In 1793, the British diplomat Lord George Macartney nearly scuttled his trade mission when he famously refused to kowtow to the Qianlong Emperor. When representatives from the Qing court informed Macartney they expected the standard protocol of submission in imperial audiences, the pompous British envoy riposted, “I will get on two knees before my God, and one knee before my king, but the idea of a British gentleman prostrating himself before an Asiatic barbarian is preposterous!”
Macartney was just one in a long line of foreign visitors to China who had to make the decision of whether to take a deep knee bend and satisfy imperial etiquette or remain standing and risk looking like a pretentious barbarian.
After all this drama getting foreigners to perform a kowtow at the palace, imagine my shock when last week a kowtow nearly got this foreigner thrown out of the Forbidden City.
It happened while I was demonstrating the ritual for a group of travelers as we stood in the large plaza in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important structure in the palace and where the emperor would preside over special ceremonies. It’s something I’ve done for students and visitors for years. Sometimes they even join me.
On this occasion though, as I took to my knees and pressed my forehead to the bricks, a young man in an oversized official-looking polyester uniform came bounding across the yard:
“Get up! Get up! No worshipping or paying obeisance allowed! Get up!”
His enthusiasm for curtailing anachronistic ritual practice ebbed a bit when I turned around and he saw that I was not some renegade unreconstructed Manchu monarchist, but, in fact, a foreigner.
“He’s not praying,” my colleague told him. “He’s demonstrating a story.”
Which was true. I was telling the story of the Manchu conquest and describing the coronation of Aisin-Gioro Fulin, the first Qing emperor to rule from Beijing. There was no intended meaning behind my gesture. But Spanky McRulebook was having none of it.
“Worshipping and paying obeisance is strictly forbidden. Anyone who does these things will be banned from the palace museum.”
Summoning as much bluster as he could, he told us in no uncertain terms:
It was a minor incident and I ultimately was allowed to stay in the palace and finish my tour. But it left a distinct impression: What strange goings on at the palace have caused officials to strictly prohibit kowtowing to the throne room?
Is there a rash of unreconstructed Manchu monarchists that nobody is talking about?
In fact, I have seen, at both the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, groups praying and kneeling in ritual. A month ago, a group of about a dozen middle-aged visitors to the Temple of Heaven kneeled atop the Round Altar as their leader orchestrated a series of chants. Earlier this spring, a group of very elderly citizens spent the better part of an hour kneeling, kowtowing, and chanting in the general direction of the Hall of Supreme Harmony at the Forbidden City. But up until this week, I’d never seen anyone from the park or palace staff so much as even glance in their direction.
Perhaps some higher up is concerned about the 19th Party Congress implications of elderly kowtowers plus one plus-sized history teacher?
I asked my new friend Spanky and he wasn’t keen on discussing the political context or the rationale behind the decision. In fact, asking him just caused him to sweat through his polyester as he marched sullenly back to his security perch.
The kowtow long ago entered the political lexicon as synonymous with an unpleasant and generally forced submission and admittance of inferiority in dealing with another party. But it’s also an important part of ritual practice in China, even today. It would appear this ritual – antique though it might be — remains potent.
It also seems that the Party and its various organs are not going to brook any challenges to their legitimacy or authority, no matter how anachronistic or silly.
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