Bowing (also called stooping) is the act of lowering the torso and head as a social gesture in direction to another person or symbol. It is most prominent in Oriental cultures but it is also typical of nobility and aristocracy in many countries and distinctively in Europe. Sometimes the gesture may be limited to lowering the head. It is especially prominent in China, Korea, and Japan where it may be executed standing or kneeling.
Different cultures have placed varying degrees of importance on bowing, and have used bowing in a variety of ways. To show the highest degree of politeness, you bend your head and waist about 45 degrees. Common courtesy to most people is shown by bending your head and waist about 15 degrees. In a very casual meeting with a person about your age, nodding your head would be enough. People often bow while shaking hands with one or both hands.
In European cultures, bowing is an exclusively male practice - females perform a related gesture called a "curtsey" or "curtsy." As in Asian cultures, the depth of the bow expresses degree of respect or gratitude. In European courtly circles, males were expected to "bow and scrape" (hence the term "bowing and scraping" for what appears to be excessive ceremony). "Scraping" refers to the drawing back of the right leg as one bows, such that the right foot scrapes the floor or earth. Typically, while executing such a bow, the man's left hand is pressed horizontally across the abdomen while the right is held out from the body.
Bowing to other human beings is frowned upon in Muslim cultures as all human beings are considered equal and bowing is only supposed to be done to God in Islam. Similarly, in Judaism the second of the Ten Commandments is generally interpreted to forbid bowing before anyone but God.
Basic bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides, and with the eyes down. Bows originate at the waist. Generally, the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion.
Bows can be generally divided into three main types: informal, formal, and very formal. Informal bows are made at about a fifteen degree angle and more formal bows at about thirty degrees. Very formal bows are deeper. There is an extremely complex etiquette surrounding bowing, including the length and depth of bow, and the appropriate response. For example, if the other person maintains his or her bow for longer than expected (generally about two or three seconds), it is polite to bow again, upon which one may receive another bow in return. This often leads to a long exchange of progressively lighter bows.
Bows of apology tend to be deeper and last longer than other types of bow. They tend to occur with frequency during the apology, generally at about 45 degrees with the head lowered and lasting for at least the count of three, sometimes longer. The depth, frequency and duration of the bow increases with the sincerity of the apology and the severity of the offense. Bows of thanks follow the same pattern. In extreme cases a kneeling bow is performed; this bow is sometimes so deep that the forehead touches the floor. This is called dogeza (土下座) in Kanji and sebae (새배) in Korean.
Bows of apology are frequently performed at press conferences by high-ranking members of a company that has performed some misdeed, such as producing faulty parts that resulted in a death. These bows are almost invariably performed standing behind a table; the tips of the fingers touch the table while the upper body, held straight, is lowered from the waist until the face is parallel with the tabletop.
Bows also replace speaking under certain circumstances. For example, when encountering again a person to whom one has already spoken that day, a silent bow replaces such phrases as "hello" or "hi."
A superior addressing an inferior will generally only nod the head slightly (some people may not bow at all), while an inferior will bend forward slightly from the waist.
Generally when bowing in proximity to another, as necessitated when combining bowing and shaking hands, people turn slightly to one side (usually the left) to avoid bumping heads.
As in Japan and Korea, public figures may bow formally to apologise. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao bowed and offered his condolences to stranded railway passengers; Taiwanese Defence Minister Chen Chao-min bowed in apology for a gaffe concerning the shooting of former President Chen Shui-bian in 2004. However, this is by no means an everyday practice.
Bowing is also necessary for Koreans living in the Northern part of China.
In Japanese culture, it is considered disrespectful to keep one's eyes on the subject of the bow, as it conveys a lack of trust. This was used to humorous effect in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, when Bond knocked out a martial arts opponent who was bowing to him without looking at him.
Some martial arts bows are different in terms of the position of the arms. For example, a karate bow has your arms at the sides, while other bows—such as a Silat bow—have your hands together and hands and arms in front of you.
There are three main types of bow performed in a ceremony; they are classified as shin (深), gyō (行), and sō (草). All are usually performed from a kneeling position. Shin bows are the deepest; from a kneeling position, the bower bends forward from the waist, placing the hands palms down on the floor in front of the body, with the fingers facing. Shin bows are performed to teachers and superiors. Gyō and sō bows are less deep and less long (gyō bows are deeper). From a kneeling position and bowing from the waist, the hands are slid over the knees until the tips of the fingers touch the floor in front of the body. They are performed among persons of similar rank.
Students of tea ceremony bow to each other and to their teacher; each class begins with bows between the teacher and students. If a senior student is teaching a junior student, bows are exchanged between the two. Before beginning a practice, a student bows to all the other students as well. This pattern is repeated when the practice ends.
A bow is performed at the door before entering the tea room, or tea house. One then proceeds to the tokonoma, or scroll alcove, and bows again. Finally one greets the teacher, and then the other students, or the other guests, with bows. This pattern is repeated when leaving the tea room as well.
The host of a tea ceremony bows before beginning the ceremony. Bows are exchanged repeatedly throughout a tea ceremony, between the host and guest of honor, among the guests, between guests and the hosts assistants, and between the host and guests.
In Christian liturgy, bowing is a sign of respect or deference. In many traditions, individuals will bow when passing in front of the altar, or at certain points in the service (for example, when the name of Jesus Christ is spoken). It may take the form of a simple bow of the head, or a slight incline of the upper body. A profound bow is a deep bow from the waist, and is often done as a substitution for genuflection.
Some bows within the current liturgy are simple bows from the waist - others (especially during parts of the Amidah involve bending the knees while saying Baruch (Blessed), bowing from the waist at Atah (you) and then straightening up at Adonai. During the concluding Aleinu section of the services, congregants usually bow when they say "V'anachnu korim umishtachavim u'modim," meaning "we bend our knees, prostrate, and acknowledge our thanks." Another moment in the service which triggers the bow is during the "Bar'chu." Many bow at the mention of "Adonai" (the Jewish addressing of the Lord) at this and various other parts in the service (most likely if they are to remain standing during that prayer).
Kneeling is retained in modern Orthodox Judaism, but only on the High Holy Days - once on each day of Rosh Hashanah (when the Aleinu prayer is recited during the Amidah), and four times on Yom Kippur - again, once for Aleinu, and three times during a central portion of the service when the details of the Avodah, the High Priest's service in the Temple are recited.
The Talmudic texts as well as writings of Gaonim and Rishonim indicate that total prostration was common among many Jewish communities until some point during the Middle Ages. Members of the Karaite denomination practice full prostrations during prayers. Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews prostrate during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as did Yemenite Jews during the Tachanun part of regular daily Jewish prayer until somewhat recently. Ethiopian Jews traditionally prostrated during a holiday specific to their community known as Sigd. Sigd comes from a root word meaning prostration in Amharic, Aramaic, and Arabic. There is a move among Talmide haRambam, a small modern restorationist group with perspectives on Jewish law similar to that of Dor Daim, to revive prostration as a regular part of daily Jewish worship.