Home > Uncategorized > My pet-peeve racial slur, and a small every day insult.

My pet-peeve racial slur, and a small every day insult.

I am a social liberal and an educated agnostic, which means, I don’t get offended personally by too many things.  I will occasionally cry out against unfairness, but I don’t make crusades out of them.  I rarely participate in any political causes, because I have seen too many causes subverted by the Rich and the Powerful for their own purposes.

But there is one small every day insult against me, that I have allowed to chaff me too often.  Thus, I speak of it now.

That insult is the often abuse of the Chinese word “Kowtow” in Western languages by the Western media.

Let’s face it, headlines are often using that word in negative connotations, and often against China, where the word came from:

We cannot afford to allow some countries to ‘kowtow’ to China

But I say, this word (and its cultural link to China) is being exploited by Western media, in a stereotypical racial manner.  And I find it extremely insulting.

I grew up in what I considered as the Modern China, where I was never forced to practice “kowtow” to anyone.  The ONLY time I felt it necessary to kowtow were when I paid my respects to the tombs of my deceased grandparents.

As a child, I have always felt that the practice is a deeply personal one and culturally symbolic of my Chinese heritage.

At the same time, I have also felt that the old practice of kowtow in feudal China was a symbol of Western prejudice and racism against China and the East.  (Even in Imperial China, when kowtowing was more often practice than today, the practice was only used for ceremonies as signs of deep respect).

Today, the Western media continue to abuse the word “kowtow”.  Why?  It is merely another in the long series of racial stereotypes used against China, the Chinese people and the Chinese culture.

Because it is yet another strange thing that the Chinese people do that baffles the Western media.

And instead of respecting the word Kowtow and its cultural meaning of “respect”, the Western media use it to continue to mock China.  Kowtow means to submit like a loser, e.g. “we” in the West cannot kowtow like the Chinese did, if “we” submit, “we” might end up like the Chinese.

*In contrast, the Hollywood glamorized Tibetan religious practice of laying face down on the ground, is given a benign word, “Prostration”, because even Christians practice prostration.  Even though technically, Prostration shows an even deeper level of self-debasement and submission.

Can you imagine the above title changed to “We-cannot-afford-to-allow-some-countries-to-PROSTRATE-to-China“??  Sound much nicer, doesn’t it?

As I said, I don’t go for causes.  I merely cry out against injustices.

This one, is merely another one that’s on my personal list.

All that I have left to say is, the Western media need some deep level introspection to understand how it has cheapened too much of some important things, and at the same time, elevated others beyond reasoning.

Far from the market of truth and understanding, it is a market of tasteless jokes and controversies.

Hands off my Chinese culture.  You don’t know what kowtow is, your Chinese sux!

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  1. Josef
    December 23rd, 2010 at 21:49 | #1

    raventhorn2000, what you describe here matches the explanation in the wikipedia:
    I wonder if your agree to this explanation.

    However, they also point out that the meaning is quite different when it comes to diplomatic relations:
    “Kowtow was very important in the diplomacy of China with European powers, since it was required to come into the presence of the Emperor of China, but it meant submission before him.”
    And at least in this one link, where you criticize the usage, I think was referring to this submission aspect.

    You wrote:
    “Kowtow means to submit like a loser,”
    And the examples of Wikipedia on intra-Asian diplomatic relations would support this interpretation:
    “In 1636, Injo who was king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty had to kneel three times on the ground and touch his head three times on the ground (三拜九叩頭禮), to show his vassal status to Huang Taiji who was the first Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. King of Ryukyu Kingdom also had to kneel three times on the ground and touch his head nine times to the ground (三拜九叩頭禮), to show his vassal status to the Chinese Dynasty.”

  2. nic
    December 24th, 2010 at 04:48 | #2

    @raventhorn2000, “Today, the Western media continue to abuse the word “kowtow”.  Why?  It is merely another in the long series of racial stereotypes used against China, the Chinese people and the Chinese culture.”

    Western media often write about ‘Frau Merkel’ or ‘Senor Zapatero’, even though they don’t use the German or Spanish language for their reports. The deceased Princess of Whales was often called ‘Lady Diana’, by reports in all kinds of languages which do not originally include the word ‘Lady’ in their vocabulary.

