To Kow-tow (kou-tou' or kou'tou) was to salute by prostration, which in China was the ordinary act of obeisance. The classes from whom etiquette exacted most were naturally the official classes, and the manner in which Chinese officials must deport themselves towards each other, in what were termed visits of ceremony, was regulated, according to rank, with the utmost nicety. The kowtow (meaning literally to bow the head) was used as a form of thanks, and was not a manner of greeting. To make the kowtow, the person kneels some number of times, and each time bows his head as many as three times, touching the ground with it. The number of times the person kneels, and the number of times the head is bowed, depended on the relative rank of the individual to whom the kow-tow is rendered.
Confucianism teaches that the need for submission to elders and those of superior position in the group is a prerequisite of society. The roles of subordination from children to parents to ruler, are defined to ensure filial piety, reverence to ancestors, and fidelity to friends. The philosophy of the Confucian school is that the ruling principle of heaven and earth is virtue. "Order is Heaven's only law." It is relationship to others in an orderly series which gives value to the individual. Order forms the kosmos; without it there is chaos and evil. A man exists only for society; position is more important than personality. In the state the emperor is the pivot; in the family, the father. But even the emperor rules by virtue; if this be wanting, he is only a usurper, and rebellion against him is justified.
The administrative structure of the imperial Chinese state continued to evolve during the dynastic period. Based on conservative Confucianism, it emphasized the hierarchy of political and social spheres -- the "correct" formulations in all relationships and the accepted Confucian ideal that all power flowed from superior to subordinate. The doctrine most prominent in the system of Confucius is that of filial piety. In the family he found the prototype of the state; and to this day the Chinese government is only to be understood through the relation which exists between a father and his son. In recognition of the sanctity of fatherhood, the child reverences the parent; the parent the magistrate; and the magistrate the emperor. The four relations which were continually discussed by the philosophers erre: First, the relation between the king and his ministers; second, between the father and his sons; third, between the elder brother and the younger brothers; fourth, between the individual and his fellows, but the fourth relation received the least consideration.
In the midst of conflicting views and systems, the Chinese were unanimous in the reverence with which they continue to regard Confucius; and, as their religion was rather a body of ceremonies than a system of doctrine. No nation ever gave more emphasis to ceremony than did China. Confucius placed propriety among the cardinal virtues, and the doctrine had been elaborated until the whole life was fettered by formality. Each rising generation was drilled in the performance of certain rites required by approved etiquette, and it would be humiliating for one to have to confess that he did not know the proper thing to do and the proper way to do it. Even sincerity was considered much less important, and both Confucius and Mencius set demoralizing examples in placing the latter above the former.
Among the many different branches of the government organization, there was a ceremonial court whose duty it is to regulate forms to be observed and in marshaling visitors according to their proper ranks, and directing them when to make the kowtow. The kowtow was a formal bowing or kneeling and had many variations or degrees according to the rank before whom made; before the Emperor a kowtow consisted in kneeling three times and knocking the head on the floor nine times. The refusal to comply with this formality on the part of foreign officials, had at times led to international friction. Foreigners were not unwilling to make their rounds in a sedan-chair, but they did not take to the requirements of kneeling and whacking their heads on the floor.
In the schools the students kowtowed before a Confucian tablet twice each month. The usual Confucian rites consisted of a series of kowtows. At a given signal the students kneel on the mats and bow three times toward the tablet, their heads each time touching the floor; they then rise and after a short interval kneel again at a signal and bow three times more. This ceremony was again repeated, making nine bows in all. Then they kneeled and bowed three times to the professors; after saluting the professors each student bowed once to the student next to him and the meeting adjourned.
Every large monastery was presided over by an abbot, who held office during a period of three years. A day was set apart for the consecration of the abbot elect. During the ceremony the abbot performed the kow-tow in front of the three Buddhas, amidst a salvo of fire-crackers, and the discordant notes of drums and cymbals. Upon rising to his feet, he advanced towards the throne, and after various genuflections ascended the high dais upon which it stood. At this moment a priest advanced from the crowd who were standing around in solemn silence, and performed the kow-tow in front of the throne. When this act of homage had been fully rendered, the abbot took his seat. At this part of the ceremony the abbot was invested with the rod of office and crosier, which were placed on either side of the throne in stands ready to receive them. He then vacated the throne, and as he paused at the foot, the monks in attendance all performed the kow-tow in his presence.
