Why do eastern cultures value honor more than the west?

I saw ‘Hero’ this weekend (it was pretty good) and it got me thinking. Why do some (most?) eastern cultures have such a strong sense of honor that very few western cultures share? There were many times in this movie where essentially the characters said “I love you but I have to kill you because…” or “I now have to kill myself because…” Why is honor and family and ancestry so highly regarded in these cultures, but not in the west? I understand that these stories are set in the past, but even in the past, I don’t think the Greeks or the Romans were disemboweling themselves rather than live with the shame of loosing honor.

I think the closest you get to any of these themes in the west would be the medieval knights and chivalry, but from what I can tell, chivalry is not devotion on the same level as the samurai and such.

In fact, my friend who speaks mandarin Chinese informed that the biggest I-want-to-start-a-real-fight-F-you swear in Chinese translates into ‘Your father cries” as in your family has no honor and you are all weak.

Share your thoughts?

Yes, but you have to remember that stories and movies where people die and kill for their honor are just that: stories. Just like we realize that all those stories about chivalric knights slaying dragons and rescuing damsels bear very little resemblance to the reality of aristocratic mafiosi whacking each other to claim the wealth and power generated by exploiting the serfs. And the reality is that samurai were no different. Sure, they had a code of honor. Sure they sometimes felt obligated to live up to that code of honor. But I think you’ll find many more people willing to kill over a point of honor than to die over a point of honor.

And if you read Roman history, you’ll find plenty of people falling on their swords rather than live with dishonor. And there are tons of examples of Christian martyrs choosing death and torture rather than the dishonor of denying their faith. And there are gang members today willing to kill rather than suffer being disrespected. Sure, they all have/had different notions of exactly what honor was than a Japanese samurai. But “honor” is one of those fishy concepts that mostly boils down to not tolerating people thinking bad thoughts about you, and being willing to kill and risk death to prevent that. You’d rather kill or die than be disrespected.

You are probably wrong about chivalry not being as motivating a force in the West. Read some Dumas for some examples out of literature (which is mostly where this sort of foolishness belongs). I’m thinking of the case where the financier is saved from disgrace by the Comte de Monte Cristo at the very last minute before he puts a bullet through his head. And yes, I have read of Roman generals who committed suicide after losing battles.

Why did it fade in the West? Mark Twain covered this topic 100+ years ago when discussing the Old South (http://www.boondocksnet.com/twainwww/essays/walter_scott0009.html). Codes of honor are pretty much obsolete, if not downright stupid. Consider duels, for example. They don’t prove who is right, they simply prove who is the better shot. (Unless you seriously believe, as the medieval duellists supposedly believed, that God would favor the right side.) Lawsuits give you a better chance of actually prevailing, wimpy as it might seem to someone who buys into the macho fiction of dying for honor.

Similarly, the chivalric code doesn’t stand up well in modern combat where any jamoke with a AK-47 can pop up from behind a building and perforate you. Come to think of it, the chivalric code didn’t work to well at Crecy or Agincourt either – battles that were lost because the knights involved were hungry for glory and refused to fight with their brains rather than their heads.

‘Honor’ takes different form with different peoples, and societies express their concept of ‘honor’ differently…neither is the ‘right’ way or the ‘wrong’ way…they are just different. However, to think the West had no sense of ‘honor’ is to willfully disreguard things like, for example, ritualized dueling, which was pretty pervasive in the West until quite late in the day (even here in the US in the early days there was a sense of gentlemens ‘honor’ which caused grown men to hack each other to death or shoot each other down…think Hamilton/Burr).

As Lemur866 pointed out there are plenty of tails from the Roman period, or even the Greek period…they just aren’t as spectacular as disembowling yourself and having your head hacked off (like taking hemlock, no?). In addition, also as Lemur866 pointed out, a lot of the stories from the east were romanticised…i.e. it didn’t really happen that way (think of the wild west in the US…same thing). Finally, it can be pointed out that in the East their medeval period lasted quite a bit longer than it did here in the West, so while we have (mostly) moved on from earlier concepts of ‘honor’, the East still has more residual effects and baggage laying about than we do.

I saw Hero btw, and I agree…it was pretty good. However, there were wheels within wheels there, and there was some very subtle (and some not so subtle) messages implanted into the story by the Chinese, much of them having to do with Chinese Nationalism…some having to do with lingering Communist concepts. Just like with a movie like Brave Heart or Troy, you should take Hero with a very large grain of salt. Its talking to romanticized IDEALS…no reality.


Cato the Younger committed suicide to avoid surrendering to Julius Caesar, even though he knew that Caesar would pardon him, because he considered death more noble than surrendering to tyranny. As for his son, as Plutarch puts it:

As for Julius Caesar, when his wife was suspected of assisting someone to disrupt a sacred ceremony, he divorced her, even though he was in love with her, because having a wife who was suspected of that affected his honor.

So, right there, you have three examples of people in the “West” who did prize honor, so much that they did things that harmed themslves for the sake of honor.

You may also be perceiving the difference between somewhat conflicting definitions of what constitutes honorable behavior.

