Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Kowtow, from the Chinese term Kòu tóu (Traditional Chinese: 叩頭; Simplified Chinese: 叩头, Cantonese: Kau tàuh), is the act of deep respect shown by kneeling and bowing so low as to touch the head to the ground. While the phrase Kē tóu (磕頭) is often used in lieu of the former in modern Chinese, the meaning is somewhat altered: kòu originally meant "knock with reverence", whereas has the general meaning of "touch upon (a surface)".
In Imperial Chinese protocol, the kowtow was performed before the Emperor of China. Despite common conceptions, an Imperial Courtier only has to kowtow to the Emperor once, not nine times as often described. Current Chinese etiquette does not contain any situations in which the kowtow is regularly performed in front of a living human being, although it may occur in rare and extreme cases where one is begging for forgiveness or offering an extreme apology, or showing respect in traditional funerals. Traditional Chinese martial arts schools employ the ritual in their discipleship ceremonies.
The kowtow is often performed in groups of three before Buddhist statues and images or tombs of the dead. For example, in certain ceremonies, a person would perform a sequence of three sets of three kowtows - stand up and kneel down again between each set - as an extreme gesture of respect; hence the term three kneelings and nine head knockings (三跪九叩). Also, some Buddhist pilgrims would kowtow once for every three steps made during their long journeys.
Kowtow came into English in the early 19th century to describe the bow itself, but its meaning soon shifted to describe any abject submission or grovelling. Many Westerners who first encountered the practice believed it was a sign of worship, but kowtowing does not necessarily have religious overtones in traditional Chinese culture.
Kowtow was very important in the diplomacy of China with European powers, since it was required to come into the presence of the Emperor of China, but it meant submission before him. Dutch traders, such as A. E. van Braam Houckgeest had no problem with kowtowing since they represented only themselves, but the British embassies of George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney (1793) and William Pitt Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst (1816) were foiled since kowtowing would mean acknowledging their King as a subject of the Emperor.

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