In the plays and films about ancient history, we often see people kneel and give salute. How did these common manners come into being? We have to begin with the ancient people’s material conditions and living habits.
Before the Han dynasty, there were no formal chairs. When eating, discussing business or reading, people usually sat on a mat knitted from reeds and bamboo skins. If they invited guests to their homes, they would usually add another layer of mat to express their respect. Even the supreme ruler also sat on the mat, except for their mats had a better quality than that of common people. For example, in the Zhou Dynasty, when officials came to meet with the emperor, there was a screen with a black and white axe pattern beside the mats where the wives of the emperor sat. Before the screen, there was a mat knitted from water sedge and covered with a colorful rush mat and a peach bamboo mat. There was also a jade armrest on both sides of the mat for the emperor to rest his arms on.
Peculiar Chinese kneeling salutes
The so-called “sitting” position in history is completely different from sitting today. When seated, an ancient man’s two bent knees were on the floor and his hips were on his heels, with the soles of feet remaining outwards and backwards. The “sitting” position in history is virtually the kneeling position today. During the reception of guests, if the “sitting” host wanted to express his gratitude to guests, he often straightened the upper part of his body before bending over in order to show his respect, which became the prostration ceremony in daily life over time.
The ancient people believed that without kneeling, it is not saluting. The Chinese word “Bai” meant saluting in the ancient times. The etiquette of the Zhou Dynasty formulated strict regulations on the actions and objects of worship. Three kinds of worships namely the Jishou, Dunshou and Kongshou were considered as “official salutes.” The Jishou required the person saluting to kneel on the ground with their left hand on their right hand touching the ground before they slowly kowtow to the ground for some time, while maintaining the posture of hands in front of the knees, and the head behind hands. This is the highest etiquette among the “nine types of salutes” and was generally used for officials to meet the emperor or to salute their ancestors. (Afterwards, this etiquette was used by monks and was called the “Jishou.”)
The Dunshou is the same as the Jishou except the person saluting was required to quickly kowtow and their foreheads should lightly touch the ground when doing so. This etiquette was generally used for people of lower status to salute people of higher status. (The “Dunshou” was later used at the beginning or ending, or both beginning and ending of a letter to show respect to the recipients.)