The Proprieties of Sitting

Before the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), Chinese people generally 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 kneeling-sitting before chairs were popular. 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 Dynasty, Li Yiji (酈食其), a wise person, visited Liu Bang (劉邦) 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. 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 but not a kneeling-rite. 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 a respectful seat. Then Li Yiji forgave Liu Bang and started to tell Liu Bang his ideas about the war against the Qin Dynasty.

According to Zuo’s Explanation (左傳) which is a chronological historical work about the history from 722 BC to 468 BC, a person must take off his shoes before he entered a room. In a banquet, he should take off his socks before he sat down.

In 595 BC, when Chu Zhuang-King (楚莊王), the monarch of the Chu State, heard that his envoy was killed by the Song 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 BC, Wei Chu-Gong (衛出公), the monarch of the Wei State, held a banquet and invited ministers. Chushi Bi (褚師比) 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 the Song State.

In the later years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), a kind of folding chairs were introduced into China. Han Ling-Emperor (漢靈帝), a fatuous emperor who reigned from AD 168 to 189, liked this kind of chairs very much, and this thing was regarded as a portent of the nation’s disorder. At that time, Buddhism was introduced from India to China, and Buddhist monks had a special sitting posture with crossing legs. Over hundreds of years since then, more foreign cultures were introduced into China. However, in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) the normal sitting posture was still kneeling-sitting, and this style influenced some neighbors. Japanese people still keep the posture of kneeling-sitting nowadays. Since 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 and feet became numb and painful, because they had not been able to adapt themselves to kneeling-sitting. According to the book “Words of Zhu Xi” (朱子語類), Zhu Xi (朱熹, 1130-1200) who was a famous Confucian philosopher in the Southern Song Dynasty said, “Ancient people sat on the ground, and the posture was unlikely to be crossing feet, but to be kneeling. They were accustomed to it, so their feet were not painful.”

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