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 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::::