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Kowtowing to China: How low should you bow?

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

China’s emperors expected all subjects to submit to their power. Visitors had to kowtow three times and touch the ground three times each with their forehead 頭 (tou) 磕 (ke). The ritual of nine forehead touches (三拜九叩) ended after the abolition of the emperorship in 1911, but to this day, China’s leadership still requires people to swear absolute loyalty to it with verbal kowtowing.

The kowtow. Cartoon by German-born illustrator Kurt Wiese, who lived in China in the 1920s and illustrated an essay by Lin Yutang on kowtowing.

Beijing also subdues foreigners with economic pressure. Especially if they allegedly hurt Chinese interests with their trade or their words. Powerful Western politicians and business leaders have allowed themselves to be paraded in this way. Walt Disney’s President Michael Eisner humiliated himself in 2008, as did Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche ten years later. They secretly performed verbal prostrations at the feet of China’s rulers. This became public after Beijing’s leaders bragged about it.

Kowtow is one of the Chinese terms that found their way into the West. That was also the case with Mao’s mocking word invention paper tiger (纸老虎), which we use today as a synonym when something seems more fearsome than it is.

Kowtow refers to submissive behavior with a request for forgiveness. An open question is how low a foreigner should bow when kowtowing to power in China. The case of Lord Macartney, once the emissary of the English king, George III, gave rise to a debate that continues to this day. This was because the Earl refused to kowtow to Emperor Qianlong at his audience on September 14, 1793. Yet he actually wanted to do everything he could to sign a trade and friendship treaty with the imperial court on behalf of the crown, open an embassy in Beijing, and to expand trade by opening Chinese ports.

Like the expression kowtow, the term “paper tiger” entered Western languages, for example, Germany. China’s idea of a paper tiger. Illustration from 1958: “Why is US-Imperialism a Paper-Tiger?” from the propaganda newspaper Beijing Review No.41/1958.

The emperor granted him an audience. But Macartney only bent the knee to him. When he was allowed to visit the emperor again on October 3 to hear his answer to his request to open China, a scandal ensued. In a long imperial edict, one sentence sealed his failure: “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”

Macartney’s rejection has often been seen as a “clash of civilizations,” a deliberate break between East and West. In a recent book, Oxford professor Henrietta Harrison tells a different narrative, tracing the lives and work of the mission’s two interpreters, Li Zibiao and George Thomas Staunton For “The Perils of Interpreting,” the sinologist spent ten years researching Macartney’s failed mission. This has fascinated generations of historians because parts of it remain a mystery. Macartney could not have understood why China’s officials, “acted the way they did”. And they, in turn, did not understand him. What really happened at the kowtow is also unclear. Harrison casts doubt on the written records, both of the British and in the imperial archives. She speaks of manipulations of cultural understanding and problems with translating.

The genuflection Macartney 1793 before Emperor Qianlong – contemporary mockery drawing. The cover of the book (Princeton 2021) with new insights into the Macartney mission by Henrietta Harrison “The Perils of Interpreting”.

The first to refuse to kowtow is said to have been the Russian envoy Feodor Isakovitch Bankov in 1656, who as a result was not received in Beijing. 140 years later, Macartney and China’s emperor had long been ready to compromise. Qianlong no longer insisted on ninefold kowtowing. A simple kowtow would have been enough for him. Macartney offered a genuflection, as was also customary in the British royal court. The mission failed because of a lack of cultural understanding. It was not until 1816 that London made another attempt with Lord Amherst (1733-1858). Amherst, however, refused any kowtowing from the start. The audience with the successor emperor Jia Qing did not happen.

The West resorted to force to open China’s markets. The German sinologist and missionary Richard Wilhelm, one of the foremost experts on Chinese customs, described the European-Chinese dispute over kowtowing as a “sad chapter of mutual misunderstanding of fundamentally different points of view”. The “ignorance of Chinese customs led to a far-reaching humiliation of the English envoy Macartney”. He refused to kowtow, “the normal homage in Chinese eyes, to the Chinese emperor, but he did at least yield so far as to bend one knee.” But in doing so, Wilhelm wrote in 1905 in his essay “Chinese Manners,” Macartney only made another gaffe. Because this custom was first introduced under the Mongol Yuan dynasty and “was considered barbaric and was usually excluded from the imperial court”.