The kow-tow was seen extensively in the ceremonies connected with marriage in China. The father of the youth writes a letter to the father of the young lady, stating that he has a desire to receive her as a wife for his son. This letter is delivered by "the friend of the bridegroom" on a lucky day selected for the purpose. The writer of the letter, before placing it in the hand of the friend of the bridegroom, stands in front of his ancestral altar, and, looking towards the west, kneels down and performs the kow-tow, taking care to knock his head six times upon the ground. When the cakes have been arranged on the ancestral altar, the host kneels before the tablets and twice performs the kow-tow, upon which the friend of the bridegroom is conducted to the visitors' hall and invited to take tea. The host, who remains behind, removes the letter from the box in which it is contained, reads it aloud in presence of the tablets, kneels before them, performs the kow-tow thrice, and proceeds to write his reply.
A military officer of the second rank, calling upon a civil officer of the first rank, such as a governor-general, must wear armor. He is also required to alight from his chair or horse at the first or street gate of the Yamun, and to walk to the second or inner gate, the east door of which is thrown open for him. Upon entering the visitors' hall he kneels, looking towards the north, and performs the kow-tow, knocking his head three times upon the ground. Officers of the fourth, fifth and sixth ranks, calling upon an officer of the first rank, also wear armour. The visitor finds the host seated, in the visitors' hall, kneels at his feet and performs the kow-tow, knocking his head three times upon the ground. Still kneeling and looking toward the north, he reads aloud to his host, who remains seated, a document with his names and titles and the name of his superior officer, together with that of the station where he has been appointed to serve. On the host inviting him to rise from his knees and be seated, it is his duty not to take a chair, but to sit or squat on the east side of the hall with his face towards the west. At the close of the conversation he again kneels and performs the kow-tow, before leaving.
Every successful bachelor of arts repaired, within a few days after his degree has been conferred, to a Confucian temple, to pay his respects to the Kow-Koon or government professors. This first visit is especially regarded as of a ceremonial character. On an ordinary visit, the lecturers, when a visiting card has been presented, order their servant to invite the graduate to enter, and receive him at the door of the visitors' hall. In the centre of the hall he kneels and performs the kow-tow, knocking his head twice upon the ground. Similar ceremonies are generally observed by people outside official or professional circles, on paying and receiving visits. A visitor is received at the entrance door of the house by the host, and escorted to the visitors' hall. On the way to the hall much politeness is exchanged, the host bowing at almost every step, and requesting his visitor to take precedence. Upon entering the visitors' hall, each kneels down, and knocks his head twice upon the ground.
Kow-tow was the mode of saluting the emperor of China by prostrating one's self before him on all fours, and touching the ground with the forehead nine times. An emperor, according to Chinese rules, was entitled to the "kow-tow." That is, an ambassador to his court must kneel at the imperial feet and touch the floor with his forehead. When an official was permitted to approach the imperial presence with the view of conferring with his majesty, or of performing the kow-tow, etiquette prescribes that he shall wear the sleeves of the tunic stretched over his hands. This rendered him more or less helpless. The custom is of ancient origin, and was adopted to preclude the possibility of any attempt on the life of the emperor by those whose duties call them occasionally into his presence. A custom precisely similar prevailed, it would appear, in the court of Persia. The court dress of Persia had sleeves so long, that when unfolded they covered the hand; and the ceremonial required of "those who approached the royal presence to enwrap the hands so as to render them helpless.
No Chinese pretended to regard any single outside Power as anything else but an intolerable nuisance, or as possessing any approximate claim to intellectual equality with China. The classical instance of her assumption of superiority was the long struggle over the kow-tow. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries both the Jesuit Fathers who were in the service of the Emperor and the envoys of European Courts or Companies, who came to Pekin for complimentary purposes or to secure facilities for trade, performed the kowtow without apparent compunction.
The chief foreign question in China during the hundred years since the late 18th Century had been the claim of the Celestial that all representatives of foreign Powers should perform the kow-tow on being presented to the Emperor; in other words, should kneel thrice and knock the forehead on the ground nine times. No Englishman had ever done this; Lord Macartney dropped on one knee in 1793, but he never kow-towed. In 1873 five foreign Representatives were received by the Emperor standing. There was much dissatisfaction among many Englishmen that they should have been received in the hall usually reserved for tributaries.
In 1909 William II demanded that Prince Chun perform the kow-tow. His Majesty pointed out that this form of homage had been accorded to Napoleon III as Emperor of the French, and to Louis XIV when the sun king was in his glory at Versailles. But Prince Chun refused to yield the point. The assertion in the Berlin Kreuz Zeitung that the Manchu actually kow-towed in the end is flatly contradicted by the Figaro, which says that while the German Emperor waited and waited for Prince Chun to kneel and knock the floor with his head, that scion of the Manchu dynasty bowed and smiled with such "heavenly distinction of manner" as to make the gold sticks at Potsdam ashamed of their desire to humiliate him.
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