Adam Minter: Wanting Change, Chinese Get on Their Knees

For Bloomberg, Adam Minter writes about the complex social and political implications of recent images that have been passed around online of people kneeling in China, including several instances of student kneeling before their teachers:

Kneeling, in Chinese culture, is a complex social act with multiple layers of meaning. It is typically a sign of respect and entreaty reserved for those to whom gratitude and obligation is felt, such as government officials, parents and –- traditionally –- a wife to her husband. In an influential 2010 essay, “The Resurgence of Chinese Kneeling Culture,” commentator Li Nuoyen parsed three types of kneeling:

A kneel to bow is etiquette which lowly beings perform for noble beings, and it has the meaning of respect; kneeling to thank is the most profound body language for expressing appreciation, and it has a commendatory meaning; kneeling to beg is a kind of helplessness and surrendering, with a derogatory meaning.

Recently, the Chinese press ran photos of parents kneeling in gratitude before a woman who helped their injured daughter, and another of a mother who knelt with a critically injured son in her arms, asking for help. The images are disturbing because of the circumstances of the kneelers, but these voluntary instances of kneeling — Li’s second and third types — are rather uncontroversial by contemporary Chinese standards.

However, over the last eighteen months, there have been other high-profile instances of Chinese students being forced to kneel in front of their teachers. These stories and images have caused intense reactions among Chinese netizens.

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