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Traditional Chinese Culture: Etiquette Between a Man and a Woman

Dec. 14, 2023 |   By Zhang Yalan

(Minghui.org) Etiquette was an important part of traditional Chinese culture, especially when it involved the interaction between a man and a woman. Good etiquette was thought to help build a stable society, while a lack of social norms would lead to inappropriate behaviors and chaos. Etiquette is also essential in a family. It is expected that one will maintain good manners in daily life, whether sitting, standing, walking, eating, or talking with others. While some of the rules might seem overly strict to modern people, it was how ancient people disciplined themselves and thus maintained upright social behavior.

According to Liji (Books of Rites), it is inappropriate for unmarried men and women to share items (clothing hangers, a towel, a comb) or pass things to each other that might involve physical contact. A wife does not greet her husband’s younger brother; a father’s concubine is only allowed to wash her children’s clothes. After becoming engaged, a girl should wear a colorful ribbon on the head, and other people cannot casually enter her room. 

A man and a woman should not ask each other’s names without a proposal being made through a matchmaker. The two families should interact little until the girl’s family accepts the price offered for the bride. Following an engagement, a wedding should be scheduled and include a ceremony reporting the event to the ancestors and worshipping the divine. Neighbors, friends, and relatives should be invited to the feast.

In addition, a man and a woman should not draw water from the same well, use the same bathroom to take a bath, or share the same bed. A man’s clothing cannot be loaned to a woman, and vice versa. 

Teachings from Lu Dongbin

People in modern society may not understand why societal norms were so strict in ancient times. Lu Dongbin, a legendary Taoist who lived during the Tang Dynasty and became became an immortal, explained the need for an ethical code to his disciples.

A person’s fate, such as fortune, official rank, and wealth, is often dependent on whether one lives with dignity and avoids inappropriate relationships. No matter what kind of woman a man encounters, he should pay attention to this, including in his mind, words, actions, and friendships. 

More specifically, he said, 

Although a woman may be attractive, I will not have a single thought of lust;I will treat someone a little older as my elder sister, and one a little younger as my young sister. No matter how pretty a woman is, one improper behavior will ruin her reputation;It will also harm my fate and fortune,while alerting the divine.Since retribution often comes quickly, I dare not act recklessly and violate this. 

Sometimes, when hearing others talking about women,I will stop them seriously;When encountering a pretty woman on the road, I dare not pay attention even if my head is cut off.Even meeting godsisters,I will not talk about affairs;When seeing cousins, I will not have casual intimacy.Upon meeting an aunt or sister-in-law,I will not sit or walk with her.

If seeing a niece or her peers, I will remain serious and not talk causally;When seeing books or pictures of sexuality, I will burn them immediately. When there are people fond of sex, I will no longer interact with them;The divine will see my dignity and integrity, and bless me with fame and accomplishment.

Two Dignified Men in the Lu Kingdom

Liu Xiahui was a well-respected official in the Lu Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn Period. Once, he traveled to another city but found the city entrance was closed. He stood outside the gate overnight. There was also a beautiful young woman at the gate who could not enter the city. Seeing the woman wearing very little and shivering in the cold, Lu thought she might get sick or die, so he covered her with his winter coat. The woman sat down and slept, while Liu did not move a little, even though his legs were numb. People heard about this and praised Liu for his integrity. 

Later on, another man in the Lu Kingdom who lived by himself had a widowed neighbor knock on his door at night asking if she could stay at his place since her roof was leaking in the rain. 

The man said no and explained, “There was a saying that, until reaching 60, a man and a woman cannot stay together. Since you are young and I am young, I cannot let you in.”

“Why don’t you learn from Liu Xiahui?” the woman asked. “He warmed a woman with his body, and people did not say bad things about him.”

“Liu could do that, and I cannot,” the man replied. “I will learn from Liu in this way.”

Confucius heard about this and praised the man, saying he had learned the essence of dignity and virtue. If someone with an ill-intention claims to mimic Liu on the surface, he is just making excuses. 

