Looking up their definitions:

客气 (kè qi) = polite
(kè) = customer; visitor; guest
(qì) = gas; air; smell; weather; vital breath; to anger; to get angry; to be enraged

There seems to be no logic behind combining 客 and 气 to give 客气.

Question: How does 客 and 气 combine to give 客气?

  • 1
    origin explained: baike.baidu.com/item/%E5%AE%A2%E6%B0%94/33666
    – user6065
    Oct 10 '17 at 1:30
  • 气 :"现代汉语词典"(8)人的作风习气:官~|骄傲~|孩子~。bkrs:(作风; 习气) airs; manner; style: 官气 bureaucratic airs 孩子气 childishness 书生气十足 bookish in the extreme
    – user6065
    Oct 10 '17 at 6:36
  • 客气: in guest-style. 别客气: do not act in manner of a guest here, do anything like that you do home.
    – xenophōn
    Oct 11 '17 at 2:44

"客气" can be traced back to a story in The Spring and Autumn period(I did search this term....what an awkward name). This term was to describe actions that not from the heart, just for being polite. Now it becomes a neutral term - "you're welcome".

source: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4aa115950100f0tz.html


I think the logic is like 口气,语气.

口气 is tone in English. 气 is air. 口气 is air from your mouth. Figuratively, it becomes your tone with which you speak.

So, my thought for 客气 would be you speak in a guest's tone, which implies you are being polite.


'polite' comes from the Latin politus "refined, elegant, accomplished," literally "polished," past participle of polire (polish, not Polish), but that doesn't mean someone who is polite is shiny!

Maybe it originated from 'in the spirit or air of a guest', the assumption being, a guest is very well behaved. (Back then the Chinese never had English guests perhaps, or they might not have used this metaphor)


气: (19) 指精神状态,情绪 [morale;spirit] or

气: (25) 中医学术语。指脉气和营卫 [energy of life;vital energy]

  • (19) is correct, (25) is not related.
    – tsh
    Oct 30 '17 at 8:18

气 Has many uses, just as "air" does in English:

  • an air of insouciance

  • give someone the air

  • the radio station is on the air

  • putting on airs

  • take a sweater or jacket out for an airing

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