The British learned another extreme behavior from the fiasco. When Xi Jinping came to London on a state visit some 220 years later in October 2015, he was given a majestic reception. The CP leader was allowed to ride in a golden royal carriage together with Queen Elizabeth. He was not asked any sensitive political questions. At the end of the visit, a new “golden age” in trade relations was even proclaimed. But the new euphoria did not last long.

China expert Ian Buruma sneered at the venal West, which is willing to kowtow to China in any way, “The temptation to kowtow to the Soviet Union has never been so strong, because there was no money to be made there. China tempts us with its riches as long as we praise its emperors.”

Because China’s market was at stake, Beijing’s leadership had all the leverage in its hands. It even forced the influential Walt Disney Group to renounce itself. Its submission was triggered by the new film “Kundun,” which Disney produced in 1997 about the life of the current Dalai Lama, who is deeply hated by Beijing. When Kundun hit theaters, China’s Ministry of Foreign Trade blackmailed the corporation, saying, “We’re rethinking our entire business.” Disney initially restricted the film’s theatrical release. In October 1998, the corporation’s media chief, Michael Eissner, blasted off to Beijing for damage control. He had hired Henry Kissinger as an advisor, who arranged confidential behind-the-scenes talks with China’s Premier Zhu Rongji.

Zhu received Eissner on October 26, 1998, at the Hall of Purple Light in Zhongnanhai where foreign envoys once kowtowed to the imperial court, which Beijing’s leaders chose as their party headquarters in 1949. Eissner practiced verbal kowtowing: “We made a stupid mistake in releasing Kundun. The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it. Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.” Generous as he was, Zhu praised Eissner’s courage in “correcting a mistake. That shows your entrepreneurial vision.”

Zhu personally published the transcript of his conversation with Eissner on seven pages. It is part of his “Zhu Rongji Speech Record” published in 2011. If Eissner’s confession of remorse had become public in 1988, he would probably have been forced to resign.

Ten years later, in 2018, it was Daimler’s leadership’s turn to walk the Road to Canossa. The spark was a non-political slogan on Mercedes Benz’s Instagram channel, which featured a promotional photo for a sedan. Under the hashtag “Monday Motivation,” it read, “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” Beijing patriots looked at the author’s name: “The Dalai Lama”.

This led to a huge backlash online, and they did not let go of Daimler, even when the company deleted the photo. Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche and his China representative Hubertus Troska then rushed to write an apology to the Chinese ambassador Shi Mingde in Berlin. State media such as Xinhua and Global Times gleefully quoted that Daimler “completely and without any reservation realizes the seriousness of this incident and deeply regrets this negligent mistake that has caused pain for the Chinese people”. They had no intention “to subvert or destroy China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, Zetsche had to confirm the contents of his letter to German media.

The ‘feelings of the Chinese people’ are easily hurt

Zetsche wasn’t the only one to bend over backward like this. Time and again, China’s bloggers turn hyper-patriotic and Western companies and brands have to apologize for allegedly “insulting the feelings of the Chinese people”. The Financial Times advised affected companies to “act quickly, blame it on an isolated human error, and enthusiastically agree with the Communist Party’s view of things”.

The answer to the question of how low one may bow when kowtowing to China’s power, however, is not only about self-respect, but also about physical constitution. Sinologist Rainer Kloubert, while researching for his upcoming book on the Forbidden City, found out how Chinese dignitaries once “physically survived the ordeal of kowtowing”. For them, there was a practical Chinese solution. A court official’s robe of office included a string of pearls that first touched the ground during the required forehead touch. This fulfilled the kowtowing requirement. The older the contemporary, the longer his chain of office was permitted to be.

The world-famous Shanghai satirist Lin Yutang also took the kowtow sportingly. In his 1930 essay “With Love and Irony,” he mocked the kowtow as a “unique Chinese cultural art” and at the same time as an “efficient gymnastic exercise. Like rowing, it strains every muscle in the body.” For Lin, kowtowing and the typical Chinese fear of losing face were two sides of the same coin that the world should worry about: “Only when every Chinese loses face will China be able to become a democratic nation.” Not only the Chinese are still waiting for this, and for the end of kowtows.


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