Kowtow (Cantonese: Kau tàuh) is the act of deep respect shown by kneeling and bowing so low as to touch the head to the ground. While the phrase Kē tóu (磕頭) is often used in lieu of the former in modern Chinese, the meaning is somewhat altered: kòu originally meant "knock with reverence", whereas kē has the general meaning of "touch upon (a surface)".
In Imperial Chinese protocol, the kowtow was performed before the Emperor of China. Current Chinese etiquette does not contain any situations in which the kowtow is regularly performed in front of a living human being, although it may occur in rare and extreme cases where one is begging for forgiveness or offering an extreme apology, or showing respect in traditional funerals. Traditional Chinese martial arts schools employ the ritual in their discipleship ceremonies.
Confucius believed there was a natural harmony between the body and mind and therefore, whatever actions were expressed through the body would be transferred over to the mind. Because the body is placed in a low position in the kowtow, the idea is that you will naturally convert to your mind a feeling of respect. What you do to your body has an impact on your mind. It is important to remember that respect was needed to have a good society according to the confucian philosophy. That is why bowing was so important.
The kowtow is often performed in groups of three before Buddhist statues and images or tombs of the dead. In Buddhism it is more commonly termed either "worship with the crown (of the head)" (頂禮 ding li) or "casting the five limbs to the earth" (五體投地 wuti tou di) - referring to the two arms, two legs and forehead. For example, in certain ceremonies, a person would perform a sequence of three sets of three kowtows - stand up and kneel down again between each set - as an extreme gesture of respect; hence the term three kneelings and nine head knockings (三跪九叩). Also, some Buddhist pilgrims would kowtow once for every three steps made during their long journeys. Often the number three referring to the Triple Gem of Buddhism, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Kowtow came into English in the early 19th century to describe the bow itself, but its meaning soon shifted to describe any abject submission or grovelling. Many westerners who first encountered the practice believed it was a sign of worship, but kowtowing does not necessarily have religious overtones in traditional Chinese culture.
Kowtow was very important in the diplomacy of China with European powers, since it was required to come into the presence of the Emperor of China, but it meant submission before him. Dutch traders, such as A. E. van Braam Houckgeest had no problem with kowtowing since they represented only themselves, but the British embassies of George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney (1793) and William Pitt Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst (1816) were foiled since kowtowing would mean acknowledging their King as a subject of the Emperor.
The kowtow was often performed in diplomatic relations as well. According to Annals of Joseon Dynasty, in 1596, Japanese Daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi who unified Japan had to kneel 5 times on the ground and hit his head 3 times on the ground (五拜三叩头礼), to show his vassal status to the Chinese Ming Dynasty. In 1636, Injo, who was a king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, had to kneel 3 times on the ground and hit his head 9 times on the ground (三拜九叩頭禮), to show his vassal status to Huang Taiji, who was the first Emperor of the Qing Dynasty in China.The Samjeondo Monument is a monument marking Korea's submission to China's Qing Dynasty in 1636.