This is an extremely broad generalization, but it’s useful enough as a starting point: In the West, the individual is honored over the group; in the East, the group is prized over the individual. You can see how moral codes and honorable vs dishonorable actions would differ according to the two philosophies. And what seems dishonorable according to one code may be the height of honor in the other, and vice versa.

Where do knights keep their brains then? :wink:

The Knights he’s refering too must have kept them in their pants…either in the front or more likely in the rear. Idiots…but ‘honorable’ idiots, by their standards anyway.


Honor, nowadays, is usually used as a synonym for “honesty” – “He is an honorable man” means the same thing as “He is an honest man,” a man who tells the truth and keeps his promises. But it the old sense it means “reputation” or “esteem” – and specifically, the esteem due a brave warrior. That concept is what Falstaff was deriding in Henry IV, Party I: “Can honour set a leg? No: Or an arm? No: Or take away the grief of a wound? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will [it] not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon – and so ends my catechism.”

Are you sure about that? After all, one of the most popular Eastern religions is Buddhism – which is a much more individual-centered religion than, say, Judaism or Islam, or even Christianity.

Oy. Good question. How did I ever form that sentence? Let’s just say that rather than fight a strategic battle that minimized casualties all around, the knights subscribed to the chivalric code that required them to win honor in direct combat.

Anyway, Crecy and Agincourt were remarkably similar. The English expeditionary forces were worn out and heading for home when they encountered superior French forces. Armies of that time had little if any concept of supply lines, so the English forces were forced to rely on whatever they could pillage in order to survive. They could easily have been starved into submission. But that didn’t present enough glory for the nobles that formed the majority of the French forces. Furthermore, the knights all wanted glory so rather than use their infantry effectively, they charged * en masse * over bad ground and got massacred by archers.

So this was a classic example of a case where an honor-based system of combat collapsed when faced with a new technology, in this case, massed archers. Of course, it took about 500 years before anyone actually learned the lesson.

What type of sacred ceremony was she disrupting and how? All I can think of is “Elaaaaaaaane!!!”

There was this Roman fertility goddess that was only worshiped by women, and there was an annual ceremony that men weren’t allowed to participate in or witness. Anyway, one year when Caesar’s wife was hosting the ceremony, a man named Clodius Pulcher disguised himself as a woman and snuck in. He was discovered, it caused a major scandal, and rumors were that Caesar’s wife had let him into the ceremony because they were having an affair.

He was put on trial for sacrilege and prosecuted by Cicero, but he bribed the jury and got off.

It was the feast of Bona Dea, the Good Goddess (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bona_Dea). The Clodius incident was doubly embarassing for Caesar because, at the time, he was the Pontifex Maximus (Rome’s elected-for-life chief priest), and his wife Poppaea hosted the feast of Bona Dea at his official residence, the Domus Publicus – which also included the conventual House of the Vestals. So Clodius created a scandal at the very heart of Rome’s state religion.

Pompeia…Poppaea was the wife of the Emperor Nero.

You’re right, my bad.

I don’t accept the premise of the OP.
Honor is open to interpretation. Especially when attempting to compare this idea across cultures. One can claim to be honorable by citing their heritage and ancestral traditions such as “hari-kari”. Meanwhile performing assassinations, torture, genocide and murder in the shadows. Is it honorable to expect total devotion to one’s family while practicing female infanticide, and utter oppression and humilation towards women. Is it honorable to sell one’s own daughter to a marriage she may not desire. What about the enslavement of your own people and others.
There are some who would argue that many tribes of Native Americans were some of the most honorable people that ever lived. Also, there’s been many a Scotsman that died “honorably” IIRC honor was a big deal w/ the highland clans.

To this I simply respond…“semper fi”

I’m not a historian but I’ve always thought that generally this idea of honor evolved because you had to be able to depend on a man’s word, esp when there was no written language, and it meant life or death. A man, because he was big and stong, had to control his family, including the women. And not controlling them meant he was weak. He couldn’t allow others to say bad things about him for the same reason, because then he became prey to others. Also, women were good bargaining chips so they had to be obedient so as to keep the deal sealed. e.g. she couldn’t run away from a marriage she didn’t like. And for some reason men have always valued virginity so it had to be protected at all costs or the good little bargaining chip lost it’s value. Men always want to be the “first”. Over thousands of years it became corrupted until you see it in the “he dissed me!” culture on the streets. But, it’s still for the same reason. Be respected or be prey. Since a lot of the Arab cultures lived in the desert until modern times they still had this “survival” culture. When they came in from the cold they took it with them, even though intelligence should have prevailed; my theory is that the men liked having the power and it was in their interest to keep their women virgins to be sold on the market to the highest bidder. So they used the now perverted idea of “honor” to maintain that way of life.

I believe semper fideles means "always faithful" – which is not quite the same thing as "honorable."

Eternal Father, grant , we pray,
To all Marines, both night and day,
The courage, honor, strength and skill
Their land to serve, Thy law fulfill;
Be Thou the Shield forevermore
From ev’ry peril to the Corps.