kowtow


to act obediently

TRANSLATION

to kowtow = katzbuckeln, Kotau; (in China früher im Kultus oder vor Respektspersonen übliche) in kniender Haltung ausgeführte tiefe Verbeugung, bei der der Kopf den Boden berührte

STATISTICS

IN THE PRESS

“Corporate KOWTOW to China’ lands HSBC in a deep political hole.”

Nils Pratley - Guardian Headline (10th June 2020)

Did you
know?

kowtow
verb

- to show too much respect to someone in authority, always obeying them and changing what you do in order to please them

- kneel and touch the ground with the forehead in worship or submission as part of Chinese custom

The Cambridge Dictionary / Oxford English Dictionary


WORD ORIGIN

The kowtow is a historical gesture of respect and submission that originated in China. The term “kowtow” comes from the Mandarin Chinese word kòu tóu (磕头), literally “knock the head”.

In ancient China, the kowtow was performed as a sign of reverence and submission to the emperor, as well as to other high-ranking officials and dignitaries. It involved kneeling down and touching the ground with one’s forehead, then rising back up and repeating the gesture several times while keeping one’s hands clasped in front of the body.

The kowtow was a deeply ingrained part of Chinese culture for centuries, and failure to perform it correctly or with sufficient deference was considered a grave insult. However, the practice gradually fell out of favour in the early 20th century, as China underwent political and social upheaval and sought to modernize and adopt more Western-style customs and values.

Today, the practice is rarely performed in China and is generally considered archaic and outdated. However, the term “kowtow” is still used in English and other languages to describe similar gestures of subservience and obeisance.


COLONIAL ARROGANCE

In the late 18th century, the British ambassador to China, Lord George Macartney, was sent on a mission to establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese emperor, Qianlong. When Macartney arrived at the imperial court in Beijing, he refused to perform the kowtow, which he saw as an affront to his dignity as a British nobleman.

The emperor was highly offended by Macartney’s refusal to kowtow, and the two sides were unable to reach a compromise. According to historical accounts, the emperor told Macartney, “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce”. This statement reflected the emperor’s belief that China was a self-sufficient and superior civilization that did not need to engage in trade or diplomacy with other countries.

The failure of Macartney’s mission to China was a significant setback for the British, who were eager to establish trade relations with China and gain access to its vast markets. The incident also highlighted the deep cultural divide between China and the West, and underscored the importance of the kowtow as a symbol of respect and submission in Chinese society.


SYNONYMS

- to show respect or deference to, typically in a self-abasing way

abase oneself, be at someone’s beck and call, to be obsequious (servile, sycophantic), bend the knee, blandish, bob a curtsy, bob down, bootlick, bow, bow and scrape, bow down, brownnose, buddy up, butter up, cater to, court, crawl, cringe before, curtsy, curry favour, dance attendance on, debase oneself (to), demean oneself (to), eat crow, eat dirt, efface yourself, fall all over, fall over oneself for, fawn (over, upon), fuss, gain the favor of, get in good with, get in with, get on all fours, get on the right side of, get round, grovel (before, to), hand a line, honey (up), humour, indulge, ingratiate (oneself), insinuate oneself, jolly, keep someone sweet, kiss someone’s feet, kiss up, kneel down, KOWTOW (to), lay it on thick (with a trowel), lick someone’s boots, lie down and roll over, make overtures, oil, pamper, pander (to), pay court (to), play up to, praise (to excess), prostrate (oneself), prostrate oneself before, pull forelock, rub up the right way, say uncle, seek favour of, seek the favour of, show humility, show respect (for), show reverence, shrink, simper, sing the praises of, smarm, smooth-talk, snow, soft-soap, spoon-feed, suck up (to), sweet-talk, throw oneself at someone’s feet, toe the line, toady (to), truckle (to), try to get on the good side of, wheedle, win favour (of)


SMUGGLE OWAD into an English conversation, say something like:

“As a strong and independent person, I refuse to KOWTOW to anyone, except maybe to my cat... when he wants a treat.”


THANKS to Harald & Betty for suggesting today’s word!


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