the ruf­fled feath­ers or ego of the one rag­ging on you. Of course you may be boil­ing inside, but that is some­thing for you to deal with later. In the moment, you are expected to bow before the anger of the other. If you do not (or if you don’t bow deeply enough and thereby seem flip­pant), you risk enrag­ing them fur­ther and this can lead to out­right duels and phys­i­cal attacks.
  • The lack of a bow or a too-brief, too-shallow one can be a cal­cu­lated insult on your part. Let me know when you want to be abra­sive and shal­low bows will become part of your behavior.
  • Some­times you will bow down before some­one sim­ply because their rank is so great. If you fail to do so and act humbly while you’re at it, you could be struck down in the streets. The greater your rank dif­fer­ence, the greater your poten­tial risk. A peas­ant who looks up from his near-kow-tow kneel to glance at a pass­ing samu­rai lord risks being beheaded for his out­ra­geous bold­ness if the samu­rai is touchy.
  • The deep­est obei­sance you can offer is the kow-tow: kneel­ing, palms on the ground in front of you, press­ing fore­head to the ground (usu­ally done in a series of three ges­tures). You then remain in that posi­tion (face to the ground) until a sound or some sub­tle sig­nal from the one you are kow­tow­ing to per­mits you to rise (only to your knees; a sec­ond sig­nal is needed to per­mit you to stand). A kow­tow is offered when you have lost honor and are answer­able to some­one for your actions (or fail­ure); when you feel shame; when offer­ing a Big Apol­ogy; when beg­ging (for life, for free­dom, for mercy); when meet­ing the Seno [Emperor] unless your rank per­mits you to act less humbly. By kow-towing you are demon­strat­ing that you are no higher than the floor this other per­son walks on, and you are theirs to dis­pose of as they wish, but per­haps they will have mercy on this hum­ble piece of trash and hear the plea or accept the apol­ogy you are offering.

You can also embar­rass some­one with exces­sive hum­ble­ness. Give a kow-tow when it is not nec­es­sary and you will either (a) look like a fool, or (b) pick exactly the right time for this tac­tic, and get every­one to fall all over them­selves assur­ing you that things aren’t that bad, of course your request will be granted, please get up and stop effac­ing your­self. Makes the kow-towees feel indebted, since they really weren’t deserv­ing of that much obei­sance. (Reverse psy­chol­ogy at work.)

That’s all. Thanks for lend­ing your ear.
::::bow­ing self humbly back­wards out of the room::::


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