China Maintains Ancient Practice of Kowtowing, Even in Modern Times

Why just say "thank you" when a kowtow says so much more?

China said a firm goodbye to its feudal traditions when it abolished the Qing Dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century, followed by further (sometimes violent) cultural and societal reforms. Gone are the feudal practices of foot binding, polygamous marriages, and denying women an education.

But then there are some things that don’t seem to change, like the feudal tradition of kowtowing, the act of kneeling down and touching your forehead to the ground to show your subservience and loyalty to your superiors. And as three recent incidents show us, kowtowing is still a relevant and integral part of modern China as a way of expressing one’s most sincere feelings.

One of these expressions is gratitude, and that’s what employees of an unidentified hotpot restaurant were conveying when they were photographed kowtowing in a public square in Shenyang this week, reportedly chanting “Thank you for giving me this job.

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Not many details have been released about the incident, but many netizens are still outraged that employees could be forced to perform such a humiliating act. One person wrote, “The service industry of our country has treated its workers as slaves for too long now,” while another simply said, “Slave culture.”

Whatever the circumstances, the Shenyang kowtowing takes place in the most strictest of circumstances, seen during a ceremony involving flags, banners, and standing formations, all while being filmed, giving it an air of legitimacy.

But its not the kowtow itself that infuriates the public, but rather the context under which it is performed. In another kowtow incident on September 5, an elderly woman about 60 years old fainted while riding the bus in Jinan, Shandong. However, the woman had the fortune of being in a bus full of passengers that caught her before she fell to the ground, and offered her assistance.

After an ambulance arrived, a person traveling with the fainting victim was so moved by the acts of the good Samaritans on board that she got down on her knees and tapped her head to the ground twice (video here).

Contrary to the Shenyang incident, the online reaction to this kowtowing is much more positive. Instead of likening it to “slavery” and to abolished Chinese customs, two Public Security agencies instead forwarded this post on the Weibo micro-blogging service, calling it “touching”.

And while not strictly a kowtow, there are other acts currently performed in China that seem like a page from feudal times.

Kneeling with both knees on the ground is an expression of humility in China that is performed when begging for forgiveness. That’s what happened recently at a karaoke bar in Jiangxi. After a waiter serving drinks accidentally knocked over a toddler that was on the premises at the time, the waiter was confronted by the 20-plus men in the room he was serving (video here).

Surrounded with no way out, the waiter got down on both knees as a demonstration of how sorry he was for knocking over the baby in a karaoke bar. However, this extreme display of humility was not enough, and the waiter was assaulted by the gang of men. When the guests in the neighboring room tried to intervene, they too were assaulted. So far, three suspects have been arrested by police.

In other instances, kneeling is commonly seen in China as a demonstration of love to a prospective suitor, or to make up concessions to a jilted lover. As well, kneeling is an impromptu punishment for criminals caught in the act by throngs of people serving up a dish of public justice.

Or, it could be straight up begging when there is no other rational avenue left to take. One of the most iconic images of last year’s Yulin Dog Meat Festival showed animal activist Yang Xiaoyun kneeling in front of a dog peddler, begging him to spare the dog’s life.

As we can see, much like the Chinese public’s insatiable appetite for historical dramas involving kings, princesses and all things feudal, the ancient practices of kowtowing and kneeling are not going anywhere soon in China.

Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor