Kowtowing to the Emperor


When you are in a restaurant in China, and the fuwuyuan (waiter/waitress) pours tea into the cups you’ll see many of the Chinese rap on the table with the knuckles of the index and middle fingers of one hand.

I gathered that it was a polite gesture to say ‘thank you for pouring the tea’ but never really understood why they did it rather than just say xiexie (thank you).

My curiosity was piqued again yesterday when the gesture was mentioned in a novel I’m reading which is set in Shanghai, so I started to dig around and ask a couple of friends about this – and here is the story behind the gesture:

Long, long ago one of the great Emperors of China wanted to travel through his kingdom to see how the ordinary folk lived. This was difficult as wherever he went a huge entourage of courtiers, concubines and officials went with him, so he decided to go incognito accompanied by two of his most trusted aides who were sworn to secrecy. They disguised themselves by dressing as merchants and set off.  On the first evening of their travels they stopped at an inn. As is the custom, a pot of tea and cups were rapidly produced, and before the aides could intervene, the Emperor picked up the teapot and poured tea for them. The aides were aghast, nobody ever ate or drank in the Emperor’s presence, and in normal circumstances they would have ‘kowtowed’ before him – but they couldn’t do that without giving the game away. What to do? First one, and then the other made knees of their first two fingers and knocked them on the table as a secret sign that they were kowtowing.

So there you have it! Whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter, it is a charming tale. Wherever you live in the world, next time you are in a Chinese restaurant, look around you and see if any Chinese diners are kow-towing. Or do it yourself

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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3 Responses to Kowtowing to the Emperor

  1. Mark Fowle says:

    I’ll try this out next time Cathie offers afternoon tea. Great looking blog by the way. Isaac slept really well last night; hopefully a sign of things to come! All the best from the Fowle (London branch)

  2. What a great post, and what fab illustrations. Really stunning. We need to know all this stuff about kow-towing etc, as we’ve just had a v significant visit from the Chinese in Scotland. One of the outcomes is that the Chinese are lending Edinburgh Zoo a couple of pandas…can’t wait to go and see them!
    Incidentally, thanks for your good wishes, and I hope 2011 will be good for you too…I see you were in Fife, a favourite haunt of mine too, and I’m excited we’ve booked a week there for the summer hols.
    I hope China continues to fascinate you…I’ve never been there, so I’ve really appreciated your blog…also, liked the list of good books…how many reading hours will we all have in 2011, I wonder?

  3. This was such an interesting story! Amazing how far back some traditions go. Really puts modern Western history into perspective.

    I loved the “Long, long ago one of the great Emperors of China . . . ” bit.

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