Ceremonies and diplomacy

The kotow in XIX century China: imperialism or orientalism?

Ceremonies and rites long played a key role in international encounters. What happened when western diplomacy meet China? How did the European envois deal with Qing [1] court protocol? To be received by the emperor, the western ambassadors were supposed to perform a series of rituals, among which the kotow [2]The term «kotow» describes the act of kneeling and bowing the head to the ground. How was it perceived by westerners? How was it depicted? In order to compare the Chinese and the western image of kotow, we will consider the two British embassies, in 1793 and 1816.

Let’s first have a glance in modern diplomacy. The millennial history of diplomacy dates back to the very first contacts between primitive tribes. However, what we currently define as such is much more recent. In fact, permanent diplomacy was born in Italy, in Renaissance time. It was the result of a peculiar environment: Italy was at the time a political entity with several small states, and city-states, none of them strong enough to be hegemonic. Therefore, the need for a constant flow of information implemented the existing diplomatic machinery.

Italy, c. 1490

Two principles constituted the core of modern diplomacy: equality and reciprocity. The Italian experience was soon imitated and implemented by other European countries, in particular United Kingdom and France, and, later, by the US. Nevertheless, this system was not globally adopted, neither accepted, until XX century. Eastern empires, in particular the Chinese empire, opposed to the western diplomatic tradition a well established suzerain-vassal system.

During XIII and XIX centuries, China’s self perception constituted an important limit to the establishment of stable commercial and diplomatic relations with Western countries. The mandarin term for China, Zhongguo中國 [3]Middle Kingdom, the geographic center of the world, summarize the hierarchic and non-egalitarian bases on which the Chinese Empire based its foreign policies along the centuries. A consolidated “concentric hierarchy [4]” of China’s foreign relations severely affected the first contacts with the well-established Western diplomacy.

Europeans were seen as «barbarians» (wàiyí外夷 [5]), whose relations with the Heavenly Empire were bounded to a tributaries system (Zhōnghuá cháogòng tǐxì中華朝貢體系). Moreover, contacts with European Kingdoms had been few and rambling until the nineteenth century, and confusion among the different western nations– and even on the exact location of Europe– are attested in official documents: «Sweden and England were dependencies of Holland; that Sweden (Gui) and England (Ying-chi-li) were shortened names for Holland (Ho-lan); that France was the same as Portugal; that I-ta-li-ya (instead of Holland) had presented tribute in 1667, and that the Pope himself came to do so in 1725 [6]».

On the other hand, Europeans knew little of China either. Information on Chinese government was insufficient, and mainly based on reports from other diplomatic missions (therefore influenced by a positivist rhetoric): «That the Emperor himself is accessible, that the reception of foreigners at Pekin is courteous, and that the policy of encouraging foreign trade is not ill understood there [7]».

Chinese empire, 1822

The unsuccessful 1816 British embassy to China was a plain example of the clash between two well established view of international relations. Misunderstandings and incomprehensions scatted the meetings between mandarin functionaries and the members of the British expedition: Whereas the Qing protocol expected foreigners to come as supplicant, the Western presented themselves as peers. The Chinese tradition of tribute tended to exalt the moral value of this gesture over the material value of trade, and it continued to dominate high level relations thought after trade became the core element of bilateral negotiations.

The kotow ceremony has long been the centre of the controversy between Chinese and Western diplomats. It represented the symbolical border between the obsolete, semi-civilized rituals of the Chinese empire and the modern diplomacy based on concepts of reciprocity and equality of European nation-states. Lord Macartney, who lead the first British embassy, referred to it as a “trick of behavior [8]“, Fairbank as a “ritual of abject servitude [9]”. It is evident that these definitions are not satisfying. They resulted from a deeply rooted eurocentric view that opposed the civilized Europe to a primitive China, the West to the Rest.

Perceived by western diplomats as a barbarian use, the kotow ritual was deeply into Chinese history and culture. The act of kneeling and bowing in kotow was only one among an ensemble of bodily practices, culturally and historically variable, involved in imperial audiences. For this reason, to better understand its importance, we should first briefly analyze the concept of ceremony ( lǐ) in China. The character  is a phono-semantic compound: The first part 礻(示) means ancestor, cult, the second part 豊 is phonetic (乚in simplified Chinese). Basing on its composition, we could therefore translate lǐ both as ceremony (laic) and religious ritual/rite.

