The fact that Koreans sweep all gold medals in archery at every Olympics Game (find out why here)proves that they surely know how to handle a bow, but it’s not the only type of bow they are experts at – Koreans are masters of all kinds of bows, from casual bows to belly-button bows to half-bows to full-bows. Let’s learn then all!
Traditionally every bow to an elder or at a ceremony begins by placing one of your hands on top of the other (left on top for male and right on top for female) and resting them below your waist. This is called gongsu 공수, and is also the default form when adopting a polite attitude. These days, however, people also place their hands straight on the side of their legs when bowing.
There are two main types of bows Koreans perform for greeting, showing respect, remorse, and gratitude, and they are standing bows and sitting bows.
The standing bows are used in everyday situations, while the knees-to-the-ground sitting bows are performed on special occasions like traditional holidays, ceremonies, and jesa. Due to the differences in the design of the traditional clothes, hanbok, they were performed differently for men and women.
Types of Korean bows – 경례 gyeongrye STANDING BOW
반경례 ban gyeongrye “Half-Bow”
Bend your waist 15 degrees
- When returning a bow
- Elder to a younger / lower rank person
Types of Korean bows – 평경례 pyeong gyeongrye “Standard Bow”
Bend your waist 30 degrees
- When greeting someone older or higher in rank
Types of Korean bows – 큰경례 keun gyeongrye “Big Bow”
Bend your waist 45 degrees
- When you want to show your utmost respect
Types of Korean bows – 의식경례 euisik gyeongrye “90-Degree Bow” “Folder Bow”
Bend your waist 90 degrees
- Performed at ceremonies such as a wedding and a memorial ceremony
- In Korean dramas, it’s performed in an exaggerated manner by gangsters and junior employees who want to please their boss. Also used when asking for forgiveness.
Types of Korean bows – 배꼽인사 baekkop insa “Belly Button Bow”
It’s performed by service personnel such as department store employees upon greeting guests. It’s termed so because you have to politely place your gongsu hands where your belly button is located.
VERY IMPORTANT POINT – When making a standing bow, don’t try to make eye contact because not only does it look weird (sticking out your neck and keeping your head up while bending your upper body is pretty unnatural), Korean people may find it rude.
RELATED : WHY don’t Koreans make eye contact?
Types of Korean bows – 절 jeol SITTING BOW
*For men, the left hand is placed over the right; for women, the right hand is placed over the left.
큰절 keunnjeol “Full/Big Bow”
Most formal and polite.
To whom: Elders who don’t have to reciprocate when they take a bow. Husband’s lineal ascendants / Spouse’s lineal ascendants / Collateral ascendants within the third cousins
When: Ceremonial events / New Year’s Day / Ancestral rites / Seeing each other after a long time
Types of Korean bows – 평절 pyeongjeol “Standard Bow”
The standard bow. When greeting someone older or higher in rank. For males, it’s performed in the same way as in a big bow, but you don’t stretch out your gongsu hand at the beginning and you get up immediately when your forehead touches the back of your hand.
To whom: Someone who must bow back with the standard bow or the half-bow. Older adults, such as teachers, elders, superiors, spouses, older siblings, sisters-in-law / People of same age / Friends / If not related, and if the age difference is less than 15 years, they will bow to each other with the standard bow.
When: Seeing each other after a long time.
Types of Korean bows – 반절 banjeol “Half-Bow”
Performed as a Return Bow to someone younger.
To whom: One’s students / Friend’s children / Children’s adult friends / Younger siblings / Extended family members within 10 years of age difference
When: Upon taking a bow from a younger person
*If the younger person is a minor, then the older person can give a verbal greeting instead, but it’s required to return a half-bow to an adult.