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What does It Mean to Kowtow?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “kowtow” refers to a specific type of bow which is used to express respect and deference, and also more generally to any sort of action which implies obeisance. The word and tradition comes from Imperial China, where people were required to bow to the Emperor or Empress of China. Today, people rarely kowtow to living individuals, although people may choose to do it in certain, very specific situations.

This word comes from the Mandarin kou tou, which means “to knock one's head,” and it entered English in the 1800s. To kowtow, someone kneels, and then bends his or her forehead to the floor. The posture is extremely submissive, leaving the back of the neck vulnerable, and it is therefore a mark of extreme respect and submission. In Imperial China, subjects were required to kowtow before approaching the emperor, and people also bowed to important officials, especially when they were asking for something.

Because China has become a more egalitarian society and there is no longer an Emperor, there are no situations in which modern Chinese (or anyone else) are required to kowtow to others. However, some people may choose to bow when asking for mercy, forgiveness, or a favor from someone else, and in some martial arts disciplines, people kowtow in certain situations.

Kowtowing is also practiced in some sects of Chinese Buddhism. In these sects, worshipers bow before approaching a statue of the Buddha, and they may also do so to Buddhist priests. Visitors to Buddhist shrines who are not Buddhist may also kowtow out of respect to Buddhist culture, if they are instructed to do so by a guide. Although bowing in this way is performed as a mark of religious veneration and respect, the act itself does not have religious overtones, contrary to some conceptions in the West.

Historically, the kowtow has had all sorts of implications. For example, representatives of foreign powers who bowed to the Emperor risked indicating that they, and their nations, were subjects of the Emperor. This became a problem for many foreign diplomats in China, as they did not want to bow, because they were official government representatives, and therefore they were not allowed in the presence of the Emperor.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon328465 — On Apr 03, 2013

Another example of 'kowtowing' is the 'zarei' which is used in Japanese culture and especially in some Japanese martial arts such as Karate and Judo. However, in Judo it is not used to show submission but instead a way to respect and equality. --Carrie-Anna

By lovealot — On Aug 13, 2011

There seem to be many forms of kowtowing in many cultures that show submission. Kowtowing itself is probably the most extreme, kissing feet,the low bow,and the head lowering with arms held straight up and lowered from upward position. The most relaxed is the use of the term "kowtowing" to express the act of using phony flattery to get what you want.

I think the reason that Americans never incorporated any signs of submission into our society was because we cherished equality and freedom for all.The only body gesture I can think of is the military salute to an officer - implying you will follow their orders and respect they have a higher status.

But, unfortunately, there was one big exception. And that was the treatment of blacks after the Civil War. Some southern whites subjected them to many acts of submissiveness - requiring them to walk out on the streets when passing on a sidewalk, cheating sharecroppers out of their livelihood, intimidating them and worse for imagined wrong-doing.

There must have been a lot of kowtowing - whites implying "do what I say" or I'll.....

By Speechie — On Aug 13, 2011

@sinbad - I politely disagree. Maybe I am thinking too lightly of the term kowtowing but I think showing some kowtowing could be seen as a sign of respecting an individual; therefore, it does not necessarily need to be seen as awkward rather respectful.

Maybe we are just talking semantics here but I still think in a place where mutual respect is had by both individuals, kowtowing could be a sign of just respect.

By Sinbad — On Aug 12, 2011

@lonelygod - Like you I had heard the expression enough to have the words ring a bell; but not enough to have gained any insight to its context or meaning.

My work politics are rather laid back so I do not see much kowtowing but I would think it would be awkward to see such occurring in the workplace since kowtowing signifies extreme deference!

By nefret — On Aug 12, 2011

@pennywell - I don't know about bowing down to parents, but it's impressive in a way how Japanese workers kowtow and show such respect to their superiors. Do they always have to do this? What happens if they don't? For example, in an office with a really terrible boss, I'm sure nobody would want to show such reverence or submission!

By pennywell — On Aug 11, 2011

@burcidi - It's not only in Hindu temples that people kowtow. In many Hindu families, at least the older and very traditional ones, it was a form of utmost respect for children (even grown-up) to kowtow to their parents. As mentioned in the article, the bow would extend so low that they kiss their parents' feet.

What do you make of that? I can't really imagine actually ever doing that to my parents even though I do love and respect them!

By yseult — On Aug 10, 2011

@wander - You have a really good attitude regarding respecting other cultures! It makes me cringe to see loud-mouthed Western tourists abroad, scantily clad, talking loudly and snapping pictures in places that are meant to be holy or sacred.

Do you think that locals in other countries would appreciate tourists kowtowing even if they don't get it completely right, or would it seem like a mockery of their traditions? In other words, is it better to just not kowtow if you're not sure about doing it right?

By burcidi — On Aug 10, 2011

@wander-- The same is true for Hindu temples as well. I've been to Hindu temples several times with my Indian friends and I have seen people kowtow to the deities there. Hindus don't do it at every temple visit though. I think it is done on special religious occasions and holidays and also if someone really wants something from a particular deity.

I think that kowtowing is a form of submission. It means that you are agreeing to the superiority of the person or thing you are kowtowing to. I think that it is found in almost every culture in some form.

For example, I'm Turkish and I know that during the Ottoman Empire, when a representative of a foreign government came to see the Sultan, he had to kneel before him and and kiss the end of his clothing. This was a form of kowtow as well.

The phrase still exists in our society today. If someone is a teacher's pet or if an employee is extremely submissive to their employer, people will say that he or she is "kissing skirts."

I think the term kowtow continues to be used in the same way here in the U.S.

By wander — On Aug 09, 2011

If you visit temples in Asia, specifically Buddhist temples in countries like Korea and Thailand, it is very common to see people kowtowing during their prayers and meditation. I was actually taught how to properly kowtow during a visit to a temple in Korea and rather enjoyed being let in on the way everyone was becoming centered.

For the Buddhists I spoke with it seemed that kowtowing was about recognizing their place in the universe and practicing humility. Furthermore it was with a deep sense of respect for their beliefs that they kowtowed.

While I am not Buddhist myself I make a point of kowtowing while I am visiting temples when I see others doing show. I like to show that I respect the culture around me.

By lonelygod — On Aug 09, 2011

Learning about the origins of kowtowing is quite fascinating. I have often heard the expression but wasn't sure where it originated from. A lot of the time when I am at work you will hear about how someone was kowtowing to the boss to get what the needed. As far as I have heard this expression it has never been used in a good way.

Last year I remember my coworker being mocked by the other people in the office for kowtowing to a visiting supervisor. The visitor didn't have anything to do with our department but she made it a point to do anything the guest supervisor wanted. We thought the amount of fawning she did was ridiculous. I guess some people will do anything to get ahead.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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