Bowing

Bowing

[boh-ing]

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 originated as a gesture of subordination, as lowering the head leaves the bower vulnerable. This was particularly the case in Asian cultures such as that of samurai Japan.

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.

Bowing in East Asia

Bows are the traditional greeting in East Asia, more so in Korea and Japan than anywhere else. However, bowing is not reserved only for greetings. Bowing is a gesture of respect. Different bows are used for apologies and gratitude, to express different emotions, humility, sincerity, remorse, or deference, and in various traditional arts and religious ceremonies.

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.

Generally speaking, an inferior bows longer and more deeply, and more frequently, than a superior.

Bows of apology and thanks

Bows are a required and expected part of any apology or expression of thanks in Japan and Korea, and only parts of China.

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 of greeting

Bows are commonly used in greeting, both when meeting and when parting. Bows almost automatically accompany the greeting phrases, but generally are no longer used among the immediate family unless addressing a family member after or in anticipation of a long absence or separation.

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.

Bowing and shaking hands

When dealing with non-East Asians, many East Asians will shake hands. Since many non-East Asians are familiar with the custom of bowing, this often leads to a combined bow and handshake which can be quite complicated to execute. Bows may be combined with handshakes or performed before or after shaking hands.

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.

Bowing in China and Taiwan

In modern Chinese societies, bowing is not as formalized as in Japan and Korea. Bowing is normally reserved for occasions such as marriage ceremonies and as a gesture of respect for the deceased. It is practised at funerals, ancestral worship, and in the Republic of China (Taiwan), before statues and portraits of Sun Yat-sen, the Father of Modern China. China's leaders bowed to mourn the death of Deng Xiaoping and the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Three bows are normally executed to honour the deceased. The kowtow is extremely rare among the Chinese since the collapse of Imperial China.

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.

Bowing in Japan

Bowing in Japan is distinct from other East Asian cultures when done in more traditional settings such as during a tea ceremony or during the beginning and end of a traditional martial arts match. However the tea ceremony is a minority interest now and many Japanese have never participated in one.

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.

Bowing in Korea

Bowing in Korean culture has different aspects to it than in other East Asian cultures. It is an especially integral part during martials arts, religious services dedicated to the dead, and formalized holidays. Unlike in the Japanese tea ceremony, a central approach to tea in Korea is an easy and natural coherence, with fewer formal rituals, fewer absolutes, greater freedom for relaxation, and more creativity in enjoying a wider variety of teas, services, and conversation. As a result, other than a bow of greeting and departure, bowing is not an integral aspect of the Korean tea ceremony.

Bowing in martial arts: Aikido, Kendo, Karate, Judo, Silat, etc.

Bowing is an integral part of traditional martial arts. Bows are used to begin and end practice, sparring bouts and competitions, and when entering and leaving the dojo, or practice room. This tends to be standard among practitioners in any country, and is common also among the practitioners of martial arts originating from outside of Japan, such as tae kwon do and kung fu, but in Japan other types of bow (for example, of thanks or apology) are also standard in the dojo. In feudal Japan, a kneeling bow after a kenjutsu (swordplay) duel when one was defeated meant a plea for beheading to avoid shame.

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.

Bowing in tea ceremony

Bowing is an important part of the Japanese tea ceremony.

There are three main types of bow performed in a ceremony; they are classified as shin (深), gyō (行), and (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 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.

Bowing in religious settings

Bows are performed both in Shinto and Buddhist settings. Korean Zen Buddhism has a daily ritual in which practitioners do 1,080 full prostration bows, usually spread throughout the day. More casual practitioners and laypeople typically do 108 bows once a day instead.

Visitors to a Shinto shrine will clap or ring a bell to attract the attention of the enshrined deity, clasp the hands in prayer, and then bow.

For bowing in Islam see Ruk'u.

Bowing in Christian liturgy

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.

For bowing in Eastern Orthodoxy, see zemnoy poklon.

Bowing in Jewish settings

In Jewish setting, bowing, like Christianity, is a sign of respect, and is done at certain points in the Jewish services. By tradition, in the Temple in Jerusalem, kneeling was part of the regular service, but this isn't part of a modern Orthodox service.

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.

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