The Chinese idiom 禮尚往來 (lǐ shàng wǎng lái) states that “propriety, or courtesy, suggests reciprocity.”
Originating from a passage in “Li Ji” (禮記), or “Classic of Rites,” one of the Five Classics of Confucianism, the idiom offers timeless ethical advice for social interactions and good relationships among people.
In the idiom, the character 禮 (lǐ) conveys the concept of propriety or courtesy and refers to the correctness of behaviour, manners, and morals. In addition, it is used to refer to a gift or a present.
The character 尚 (shàng) gives the idea of holding something in esteem, respect, or value.
The phrase 往來 (wǎng lái) means to come and go, and in this idiom indicates a person’s relationships and interactions with others, which ultimately involve a series of social exchanges of giving and receiving.
In its meaning related to correct behaviour, 禮 (lǐ) refers to the rules of proper conduct, etiquette, or protocol in various social situations, including ceremonies and rituals, based on one’s role and status in society.
What guides this correct behaviour is the moral essence that underlies the principle of propriety (禮, lǐ), which is one of the five cardinal virtues imparted by Confucius more than 2,000 years ago, along with benevolence (仁, rén), righteousness (義, yì), wisdom (智, zhì), and faithfulness (信, xìn).
These virtues and other standards of behaviour such as loyalty, filial piety, justice, honesty, and tolerance form the foundation for individual and social morality in traditional Chinese culture.
Thus the idiom offers moral guidance that teaches people to extend mutual respect and kindness to one another and to always do good and return good.
Rediscovering Genuine Courtesy
This guidance speaks to the moral ideals that lie at the heart of traditional Chinese culture. It also reflects the central importance that traditional Chinese education has placed on moral education throughout history since the earliest ancient times.
The idiom 禮尚往來 comes from a passage in the “Classic of Rites” that stated: “Propriety suggests reciprocity. It is not propriety to give without receiving. Neither is it propriety to receive without giving.”
Along with the decline in traditional values in society, however, the practice of 禮尚往來 has gradually departed from its moral substance and become more associated with the surface meaning of “treating others in the same way as others treat us.”
In particular, in modern times the phrase is often used in the context of giving gifts or exchanging favours to build friendships and business ties and to maintain general good relationships with others.
It has also taken on a connotation of obligation in the practical sense, such as in gaining self-interest or achieving some purpose. For example, one who gives may expect to receive something suitable in return, or one who receives feels obligated to return something of similar value later on.
The true meaning of the idiom, however, speaks to the fundamental goodness of people and the foundation and spirit of personal and social morality in traditional Chinese culture.
Understanding the historical essence of the idiom can help people rediscover this genuine goodness and moral foundation in extending mutual courtesy and kindness to one another.