China had long referred to itself as 禮儀之邦lǐyí zhī bāng [10], “land of ceremony and propriety”, equating the value of lǐyí as civilization itself. Ceremonies and rituals where used as a measure of civilization. Lǐyí, «On rites and etiquettes» is also the title of one of the three Confucian ritual books 三禮 sān lǐ, whose chapters dealt with audiences, sacrifices, marriages, etc. as well as interstate missions [11].

Kazaks presenting horses in tribute (detail, 1757). Castiglione shows Kazaks from northwest offering tributary gifts to the emperor Qianlong

Rituals performed in Chinese society the function of Clifford Geertz’s sacred symbol: «to synthesize a people’s ethos, the tone, character and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood and their most comprehensive ideas of order [12]».Therefore, kotow not only ideally reflected and reproduced the submission of the believer to his God, but it also summarize and enclose the totality of social and cultural values in Chinese society.

In a country with strong regional differences, foreign influences and ethnic minorities, «customs that differ every ten li [13]» ceremonies and rituals were designed to promote social cohesion. Unalterable, yet constantly changing, they transmitted immemorial traditions, perpetuated social and political myths, preserving status distinction by stressing the Confucian values in Chinese society, basically the notion of harmony based on hierarchical difference [14].

The limited knowledge on kotow ceremony and rituals, seen by westerners as the reflection of a despot and arbitrary power, prevented any attempt of mutual understanding and enforced the idea of Chinese’s and European’s as incompatible values. Consequently, the encounters between British and Mandarin delegations were influenced by reciprocal defiance and mistrust, which impeded the creation of successful economic and diplomatic relations.

Anonymous, Canton Factories (c. 1780)

The growing importance of trades between the British and Chinese Empires during XIX century shaped their diplomatic relations and led to an open clash between the two systems. The primary role of ceremonies, perceived as ancestral and unchanged over the centuries, was read by the Westerners as a proof of the Chinese backwardness, which was confirmed by the perception of decadency of the last Qing period. This belief had dramatic results: It prevented the achieving of a deep knowledge of the Chinese culture and society even by the so called “China’s experts” of the British embassies.

On the other hand, Western concepts as permanent diplomacy and formal equality between states were completely new for the Chinese Empire, which played since its origins the role of gravitational center for the neighboring states. As a result, the incomprehensions that scattered from two contrasting perceptions of ceremonies and diplomacy, linked to historical and geopolitical causes, dramatically lead to the two opium wars and subsequently to the Boxer rebellion in 1900, confining China to a subordinate position in the global chessboard. The signing of Boxer Protocol in 1901 and the relative adhesion to the Vienna Congress on diplomacy standards [15] constituted the final step of a process of forced «modernization» of China’s international relations that started with Macartney embassy, in 1793.


1 The last dynasty of imperial China (1644-1912).
2 磕头, to kowtow, kotow, or kētóu (pīnyīn transcription). Technically, they were usually asked to perform the sānguì jŭshŏu 三 跪九叩首 ceremony, which implies thrice kneeling and nine times bowing the head to the ground.
3 All Chinese characters are written in the traditional form, except where differently specified. Basu D.K., 2014:928
4 Basu D.K., 2014:928
5 Also written 外彝 (archaic), literally indicates “people not from the same clan” 外族wàizú, or “foreign country” 外國wàiguó.
6 Fairbank K., 1942:147
Williams L., 2013, pp. 91, citing Hosea Morse, ed., The Chronicles of the East India Company, trading to China, (Taipei: Ch’eng-wen, 1966–69).
8 Hevia J. L., 2009:212
9 Ibidem, pp. 213
10 Smith R. J., 1990
11 Solomon D., et al. 2012:124
12 Geertz C., 1969:3
13 十里不同俗shí lĭbùtóng sú. 里 lĭ is an ancient measure of length that approximately correspond to 500m.
14 Solomon D., et al. 2012:127
15 Hevia J.L. 2009:223


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