    The point is that very often, some words from a different language (and culture) are being adopted by the press and the general public. Be it in an urge to seem ‘international’, or whatever.

    When I read the word ‘kowtow’ in the context you describe, I read it as a synonym for ‘bow’. And I am convinced that most readers (and writers) in Europe share that way of reading this particular word.

    I realize that this is in conflict with your reading of the word. I understand that it is unobservant, maybe even wrong compared to the traditional Chinese meaning of the word. But to call it ‘racial slur’ goes to far in my opinion.

    Prostration, the word as well as the practice you describe, is unknown to me. (And I grew up in a christian community, to some extent at least.) I have no doubt that you are right, this practice might exist. But it is not part of the life (or vocabulary) of the vast majority of people around me.

    I understand that you are unhappy about the adoption of a Chinese term into the international blend of pseudo-international language. As ever so often, this adoption might have mistaken the particular meaning of the word. But I think that your reaction is an overreaction.

  3. December 24th, 2010 at 10:18 | #3

    @Josef, nic,

    I think you raised good points countering raventhorn2000’s arguments about “kowtow” (not I necessarily want to speak for him).

    However, there is indeed a China bashing going on in the Western media; the same phenomenon as in the 1980’s against Japan.

    Opinion: Citizens of Chinese heritage in the West to also bear the brunt of Western media bias

    For me, how the Chinese emperors saw the need for foreigners to “kowtow” was an indication of arrogance. We see that same expectation in the West of the developing countries. Obviously things are a bit more subtle now than before.

  4. pug_ster
    December 24th, 2010 at 10:45 | #4

    Don’t forget about ‘losing face’ as the West mostly refers about China. I got ‘banned’ by some guy running a blog because he and I got an argument over it.

  5. silentvoice
    December 24th, 2010 at 23:12 | #5

    Josef :
    “In 1636, Injo who was king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty had to kneel three times on the ground and touch his head three times on the ground (三拜九叩頭禮), to show his vassal status to Huang Taiji who was the first Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. King of Ryukyu Kingdom also had to kneel three times on the ground and touch his head nine times to the ground (三拜九叩頭禮), to show his vassal status to the Chinese Dynasty.”

    Great example, seeing how it was 400 years ago!!


  6. December 25th, 2010 at 09:18 | #6


    The Examples you listed are merely SOME examples, they hardly provide the entire picture of what kowtow meant.

    HENCE, the use of the word “kowtow” is based upon stereotypical perceptions. (For EXAMPLE: No doubt, there were also a lot of opium users in China about 100 years ago. But does that mean that all Chinese are opium users? Of course not.)

    Overall Kowtow is an act of respect, less so as a symbol of submission.

    In the diplomatic aspect, no doubt the Qing dynasty used kowtow ceremonies perhaps far more than any previous Chinese dynasties.

    But use of it does not absolutely mean submission of 1 state to China, (and reversely, non-use of it does not mean that such submission did not occur. For example, Tibetan exiles often portray the encounter between Emperor Qianlong and 5th Dalai Lama as one between “equal sovereigns”, because the 5th Dalai was not required to kowtow before the Emperor.)

    There are many finer details of kowtow protocols in the ancient times.

    For example, in the instance of 5th Dalai and the Emperor, because the Emperor at the time had acknowledged the Dalai has his spiritual teacher, custom may also dictate that the Student is required to Kowtow to the Teacher. However, the Emperor as the ruler, cannot kowtow to anyone. But, regardless, the Dalai was a subject of the Emperor, and his petitions were submitted and heard according to other protocols.

    Another example, Confucius was considered a saint sage in China. As such, his mainline descendants were considered as EQUAL in social status as the Emperor. In Qing Dynasty imperial Chinese court, Confucius’ descendants were allowed to walk and sit beside the Emperor.

    Especially important, the Emperor, when visiting Quju (the home town of Confucius), is required to pay tribute to Confucius (at Confucius’ home) using (三拜九叩頭禮) ceremony!

    Now, obviously, these are much more symbolic of respect, than submission.

    *As I said, the Western media has continued to abuse the word “kowtow”, using its limited understanding of the practice as racial stereotype against the Chinese people and the Chinese culture.