A Mulberry Picking Girl

Here is a well-known poem about a young woman in the Han Dynasty, which gives us a glimpse into life at the time.

Moshang Sang (At Mulberry Trees by a Road)

The sun rises in the east, lighting up the building of my Qing family;Qin family has a lovely girl,with the name of Luo Fu. Luo Fu likes to pick mulberry leaves for silkworms, at southeast to the city;The bamboo basket has a green silk ribbon, with a laurel tree twig for a handle. Hair is combed as a falling horse bun, she is wearing a pair of pearl earrings;Her silk skirt is apricot yellow,and her silk jacket is purple. People walking by on the road, could not stop looking at her;Young fellows who saw Luo Fu, removed their hats and tidied up head scarves.Those who cultivated land stopped plowing, and those who pulled weeds forgot their hoes;After arriving home, they were upset, for not getting their work done due to looking at Luo Fu. 

A high official from the south, on a wagon pulled by five horses;I sent someone to ask, where did this beautiful girl come from? People replied that the lovely girl, is from the Qin family, and her name is Luo Fu;The officer then asked how old Luo Fu was, and was told that Luo Fu was over 15 and younger than 20.The officer then asked Luo Fu:Will you come and ride with me?Luo Fu came up and replied:How silly this question is!You, officer, already have a wife, and I, Luo Fu, also have a husband. 

Look east at those one thousand men riding their horses, my husband is the lead;How do I tell him apart from the others?My husband rides on a white horse, followed by a black one. A green silk ribbon is tied to the horse’s tail, with a bridle on its head decorated with gold;He also carries a rare Lulu sword, which is worth one thousand pieces of money. At age 15, he was a lower official, by 20, he served in the royal court;At 30, he is a palace attendant, by 40, he is the head of a city. He is very handsome, with fair skin and a nice mustache;Walking with a pace and elegance, he always has good mannersAmong thousands of people sitting there, they all say my husband is special. 

It is worth noting that when people were drawn to Luo Fu’s beauty, they did not have ill thoughts. The only exception was the high official, whom Luo Fu gracefully turned down. 

A poem from the Zhou Dynasty, published in Shijing (Classics of Poetry), also talked about a girl’s dignity and purity:

Han Guang

There are coconut trees in the south, too high to be used for shade;There is a girl out on the river, too dignified to pursue.The Han River is very wide, impossible to swim across under the water;The Yangtze River is very long, impossible to cover the entire length on a small raft. 

This poem implies that when a girl truly has purity and dignity, those who look at her will not have bad thoughts. This is because people know ill thoughts are doomed, just like it is impossible to swim across the Han River underwater, or go through the Yangtze River from beginning to end on a small raft. 

“This Is a Divine Being!”

Guan Yu, a well-known military general during the Han Dynasty, was famous for his bravery, wisdom, and, most importantly, his loyalty. According to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan was once captured by Cao Cao and treated well. Although Cao offered feasts now and then, Guan was not moved and declined all the offers of valuables and beautiful girls. He only accepted a precious horse and said, “As soon as I learn the whereabouts of Liu Bei (a leader that Guan followed), I will go there no matter what.”

At that time, Guan was also responsible for protecting two of Liu’s wives. Seeing Guan was not seduced by wealth, Cao asked Guan to share a room with Liu’s wives at night. Instead, Guan stayed outdoors reading all night and was not tired. Later, Cao gave Guan a mansion. After splitting the mansion into two parts, Guan asked Liu’s wives to stay inside and be guarded by elderly soldiers. Meanwhile, he stayed outside.

The divine also blessed Guan for this loyalty. After Guan left Cao’s place, Wang Zhi, the governor of Xingyang, ordered his subordinate Hu Ban to kill Guan. Curious about what Guan looked like, Hu peeked at him. When he saw Guan’s elegance when reading, he could not help calling out, “This a divine being.” Hearing this sound, Guan spoke with him, and it turned out that Hu’s father was Guan’s friend. Thus Hu helped Guan to reunite with Liu.