Today, sadly in my view, kowtowing has almost completely been done away with. Something similar is still done in Thailand on certain occasions but, not surprisingly, in China the tradition mostly ended with the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Republican officials would still don traditional robes and kowtow to the former Emperor in a private capacity but it was the exception rather than the rule in Manchukuo where the standing bow became standard procedure. Today, for formal occasions in China (both on Taiwan and the mainland) the standing bow is most common. Kowtowing continued for much longer in Vietnam (French Indochina at the time) where there was still a monarchy but it came under criticism from certain western-minded scholars. In 1932, when Emperor Bao Dai returned to Vietnam from France, one of his first acts was to abolish kowtowing in almost all instances. It was a huge change in court ceremony but was, not surprisingly, welcomed by the newly established representative assembly who disliked such displays of loyalty to the monarch when they claimed legitimacy from popularity rather than divine investiture.
On this subject (as with many), I am in agreement with Confucius. Outward signs of respect encourage a more truly respectful attitude just as treating someone in a less respectful way will invariably lead to decline in how that person or the office they hold is viewed. This was not solely an eastern concept to be sure and it is why people in England used to drop to one knee in the presence of their sovereign or why Catholics used to kiss the toe of the Pope’s shoe. Today, in most monarchies, signs of respect have been reduced to a glorified nod of the head and even this, just like kowtowing, is denounced by some people as “humiliating”. Well, call me crazy (the verdict is in on that one) but I never thought a little humility was a bad thing. Being humble used to be a virtue and is certainly preferable over arrogance. After all, we may not kowtow to leaders anymore, but they have far more power over our lives than the monarchs of yesterday. Which do you think is more important to them?
Mandarins in Hue kowtowing in a ceremony in 1935 (a special occasion)
Enthronement scene from the film "The Last Emperor"
Prince Chun II kowtowing to his son and monarch in "The Last Emperor"
Vietnamese scholars kowtowing at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi in 1897
Vietnamese mandarins kowtowing before the Governor-General of Tonkin
*top picture is from the enthronement of the last Emperor of Vietnam