Cultural significance of knees
What are our knees for? The answer should be very simple. They are joints that allow our legs to bend so that we can walk.
But the answer is not so simple when we consider some of the cultural connotations of the word "knee."
When George McCartney (1737-1806), the first British envoy to China, was ordered to fall to his knees before Chinese Emperor Qian Long (1711-99) in 1793, the joints had more significance than merely as parts of the body.
The sculptures of an ancient couple - Qin Hui and his wife - on display at an art gallery in Shanghai late last month have touched off a debate. The focus is on knees.
Qin Hui, a prime minister of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), who put patriotic general Yue Fei (1103-1142) to death in 1142, is a famous traitor. The sculptures of the man and his wife on their knees before General Yue Fei at a temple in the city of Hangzhou, capital of East China's Zhejiang Province, are a well-known site of historical interest.
Within that temple, Qin Hui has been on his knees for hundreds of years to atone for what he did to the upright general.
Nevertheless, the new sculpture of the humiliated ancient prime minister depicts him and his wife standing up.
The sculptures of Qin Hui and his wife on their knees have already become a symbol of treacherous officials in the various dynasties; a target for citizens to aim grievances at. For those officials that compromised their principles or bent justice for their own benefits, the example of Qin Hui exerted such an ethical pressure on them because they feared they would be on their knees in the minds of later generations.
However, the implications of knees are far more complicated in Chinese culture. In the case of George McCartney, Emperor Qian Long must have felt extremely annoyed when the British envoy refused to lower himself on to his knees. The emperor and his subjects all took it for granted that he was the son of heaven, and it was therefore quite natural for court officials to observe the etiquette of three genuflections and nine prostrations before the emperor.
In ancient Chinese society, knees were an important token in the demonstration of social caste. All court officials must be on their knees before the emperor, the members of the royal family and even eunuchs. Ordinary people must be on their knees whenever they go to an official to lodge a lawsuit or vent their grievances.
It was also a punishment to bring somebody to his knees, which is exemplified by the sculpture of Qin Hui.
The tradition did not fade away in the 1960s and 1970s during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when those who were labeled "bad elements" or "counter-revolutionaries" were brought to their knees before the public to atone for the "crimes" they had committed. As a child, I witnessed the cruel scene of the so-called "bad elements" or "counter-revolutionaries" being forced to put their knees on bricks or pointed metal as a punishment.
In English, the word "pillory" has similar cultural connotations to the Chinese character "xi" (knees). A pillory - a wooden frame with holes for the head and hands - was used to exhibit criminals for public abuse in ancient Europe. When a person was put in a pillory, he or she was open to public humiliation and derision.
Getting on one's knees is also a way of showing respect for someone or something. It used to be quite common for an entire family to pay tribute to the portraits of their ancestors on their knees. It was also a common practice for youngsters to bend their knees and prostrate themselves to observe the etiquette of kowtow to their elders on the occasions of the Chinese lunar new year or the birthdays of these more senior people.
The irony was that this type of traditional etiquette, along with other old-fashioned customs, was labeled as feudal and outdated, and repudiated during the "cultural revolution" while at the same time "alien elements" or "counter-revolutionaries" were forced to their knees for public humiliation and derision, and those suffering the death penalty were forced to their knees immediately before they were executed.
This has already become food for thought or historical resources for jokes. Yet, stories about knees have continued to play a significant role in our culture.
In the early 1990s, stories about waitresses on their knees to provide service for guests in five-star hotels touched off controversy about whether the girls had lost their dignity by doing so.
The cultural connotations of knees have weighed too heavily on the collective psychological makeup of this nation, which has suffered so much humiliation in its diplomacy with Western powers in the past two centuries. That may explain why many care so much about the implications of knees.
We are in the process of building a harmonious society, of which the rule of law, equal rights for people of different walks of life and human rights for all are the basis. The cultural connotations of knees, along with other traditions, should function as a mirror for us to reflect on the past and work for a better future.
(China Daily 11/03/2005 page4)
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