Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Modes of Salutation, and Amicable Ceremonies, Observed in Various Nations.

When men, writes the philosophical compiler of ”L’Esprit des Usages et des Coutumes,“ salute each other in an amicable manner, it signifies little whether they move a particular part of the body, or practise a particular ceremony. In these actions there must exist different customs. Every nation imagines it employs the most reasonable ones; but all are equally simple, and none are to be treated as ridiculous.

This infinite number of ceremonies may be reduced to two kinds; to reverences or salutations, and to the touch of some part of the human body. To bend and prostrate oneself to express sentiments of respect, appears to be a natural motion; for terrified persons throw themselves on the earth when they adore invisible beings; and the affectionate touch of the person they salute is an expression of tenderness.

As nations decline from their ancient simplicity, much farce and grimace are introduced. Superstition, the manners of a people, and their situation, influence the modes of salutation; as may be observed from the instances we collect.

Modes of salutation have sometimes very different characters, and it is no uninteresting speculation to examine their shades. Many display a refinement of delicacy, while others are remarkable for their simplicity, or for their sensibility. In general, however, they are frequently the same in the infancy of nations, and in more polished societies. Respect, humility, fear, and esteem, are expressed much in a similar manner, for these are the natural consequence of the organisation of the body.

These demonstrations become in time only empty civilities, which signify nothing; we shall notice what they were originally, without reflecting on what they are.

Primitive nations have no peculiar modes of salutation; they know no reverences or other compliments, or they despise and disdain them. The Greenlanders laugh when they see an European uncover his head, and bend his body before him whom he calls his superior.

The Islanders, near the Philippines, take the hand or foot of him they salute, and with it they gently rub their face. The Laplanders apply their nose strongly against that of the person they salute. Dampier says, that at New Guinea they are satisfied to put on their heads the leaves of trees, which have ever passed for symbols of friendship and peace. This is at least a picturesque salute.

Other salutations are very incommodious and painful; it requires great practice to enable a man to be polite in an island situated in the straits of the Sound. Houtman tells us they saluted him in this grotesque manner: “They raised his left foot, which they passed gently over the right leg, and from thence over his face.” The inhabitants of the Philippines use a most complex attitude; they bend their body very low, place their hands on their cheeks, and raise at the same time one foot in the air with their knee bent.

An Ethiopian takes the robe of another, and ties it about his own waist, so that he leaves his friend half naked. This custom of undressing on these occasions takes other forms; sometimes men place themselves naked before the person whom they salute; it is to show their humility, and that they are unworthy of appearing in his presence. This was practised before Sir Joseph Banks, when he received the visits of two female Otaheitans. Their innocent simplicity, no doubt, did not appear immodest in the eyes of the virtuoso.

Sometimes they only undress partially. The Japanese only take off a slipper; the people of Arracan their sandals in the street, and their stockings in the house.

In the progress of time it appears servile to uncover oneself. The grandees of Spain claim the right of appearing covered before the king, to show that they are not so much subjected to him as the rest of the nation: and (this writer truly observes) we may remark that the English do not uncover their heads so much as the other nations of Europe. Mr. Hobhouse observes that uncovering the head, with the Turks, is a mark of indecent familiarity; in their mosques the Franks must keep their hats on. The Jewish custom of wearing their hats in their synagogues is, doubtless, the same oriental custom.

In a word, there is not a nation, observes the humorous Montaigne, even to the people who when they salute turn their backs on their friends, but that can be justified in their customs.

The negroes are lovers of ludicrous actions, and hence all their ceremonies seem farcical. The greater part pull the fingers till they crack. Snelgrave gives an odd representation of the embassy which the king of Dahomy sent to him. The ceremonies of salutation consisted in the most ridiculous contortions. When two negro monarchs visit, they embrace in snapping three times the middle finger.

Barbarous nations frequently imprint on their salutations the dispositions of their character. When the inhabitants of Carmena (says Athenæus) would show a peculiar mark of esteem, they breathed a vein, and presented for the beverage of their friend the flowing blood. The Franks tore the hair from their head, and presented it to the person they saluted. The slave cut his hair, and offered it to his master.

The Chinese are singularly affected in their personal civilities. They even calculate the number of their reverences. These are the most remarkable postures. The men move their hands in an affectionate manner, while they are joined together on the breast, and bow their head a little. If they respect a person, they raise their hands joined, and then lower them to the earth in bending the body. If two persons meet after a long separation, they both fall on their knees and bend the face to the earth, and this ceremony they repeat two or three times. Surely we may differ here with the sentiment of Montaigne, and confess this ceremony to be ridiculous. It arises from their national affectation. They substitute artificial ceremonies for natural actions.

Their expressions mean as little as their ceremonies. If a Chinese is asked how he finds himself in health, he answers, Very well; thanks to your abundant felicity. If they would tell a man that he looks well, they say, Prosperity is painted on your face: or, Your air announces your happiness.

If you render them any service, they say, My thanks shall be immortal. If you praise them, they answer, How shall I dare to persuade myself of what you say of me? If you dine with them, they tell you at parting, We have not treated you with sufficient distinction. The various titles they invent for each other it would be impossible to translate.

It is to be observed that all these answers are prescribed by the Chinese ritual, or Academy of Compliments. There, are determined the number of bows: the expressions to be employed; the genuflexions, and the inclinations which are to be made to the right or left hand; the salutations of the master before the chair where the stranger is to be seated, for he salutes it most profoundly, and wipes the dust away with the skirts of his robe; all these and other things are noticed, even to the silent gestures by which you are entreated to enter the house. The lower class of people are equally nice in these punctilios; and ambassadors pass forty days in practising them before they are enabled to appear at court. A tribunal of ceremonies has been erected; and every day very odd decrees are issued, to which the Chinese most religiously submit.

The marks of honour are frequently arbitrary; to be seated with us is a mark of repose and familiarity; to stand up, that of respect. There are countries, however, in which princes will only be addressed by persons who are seated, and it is considered as a favour to be permitted to stand in their presence. This custom prevails in despotic countries; a despot cannot suffer without disgust the elevated figure of his subjects; he is pleased to bend their bodies with their genius; his presence must lay those who behold him prostrate on the earth; he desires no eagerness, no attention; he would only inspire terror.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37