    The few examples they use to define kowtow are nothing more than stereotypes based upon ignorance.

    Stereotypes are wrong, not because they are wrong in the specific instances, but because they use incomplete understandings to malign the overall.

    Another example: when Westerners make fun of Asians who eat cats or dogs, they do not even realize that during and before Victorian England times, Europeans ate cats and dogs, and wrote poems about it.

    So, when Westerners ask me why some Asians eat cats or dogs, I ask them, why they have lost their own cultural heritage of eating cats and dogs??

  7. Chops
    December 26th, 2010 at 17:52 | #7

    I don’t think outsiders have any qualms about a people kowtowing before their own leaders.

    But some foreigners will understandably be peeved that the imperial Chinese court demands non-subjects to kowtow as well.

    Btw, submissive behaviour has long been observed in mammals, and it has been suggested that bowing/kowtowing could be a evolutionary carryover from humans’ primate ancestors.


    “A submissive chimpanzee lets the aggressor know that he or she is not a threat through non-threatening postures such as presenting their back, crouching and bowing in front of the threatening chimpanzee, or bobbing. The submissive chimpanzee will approach the dominant chimpanzee with a fear grin on its face. It is attempting to present itself to the hostile chimpanzee as small and non-threatening.”


    “Submissive dogs display in many ways. They will typically make themselves smaller by crouching low to the ground and tucking their tail between their legs.”

  8. Charlie Siebert
    January 6th, 2011 at 05:21 | #8

    Yep..good point. This is a great example of outdated practices that have no place in a modern world. When I see people Kowtow these days in China it is always poor people begging the wealthy for forgiveness or people trying to settle a traffic accident dispute.

    By the way, Cofucious’ home town is not Quju, but Qu Fu in Shandong province and well worth a visit. And speaking of sterotypes and dogs, let’s not forget the wonderful Chinese communist expression referring to Americans as ‘running dogs’. Ha ha… good laughs, good times.

    Stereotypes are not the exclusive property of any single nation. I’ve heard many jokes about lao wai in China. Let’s not pretend that Westerners have stereotypes about Easterners and Easterners do not have stereotypes about Westerners. Every country has its racists. This is a non-issue and a non-argument. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Hurling accusations back and forth solves nothing. Don’t discriminate…educate.

  9. Charlie Siebert
    January 6th, 2011 at 05:28 | #9

    Well, well, Chops. So Chinese people are no better than monkeys and dogs? That is one of the harshest assessments of a nation of people than I’ve ever heard. I’m sure there are many like myself who would insist that Chinese people are far more advanced than their primate ancestors and the canine species. I suggest that the people of China can certainly prove themselves to use their power of reason to abandon the practices of common animals. After all, it is the ability to reason that separates we humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

  10. Josef
    January 6th, 2011 at 17:48 | #10

    Raventhorn #6,
    that is all correct but let’s accept that things like these happens: words and definitions, when used from “aliens”, have to be interpreted as they might used within their limited understanding of these “aliens”. Or their understanding is dominated by some single events (in this case the Qing Court at 1800). Take x-mass for example: what does it mean to the average Chinese? I would expect “business” or in the best case “gifts” you might hear, but I would be surprised if “a silent gathering of the family” would be mentioned. But I would not become upset on that.
    More important is the content: The assertion that China wants others nations to obey to her, and the examples brought in that article. To get upset on a single word is a red herring. A similar article about changes of China’s policy, away from Deng Xiao Ping’s restraints to more aggressive behavior is found here:

  11. r v
    January 7th, 2011 at 11:30 | #11


    It’s not a single misunderstanding or limited understanding of a single word, it’s the repeated misuse of that word, OVER AND OVER AGAIN in the Western Media in a negative connotation.

    If the Chinese misuse “x-mass” over and over again in a negative connotation, I would expect Westerners to be upset.

    But hey, let’s start a publicity campaign and find out.

    Better yet how about we say the TRUTH about “x-mass”, a pagan holiday stolen by the Christians to convert people in a feudal colonialism/war of cultures.

    Maybe Westerners don’t care about their lost pagan traditions/cultures. But doesn’t mean that rest of humanity is the same way.

  12. Anna
    February 9th, 2011 at 12:51 | #12

    A recent example of the use of kowtow in the west–


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