Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Revival of Kowtow

In ancient China, the ultimate respect to one's superior is demonstrated by the protocol of Kowtow (磕头), whereupon one kneels down in front of the superior so that his feet, knees, and hands are all on the ground. He then touches his forehead to the ground multiple times. In extreme cases, how loud one can make the noise by smashing his forehead to the ground is a measurement of his respect, leading to many injuries. The practice was rigorously carried out by generations when men meet the emperors, parents/grandparents, and teachers.

Thankfully, this notorious protocol, along with many others, were abolished during the 1911 revolution and the subsequent modernization of China.

But things are changing these days and not all is for the better. Last Fall, hundreds of students practicing the "Crazy English" staged a public kowtow demonstration to thank their teacher.

Even more bizarre, though, is a display last week on the official television station, CCTV, in which a university professor performed a genuine kowtow to express his appreciation of his old teacher:

The one who did the kowtow is Qian WenZhong (钱文忠), a forty-one year old Professor of History at Fudan University. Qian is supposed to be the last student of Ji Xianlin (季羡林), the receiver of the kowtow. Professor Ji is close to 100 years old. He had spent his career, most of which in Peking University, studying ancient languages such as Sanskrit, as well as the religious and history aspects associated with the language.

In more recent years, Ji somehow gained the public title of a Master of Chinese Scholarship (国学大师) and became the figurehead of everything traditional Chinese. It's one thing to pay due respect to such a senior scholar. But do we need to go so far as to kowtow?

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