Bowing Out: Why Traditional Kowtowing Rituals Are Under Threat
Each year, as millions of Chinese return home to celebrate Lunar New Year, village life — along with its malcontents — briefly dominate the country’s social media feeds. This year, most complaints were centered around traditional Lunar New Year customs that mandate kowtowing to one’s elders.
The annual kowtowing ritual is particularly entrenched in areas surrounding Liaocheng, a small city in the eastern province of Shandong near the village where I grew up. Shandong is one of the most culturally conservative parts of the country, and every New Year morning, the younger members of each extended clan — a group that includes everyone from young adults to the middle-aged — set out together to make obeisances to their elders around the village.
At each household, villagers typically perform the ritual several times: First to the house’s ancestors; then to the male elders, in order of seniority; and finally to the women. Traditionally, it was not only a means of showing respect, but also a chance to show off a family’s descendants — symbols of its stable future. Yet, as lively as it is, I never had any interest in partaking.
Although the word “kowtow” literally means “knock head,” all it requires of you is to get down on both knees and bow slightly — your head need not touch the ground. Yet ever since I was a child, I’ve rebelled against this tradition. Every year, after much prodding from my elders, I would reluctantly visit a few households with whom we were particularly close, but no more. My youth and good grades gave me leeway to opt out — historically, many saw a refusal to kowtow as a sign of ignorance or antisocial tendencies.
I suppose my objections came from a combination of atheism, a strong independent streak, and a revulsion of habits I deemed oppressive, unequal, outdated, or crude. Few of my peers, even the very well-educated ones, agreed with my anti-kowtowing stance, however. Once, when I complained to a high-school classmate of mine that the ritual was annoying, she disagreed. “Wouldn’t a New Year without kowtowing be boring?” she said.
With the benefit of age, I can see where she was coming from: She’d grown accustomed to the practice and rationalized it as a fact of life. In the face of long-established customs and rituals, most people just go with the flow without ever bothering to ask questions. ‘We’ve done it like this for generations,’ they might say. ‘Why should now be any different?’
In truth, most people in my village see kowtowing in a positive light. Every Lunar New Year, about half the villagers visit my grandparents’ house to kowtow. Some make a point of visiting every household. And while it took time, I do recognize that kowtowing can be about more than just reinforcing hierarchies: It’s a symbol of warmth during the holiday season and an important means of maintaining community ties. By encouraging villagers to get out and meet each other, it binds the village together. Besides, although the older generation may politely object by saying it’s enough to visit and one need not kowtow, it’s clear they appreciate the gesture.
I remain conflicted, however. I’ve received a modern education, and I continue to view kowtowing as an outdated symbol of inequality. Concepts such as cultural pluralism, which calls for the protection of minority cultural identities, might seem to safeguard such practices, but where does one draw the line? If kowtowing and age-based hierarchies should be preserved due to their ancient provenance, then why not patriarchal gender norms? Or foot-binding?
Though I’m not about to change from a kowtowing skeptic to a kowtowing activist, I also know that my views may not matter in the end. No one knows how long practices such as the New Year’s kowtow can continue in the face of China’s rapid urbanization and modernization, as well as pressure from the top to end practices deemed out of step with contemporary society.
Even in my conservative hometown, the tradition of kowtowing is under threat — not from silly students like myself, but from a far more authoritative source: the government-run village loudspeaker system. Over the past few years, the speakers — which have been used for decades to broadcast important news and directives — have been exhorting the residents of my hometown not to kowtow during Lunar New Year, as part of the local government’s efforts to eliminate outdated customs.
This isn’t the first time the government has sought to intervene in local rituals. As a child, I remember hearing the village elders talk about the Cultural Revolution and its destructive impact on village traditions. In those days, the government sought to eliminate not just kowtowing, but Lunar New Year itself. Beginning in 1967, the festival ceased to be a legally recognized holiday and would not be restored nationwide until 1980. Despite the government’s efforts, however, many continued to celebrate in secret, and the campaign was unsuccessful in stamping out kowtowing practices, much less the holiday.
I don't know how deep the government’s message will reach this time, nor how long this latest campaign will last, but I’ve already noticed that — whether due to official pressure or the natural course of modernization — the central role of kowtowing in local holiday celebrations has been fading. Nor is it the only endangered village tradition. On my most recent trip home in December 2018, I heard talk of an even newer policy: The government was moving villagers out of their old, single-story homes and into new urban-style apartment blocks. This was treated as entirely normal, but such a profound reshaping of the village’s geography will impact local culture.
I imagine that, as residents move into their new apartments, most down-to-earth agricultural social traditions that grew around village life over millennia will gradually break down and disappear. The village courtyards that can accommodate large groups of visiting kowtowers will soon vanish, replaced by compact living rooms with barely enough room for an ancestral shrine.
Change isn’t necessarily bad. As the material basis of residents’ lives changes, so must our etiquette and customs evolve along with it. But it’s worth asking who — villagers or the government — should have the right to decide which customs are worth saving and which are to be sacrificed upon the altar of modernity.
I expect it won’t be long before I can go home for Lunar New Year without worrying about being pressured to kowtow. Yet oddly, the thought doesn’t give me much comfort. Perhaps that’s because, compared with the annoying customs of my youth, the specter of their destruction at the hands of outside coercion fills me with a far greater sense of dread.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Three men kowtow to an elder relation on the eve of the Lunar New Year in Heze, Shandong province, Feb. 16, 2018. IC)