Bowing: An Age Old Tradition

Bowing: An Age Old Tradition

Recieving the money after bowing Teaching how to do the Saybay

In Korea there is a tradition that is so important that people practice it every day! It is a very important and old tradition that probably originated a very long time ago. This is the tradition of bowing! Even though it may be thousands of years old, Koreans still practice it every day.

What traditions does the community have?

There are many traditions here in Korea. Some of these traditions involve festivals like Sollar, which is Korean new-year, or Chewsohk, which is similar to American Thanksgiving. However, Korea also has some interesting and deeply rooted traditions that they practice every day! There are traditions that tell people how they should behave during mealtimes, and traditions that tell people what words they should use when they speak to other people. Ancient traditions influence the way many Koreans live their daily lives! With modernization this is beginning to change, but even so there are many traditions that Korean’s still practice every day that they practiced hundreds of years ago!

I want to tell you a little about one of the most common every day traditions that I see in Korea. This is the tradition of bowing. It is a tradition that is also common in Japan and other countries in Asia. Bowing is an important and common way of showing respect, and has been practiced in Korea at least since the adoption of Confucianism around 1,700 years ago!

What tradition did I learn about?

Bowing is a very common tradition, and unless you decide to spend the entire day in your house, chances are you will do it at least once a day in Korea! I find myself bowing multiple times a day. Bowing is complicated and I still have to think about when I need to do it, and how low I have to bow. It can be a bit stressful sometimes! Even though I know about the tradition and I participate in it daily, I am still very unsure about all the rules that surround it. I decided to ask one of my Korean friends about these traditions so that I could understand them better, and so that I could hopefully help you guys understand them too!

When I asked Leah why Koreans bow, she told me that there are three reasons for bowing. She told me that you bow when you greet someone, you bow when you thank someone, and you bow when you are apologizing. These are the basic rules for bowing, but it is much more complicated than that, especially when you use bowing as a form of greeting someone. Bowing has a lot to do with how old you are in relation to the person you are meeting. If you are meeting someone who is older than you, and you do not know him or her, it is important that you bow to them. If they are a very important person, like your boss, you probably want to bow at a 90-degree angle. If it is someone around your age you should probably bow at an angle somewhere between 30-40 degrees.

Even if you are meeting someone your own age, who you have met once or twice before it is still really important to bow slightly when you greet them! In this case it is more like a nod of the head rather than a full bow. The only time people do not need to bow to each other is if they are really good friends!

It is not just important to bow when you meet people, but also when saying thank you! When I go into stores in Seoul, sales clerks regularly welcome me into the shop by doing a slight 30-degree bow with their hands on their stomachs. When I leave after buying something the woman or man at the register will thank me for making my purchase with a small bow, sort of like a head nod, only the action is slower than nodding. When you thank someone for doing something for you it is also polite to bow, and depending on the occasion you may want to do a small bow or a deeper bow. For example, if someone who is maybe 27 years old or older gives me something, it would be polite for me to say thank you and bow at around a 30-degree angle.

It is also important to bow when apologizing for something you have done wrong. The more serious your error the deeper you bow. If I were to bump into someone on the street it would be polite for me to do a small bow and say cheh-soo-am-ni-da, I’m sorry. The only time that you really do not have to bow is if you are meeting children! Often children will bow to adults, but the adult does not have to bow back. Very old people also do not have to bow, unless they are meeting people who are around their own age.

The different types of bows that I mentioned above are ones that are done by Koreans every day. There are some bows though, that people only perform on special occasions. When I first got to Seoul I got to see a group of people demonstrate this type of bow. Unfortunately, my camera battery was dead at the time so I could not take pictures. Luckily though my lovely friend and photojournalist Caitlin O’Hara has let me use some that she took! If you guys want to see more of her pictures of Seoul you can take a look at her blog at

Korean people generally only perform what is known as a Say-bay on special occasions like Sollal, Korean/Lunar New Year, or Choo-sohk, which can be described as Korean Thanksgiving. Bowing is also done at weddings by the groom, to his wife’s parents as a sign of his gratitude. There is a different version of the bow, and the one you do depends on whether you are a man or a woman. However, they both involve kneeling on the ground and bending forward until your forehead touches the floor. This is the most respectful way to bow. Children bow this way to their parents on News Years. This was the ceremony that I saw reenacted at the museum! Once the child finishes bowing their parents generally give them a gift of money, pretty nice right? The website for Korean tourism offers great instructions on how to perform the Say-bay, or the bow they perform on New Years.

Website for Korean Tourism:

Even though bowing is such an old tradition people in Korea still do it every day! What are some of the traditions that are important in your family?

Why does the community have this tradition?


The tradition of bowing is very old. People speculate that it dates back to early human societies as a way of recognizing authority. For example, subjects would bow to kings. Today not many societies still practice bowing, but for people in Korea as well as Japan it is a daily practice.

In Korea, bowing seems to stem from Confucian tradition. Confucianism is a philosophy that tells people how they should live their lives. Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, was its founder, though he claims to have gotten some of his thought from even older traditions. According to my philosophy textbook, Korea may have started practicing Confucianism around 234 C.E., that’s over 1,000 years ago! Then around 1200 C.E Korea adopted a newer version of Confucianism as the official state belief system.

Respect for elders is a very important teaching of Confucian philosophy. Listening to what your elders tell you and obeying them are important ways to show this respect. However, in China and then in Korea, there were other important ways of indicating this respect and one of them was bowing. Confucianism is a very old tradition and its ideas have been integrated very deeply into Korean society. This seems to be part of the reason why bowing is still so prevalent.

Is this tradition connected to its environment? How?

Since bowing is practiced in many different places in Asia, I would say that there is not much connection with bowing and the physical or geographical environment of an area. Although, in instances where there is not enough space to do a full 90-degree bow, it is acceptable to do a smaller bow in its place. This is a good thing considering Seoul is rather tightly packed, and many smaller restaurants would not have enough room for a grown man to bow 90-degrees to his superior.

The social environment of Korea however, is very important when it comes to bowing. Korean society, largely because of Confucianism, places a great emphasis on age and rank. Bowing, among other things, is a very important way to show your recognition of another person’s status. It is a way to show your respect. So, while it is not highly influenced by geographical environment, bowing is very dependent on social environment.

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