If we won't kowtow to China, can we at least be nice?

The Monitor's language columnist looks at a term with a sensitive history in East-West relations.

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Words are the stories we use to tell other stories. It's a lesson I've just learned again with kowtow.

The December issue of The Atlantic included an interview by James Fallows with Gao Xiqing, the Chinese banker who oversees about $200 billion of his country's $2 trillion in dollar holdings. One of Mr. Gao's points was that Americans fail to appreciate the extent to which they are being financed by other countries, especially China. Their willingness to hold T-bills and other US securities helps maintain American lifestyles.

And Gao thinks Americans in general aren't appropriately grateful.

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"[Y]our economy is ... built on the support, the gratuitous support, of a lot of countries," he told Mr. Fallows. "So why don't you ... I won't say kowtow, but at least be nice to the countries that lend you money."

In his introduction to the piece, Fallows warned that some of Gao's comments would "look more astringent on the page than they sounded when coming from him." And the reference to kowtowing was softened with a bracketed notation that the comment was made "with a laugh." Let's hear it for the power of brackets. But note, too, the power of the rhetorical device: Mr. Gao "won't" say it, but in fact did say it.

Kowtow came into English early in the 19th century. It derives from two Chinese words that together mean "to knock the head" – to knock one's own head to the floor, that is, in a gesture of submission. To perform the kowtow in full traditionally meant kneeling three times and at each kneeling, touching one's head to the floor three times. Three times three makes nine head knocks, and that was the price of admission for an audience with the emperor of China. Can you imagine how well this went down with Western trade emissaries?

One of these was Lord George Macartney – he sounds like an early Beatle, but no, he was a Scotsman in the diplomatic service of King George III. In 1793, shortly after the American colonies had won their independence from Britain, His Majesty sent Macartney to China to try to open trade relations.

It may be hard to imagine now, but at that time, several Asian countries that today are close trading partners of the United States had locked their gates and walled themselves off from Western visitors. The Chinese had no notion of the West having anything they would want to purchase. As the emperor wrote to George III, "As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures."

The conversation almost didn't get that far, however. Macartney refused to kowtow – unless a Chinese official of a rank equivalent to his own would do the same before a picture of King George. That wasn't acceptable to the Chinese. They countered: What if Macartney came before the emperor bending the knee, as he would have done to his own sovereign?

That would be acceptable to the emperor, as long as the encounter took place away from the capital, on the grounds of the summer palace.

Two centuries later, China has become the world's factory. The emperor's political descendants see selling to the West as an essential part of their economic strategy. But kowtowing is still part of the discussion, however obliquely.

I can't resist noting here that this is appearing in the last daily print issue of the Monitor. But I look forward to continuing the conversation with you in our new weekly and online.

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