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Published on Jul 15, 2013 in Asia, China, News

The Art of Bowing

Whenever someone forms a mental image of Asia, part of that image is of a culture where people habitually bow to one another. It doesn’t make any difference if the Asian country is China, Japan, Taiwan, or Vietnam, we believe that most Asians culturally bow to one another.

Bowing is defined as the act of lowering the torso and head as a social gesture in the direction of another person or symbol. Moreover, bowing is not only a part of Asian culture, but it’s also a part of European and other cultures around the world.

Why bow? Because bowing shows that one has a lower status than the other person. It’s also a sign of respect. It conveys the message that the other person is stronger and more powerful. In ancient times, whether in dynastic China or in a European monarchy, subservience to one’s superior was the societal norm and bowing was an expected part of this recognition.

In Western antiquity, for example, people would sometimes lie face down, fully extended on the floor, or kneel with their heads bowed to their superiors. This was show of respect and subservience that was often practiced in ancient times by slaves and servants. Over time, the practice of laying prostrate before one’s superior went away and, with the spread of Christianity, so did the practice of kneeling as it was felt that only God should be knelt before. Subsequently, people now showed their allegiance and respect to their superior with a one-kneed kneel and a bowed head.

The Western tradition of bowing gradually began to transform, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that this act of subservience differed for men and women. At that time, while men bowed their head and bent their body forward, women would bend their knee and curtsey with lowered eyes. We rarely see this practiced today in the West except when someone is appearing before a monarch or worships.

In Asian culture, a basic bow originates at the waist, with hands at the sides for men or clasped in front for women, and with the eyes down. As a general rule, the longer and deeper the bow, the greater the emotion that’s conferred or the greater the difference in social standing between the parties.

There are generally three types of bows: informal, formal, and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle, whereas formal bows are double that, at about thirty degrees. Very formal bows exceed thirty degrees. In addition, if one’s bow extends for longer than the generally expected two to three seconds, then that person will usually bow again once the first bow is completed. The other party, in return, will reciprocate the bow, with each party exchanging bows which then become progressively lighter.

In Asia, the tradition of bowing is still practiced. The tradition of bowing in Asian culture originated from the kowtow. Kowtow is a show of respect by kneeling and bowing so low that one’s head touches the ground. In fact, in Han Chinese culture the kowtow was the highest form of respect and was done in front of the Emperor, as well as elders, superiors, and cultural objects of worship. Over time, standing and bowing replaced the kowtow. In modern China, bowing is still practiced, but is not very prevalent. For example, bowing is a gesture of respect for the deceased. A bow is also expected as part of an apology or an expression of thanks. When one bows as a form of apology, that bow tends to be deeper, at 45 to 50 degrees, and last a little longer than other bows. A bow may occur a number of times during a person’s apology, depending on the seriousness of the offense.

Bows are also used as a greeting, both when individuals or couples meet, and also when they depart. In some situations bows will take the place of a spoken greeting or verbal acknowledgement. Not everyone in Asia bows. In fact, most now shake hands instead. Younger Asians in particular seem to adopt this Western practice, while older and more traditional Asians still bow to one another.


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