Just wondering if this had its origins in a "questionable' time and should be avoided. For example, if it were used during a time of predjudice against Chinese laborers, or used to refer to their behavior, then it might be said to have questionable origins.

Even if those roots are unknown to most people, like the word 'gypped' it could have prejudicial undertones.

  • 2
    Most people would not know the origin (Chinese) yet use the word to mean submissive to authority anyway. That usually means there is no racism implied. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 4:54
  • What time do you expect was "questionable"? The OED finds the first use in print in 1804.
    – deadrat
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 5:28
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    The close reason given is "primarily opion based", though the is 'white lie' racist? question is just as opion based and did quiet well. If this question can attract good answers I think it has a chance. It would help if had more research into the issue. Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 5:39
  • kowtow means bow down head - how racist could that be? Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 6:44
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    @BlessedGeek Not at all, to quite a lot. :)
    – Lawrence
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 7:58

1 Answer 1


According to wikipedia,

Kowtow ... is the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one's head touching the ground.

With reference to its origins, reading before to mean in front of, not predating:

In Imperial Chinese protocol, the kowtow was performed before the Emperor of China.

The wikipedia article also offers some notes on modern usage, including in induction ceremonies and in other contexts, such as:

In extreme cases, the kowtow can be used to express profound gratitude, apology, or to beg for forgiveness.

Negative references include the May Fourth Movement:

an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement growing out of student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919, protesting against the Chinese government's weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, especially allowing Japan to receive territories in Shandong which had been surrendered by Germany after the Siege of Tsingtao.

Modern colloquial usage sees the word in a more derogatory light:

Kowtow verb 1 Act in an excessively subservient manner - ODO

Kowtow Intransitive verb 2. To show servile deference. - The Free Dictionary

The Free Dictionary offers several synonyms, of which the following are among the less unprintable in polite society:

grovel, court, flatter, lick someone's boots

You ask in relation to the origins of the word:

Does “kowtow” have racist connotations?

The simplistic answer is no.

The origins are rooted in imperial China (or before), performed by Chinese to Chinese, so it does not originate from racist roots. However, to kowtow to someone, whether physically and metaphorically, speaks of a vast difference in status. Although modern usage is split between honour codes and derogatory references, it is often (possibly always) derogatory when not offered voluntarily.

In particular, in the absence of an honour code as context, saying that someone kowtows to someone else doesn't normally carry the literal sense of prostration. At best, it carries the connotation of grovelling.

In light of all this, the fuller answer is that because the term is recognisably ethnic, using kowtow instead of (say) grovel does carry some racist overtones, particularly when applied to someone interacting with a person of a different ethnicity.

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    Re-reading this, I really appreciate your answer @Lawrence. It follows the full arc of the origins and implications and comes to a satisfactory conclusion.
    – beroe
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 17:22
  • @beroe You’re welcome, and I very much appreciate your kind feedback.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 11:43

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