“Kowtow” is a Chinese word. It means to act in a subservient manner, to fawn, as in kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground in token of worship, or deep respect.
Kowtow originated as a salute or act of worship to authority and became a custom by 200 BCE. In traditional China the ritual was performed by commoners making requests to the local magistrate, by the emperor to the shrine of Confucius, by children to their parents, or by foreign representatives appearing before the emperor to establish trade relations.
Today, only vestiges of the tradition remain. In many situations, the standing bow has replaced the kowtow. For example, some, but not all, people would kowtow before the grave of an ancestor, or while making traditional offerings to an ancestor. During a wedding, some couples may kowtow to their respective parents, though the standing bow is today more common. In extreme cases, the kowtow can be used to express profound gratitude, apology, or to beg for forgiveness.
The kowtow remains alive as part of a formal induction ceremony in certain traditional trades that involve apprenticeship or discipleship. Chinese martial arts schools often require a student to kowtow to a master. Likewise, traditional performing arts often also require the kowtow.
On two occasions, the kowtow was performed by Chinese envoys to a foreign ruler — specifically the Russian Tsar. In 1731, the Qing emissary to Russia kowtowed before Tsarina Anna, as per instructions by the Yongzheng Emperor, as did Desin, who led another mission the next year to the new Russian capital at St. Petersburg.
“Kowtow” came into English in the early 1800s to describe the bow itself, but its meaning soon shifted to describe any abject submission or groveling. The term is still commonly used in English with this meaning, disconnected from the physical act and the East Asian context of respect.
In 1793, Viscount Macartney, head of a trade mission to negotiate a deal between Britain and China, was presented to Emperor Qianlong, but the viscount refused to perform the obligatory kowtow. To the disbelief of the aghast Chinese court, Macartney would only go down on one knee, as he would to the British ruler. Qianlong left in a huff, the trade mission was abandoned and Macartney was sacked.