Take off your shoes, you are entering Asian “floor culture".

The Asian connection to the floor is well known. Despite the linguistic, cultural and geographic diversity of Asian continent, the “floor culture” is common ground. Before you enter any traditional Asian home, you are politely asked to take your shoes off. It is not just about maintaining hygiene, but more a mark of respect, since most Asian families eat, sleep, entertain guests, and even depart their loved ones with death rituals performed on the floor. South Korean families use the floor for sitting, eating, hanging out, watching TV, playing and sleeping, and have also adopted heated floors called ondol.

Even though chairs came relatively early to China (with folding stools brought in by nomadic tribes who used it to mount horses, and raised platform chairs came with emergence of Buddhism), China most definitely had a floor culture. Ancient Chinese used to kneel or sit cross-legged on woven mats surrounded by low tables. The Japanese, infact, learned making woven-mats from the Chinese, and adapted them into the more sophisticated tatami culture. Japanese kanji character which means floor or 床 (Toko/Yuka) could also mean bed, is an example of how intrinsic floors are to their lifestyle.

Traditional Japanese homes still have at least one washitsu (Japanese-style room), where the floor is covered with thick straw tatami mats, and there’s no furniture except a low table or cushions. For the Japanese, how you sit says more than what you speak, and so there’s a whole etiquette to sitting down called seiza (正座). Seiza is an integral part of Japanese martial arts, tea ceremonies, shodō (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), as well as traditional performing arts, such as kabuki and sumo. Besides being space saving, floor seating also kept women in shape, and promoted a healthy birth canal, as they bent over to serve meals to their husbands. India celebrates the floor culture by its yogic traditions of practicing postures on floor mats, kneeling in temples, performing wedding ceremonies, as well as death rituals on the floor.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor and eating in still very common. Scientifically speaking, this facilitates blood flow to the abdomen and promotes digestion. Statues of Buddha and Hindu deities sitting in lotus position, Tibetan monks meditating on the floor, and Muslims kneeling on the floor five times a day exhibit how integral the floor is to Asian traditions.

While Asian American communities have embraced the western use of chairs, box spring mattresses and high tables, they still maintain a special relationship to the floor in one form or another. Our next blog in this series would share voices of Asian Americans, as well as interior designers and architects on how they integrate (or need to integrate) these ancient traditions in modern lifestyles. Stay tuned!