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April 25, 2023

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Kneeling may no longer signal fealty, but it survives as a ritual of respect

A recent viral video shows a boy in Guizhou Province kneeling on the ground in front of his grandmother’s grave, with his hands clasped together in prayer.

But instead of honoring her memory, he was praying for good grades at school and no homework.

While the incident may be amusing, it doesn’t detract from the fact that kneeling is an ancient ritual of reverence that survives to some degree in modern times.

I have knelt at funerals, at tomb-sweeping rites during the Qingming Festival and to the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival. However, I don’t remember if I knelt at my wedding, when newlyweds are traditionally expected to kneel three times: first to the heaven and earth, second to parents and last to each other.

When one of my uncles died last month in a village in northern Jiangsu Province, his son had to report the sad news to another uncle, who reminded his nephew that the message should be conveyed on his knees.

Kneeling has become a complicated exercise amid the sheer density of graves in crowded urban cemeteries. More and more, kneeling is replaced with the clasped hands of prayers.

Chinese reverence for one’s ancestors, a cardinal principle in Confucianism, was one reason why foreign religions that worshipped divine deities instead of ancestors never really caught on in China.

When literary giant Han Yu (768-824) submitted an article explained why the reigning emperor of the Tang Dynasty should not give his approval to the enshrining of Buddhist relics after cremation, he wrote that the imported religion of Buddhism was at odds with the traditional strong bond between emperors and ministers, and fathers and sons.

In the West, kneeling has evolved into many interpretations. Men traditionally kneel when proposing marriage, some athletes kneel during the US national anthem to protest racial discrimination, and Britons about to be knighted kneel before their monarch.

In popular Chinese TV palace intrigue dramas, kneeling is often depicted as a required ritual for the general populace to express servitude in the presence of senior officials or an emperor.

However, such stereotypes are controversial.

For one thing, before the Tang Dynasty, squatting and kneeling were probably much more a routine part of daily life. There was once a difference between gui — a kneeling position with one’s bottom resting on one’s legs — and ji, a kneeling position with upright thighs.

There’s evidence that kneeling as a ritual of respect among officialdom probably took hold later than expected.

According to research by Qu Duizhi (1894-1973) on customs in the late Qing Dynasty, Manchurian influence ritualized kneeling as a form of obeisance for inferior officials in the presence of superiors. Prior to that, Qu said, the prevailing ritual among mandarins was zuoyi, or bowing with folded hands three times.

In 1793, George Macartney (1737-1806), a member of an English mission seeking business concessions from Emperor Qian Long, came away empty-handed after failing to kneel before the emperor at his royal audience. According to some reports, the mission said the English would kneel only in front God and women.

During China’s anti-imperialist Yihetuan Movement in 1900, there were rumors that foreigners were incapable of bending their legs and wouldn’t be able to stand up on their own again if they tripped over bamboo poles.

In the Ming Dynasty, Hai Rui (1514-1587), an official whose legendary courage and integrity have been much celebrated in traditional Chinese dramas, earned himself the nickname hai bijia for his refusal to kneel before a superior official.

As the story goes, Hai Rui was a master teacher at an academy in Fujian Province, when a senior provincial mandarin paid a visit. While Hai’s fellow teachers knelt before the official, Hai stubbornly stood standing.

The nickname refers to an inkbrush rack that is higher in the middle and lower at the sides.

Hai’s sense of pride as a scholar won him longstanding admiration, but it is also comforting to know that kneeling today still remains the highest form of reverence even as so many ancient rituals become obsolete.


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