Kim Jong-Il orz

symbols that look more like q and z

Amidst the grim images and doleful wails of the North Korean nation mourning the death of its leader Kim Jong-Ill we see grief-stricken citizens enacting the customary orz posture and gestures (YouTube).

symbols that look more like q and z“Orz,” with variants, is of course an emoticon popular in Japan, South Korea, China and elsewhere used to indicate humility, dispair, sorrow, submission, shame, and regret. When spoken, the text sequence is generally pronounced “oh ar zee,” and represents a human body on all fours in profile. If further explanation is needed: the “o” is a head, the “r” is the arms, and the “z” is the folded legs.

This is a customary submissive posture parodied in Orientalist theatre. Stage directions in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado require Koko and Pitti-Sing to drop to their faces before the Mikado, followed by some slapstick as the dignified and bulky Pooh-Bah tries to do the same.

The contexts in which it is deployed may be different, but orz is a posture that creates unease wherever it occurs. I recall being at a meeting where the somewhat important chairperson crawled on all fours under a table to retrieve some papers. Others were uncomfortable and darted to assist. Perhaps the orz posture suggests a return to the state of an animal “obliged to walk with faces to the ground” (Vitruvius, p.38). It is however a posture that can assume dignity, as when Pope John Paul II would kiss the tarmac on disembarking at an airport.

A couple of questions arise from the spectacle of North Korea in mourning.

  1. What is the relationship between feeling and action? There is the charge that the grief is not real, but play acting, a demonstration created under duress. How does this square with the philosopher William James‘ insight that actions and feelings cannot be so easily separated? A person doesn’t get on hands and knees, wail, bend to-and-fro and beat the ground BECAUSE they feel sorrowful. We could just as easily assert that people feel sorrowful BECAUSE they so assume this posture and beat the ground; or perhaps without the gesture the reception of the event (the mourning) would be “pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth,” to quote James. The question of sincerity lingers, but it is a question we would probably not be asking were it not for the extreme grief displays captured on camera.
  2. Do groups, crowds and nations feel something independently of what an individual feels? Is there such a thing as a collective emotion? Here we can appeal to the idea of a mood or atmosphere that provides the context for personal feelings. This atmosphere is perhaps the Stimmung, or social attunement, a prerequisite for whatever emotion we claim. The concept of a corporate mood looks perilously close to Mao Tsetung-style collectivism (“the individual is subordinate to the organization”). But the idea that the mood of a people might be manipulated highlights further its importance as a pre-requisite for feeling.

After all, ’tis the season to be jolly. The season of joy requires, or imposes, a collective mood. Festivals invite participation or resistance. Without the season there’d be little to claim by way of an emotion, unless I’m humbly mistaken … orz.


  • James, W. 1950. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover.
  • Tsetung, Mao. 1976. Quotations from Mao Tsetung. Peking, China: Foreign Languages Press.
  • Vitruvius, Pollio. 1960. Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture. Trans. M. H. Morgan. New York: Dover Publications. Written c 50 AD.

Thanks to  Shihmei Lee for introducing me to the cultural significance of orz.


  1. Lu Yu says:

    Adding to the meaning of “orz”, the gesture “orz” used to be one of the most important etiquette in all ancient asian cultures. Apart from despair and sorrow it can also mean great respect. In history people will assume the “orz” posture without hesitation infront of emperors, government officials, as well as their parents or other respected elders. It’s almost like a type of very formal greeting. One of the explanation for the emergence of this gesture is that there were no chairs in ancient Asian cultures. People lived on the floor (tatami). So, it was easy to perform this gesture to show respect. However, as the use of chairs become more and more prominent, we see a decrease in the “orz” gesture in daily lives. The actual “orz” emoticon is something that’s often used in a humorous context by modern asian youth on the Internet.

    In exceptional situations though, a person might still physically perform the “orz” gesture. It can be argued that if someone assumes the “orz” gesture in the present time & in real life, they would perceive whatever they are doing the gesture for to be extra serious. As this etiquette practice is no longer a common practice, one would only do it under special circumstances that are deemed worthy. So the perceived value of “orz” have definitely changed in asian culture as time passed. Strangely it have become both less serious and more serious at the same time.

  2. Very helpful, thanks Lu Yu. The tatami reference is interesting. That gives the gesture a particularly spatial significance. … There was some more interesting gesturing at the funeral of Kim Jong-Il this weekend.

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