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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the origin of the term "kowtow"?
The term "kowtow" originates from the Chinese word "kòu tóu," which translates to "knocking (kòu) one's head (tóu)." It was a traditional gesture of deep respect and submission in Chinese culture, particularly within the context of rituals and ceremonies. The act involved kneeling and touching one's forehead to the ground, demonstrating reverence towards a superior or in the presence of the Emperor.
How was kowtowing traditionally practiced in China?
Traditionally in China, kowtowing was a significant part of court etiquette and was practiced during formal ceremonies, such as paying homage to the Emperor, ancestors, or deities. The ritual could involve three kneelings and nine head knockings to show the utmost respect. It was also used to express deep apology or to beg for mercy. This practice was a physical manifestation of the Confucian value of hierarchy and respect within society.
Is kowtowing still practiced today?
While the traditional form of kowtowing is no longer widely practiced in modern China, especially in its most extreme forms, remnants of the gesture can still be seen in certain cultural and religious contexts. For instance, during the Chinese New Year or at traditional weddings, some individuals may perform a simplified version of the kowtow to honor their ancestors or express deep respect to elders.
What is the significance of kowtowing in diplomatic history?
Kowtowing played a significant role in diplomatic history, particularly in the interactions between China and other nations. Foreign envoys were often expected to kowtow before the Chinese Emperor as a sign of respect and acknowledgment of China's cultural superiority. This practice sometimes led to diplomatic tensions, as many foreign representatives refused to perform the kowtow, seeing it as a submission to the Emperor's authority over their own sovereign leaders.
Can the concept of kowtowing be found in other cultures?
While the specific practice of kowtowing is uniquely Chinese, similar gestures of deep respect and submission can be found in other cultures. For example, prostration, where individuals lie flat on the ground face down, is a gesture of reverence in various religions, including Islam and Christianity. Bowing is also a common form of showing respect in many Asian cultures, such as Japan and Korea, although it is typically less extreme than kowtowing.