When a Rising China and a Humbled West Meet, Who Bows Deeper?

It's a centuries-old question that's taking on new significance as the two ends of the world come together, on slightly different terms.

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Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma bow to one another after a performance in Beijing / Vimeo

The image of actress Meryl "The Iron Lady" Streep prostrating herself upon the stage of Beijing's National Performance Hall before cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as if she were a legate from some minor-tribute-bearing principality performing the sanbai jiukou (three bows and nine prostrations) before the emperor, was one to put any historical aficionado of things Chinese in high reflection mode.

The age-old Chinese question of who gets to stand higher than whom -- especially when fame, wealth, and power are involved -- has almost always been a critical point of tension. Since the 18th century, when the newly arrived West's strenuous demands for equality of representation ran headlong into China's rigid expectations of superiority, East-West relations have never really found equipoise since. Yet here was Streep, an artist of incomparable talents and international standing, abjectly yielding before another artistic titan who happened to be Chinese -- and who, in his turn, abjectly yielded to her in an unexpected ballet of competitive modesty.

What were the Chinese in the audience making of this very un-Chinese demonstration, in which the traditional instinct to maintain superior standing in public rituals was being so wantonly inverted -- and in their own capital! With Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become the PRC's President and Party General Secretary later this year, visiting the White House this week at Joe Biden's invitation, it is worth examining what an unrehearsed display of deference between American and Chinese luminaries in one sphere could say about what we might hope to see between American and Chinese luminaries in another.

Last November, the Asia Society and the Aspen Institute's U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture brought Streep and Ma -- as well as the likes of chef Alice Waters, director Joel Coen, writer Michael Pollan, and others -- to China on a cultural exchange. In a concert with Chinese musicians and artists in which every segment paired a representative and work of one culture with another, Streep and Ma gave a joint performance in which she read a Tang Dynasty poem by Wang Wei and a letter from Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille on the creative process while Yo-Yo played elements of George Crumb's concerto for solo cello.

When this mesmerizing collaboration ended to a roar of applause, Streep and Ma embraced each other and bowed before the audience. She started to walk off the stage, but he cried out, "Don't go away! Don't go away!" With the audience still clapping, she turned and rejoined him center stage. Clasping her hands together in a gesture of appreciation, she pressed one hand to her heart and then dipped into a deep, reverential bow before him.

Not comfortable being the object of such adoration, and wishing to demonstrate his own appreciation of her artistry, Ma fell to one knee before her like Sir Walter Raleigh. Then, as if he had suddenly decided that this was an insufficient paean to her prowess, his already regal genuflection morphed into a full bow with both knees bended to the floor.

This, in turn, triggered Streep to an even more extreme demonstration of devotion to Yo-Yo's musical abilities. As the crowd roared with delight, she prostrated herself flat out on the floor before him with hands outstretched like a Tibetan pilgrim before an image of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion.

A Poem Reading with Meryl Streep and Cello with Yo-Yo Ma from Center on US-China Relations on Vimeo.

As Ma began to rise from bended knee to see that Streep was splayed faced down before him, he was triggered into another almost autonomic expression of respect. This time, he bent down and touched his head to the floor in a full-blown kowtow. Then, realizing that she was still fully supine before him, he, too, went down face-first on the floor, his Stradivarius cello and bow awkwardly splayed out in front of him like the crutches of a pilgrim at Lourdes.

As they finally stood up from the strange pas-de deux , grins of amused stupefaction spread across their faces. Recognizing that something quite unprecedented had just transpired on this stage, the Chinese audience, too, was going berserk, clapping, laughing, hooting, and cheering in a state of rapturous delight.

So, what was it that had happened?

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Ever since King George III dispatched George Viscount Macartney of Dervock to Beijing in 1793 to exchange ambassadors with the Qing Dynasty, interactions between China and the West have revolved around the prickly historical question of who was stronger than the other and thus who would genuflect to whom. After a long and complex negotiation over whether he would kowtow to the Qianglong Emperor, Lord Macartney failed in his mission to convince the still powerful Chinese to allow a British ambassador to take up permanent residence in Beijing.

When Macartney appeared in Beijing to demand equal relations, China was still strong and he was met by much imperial incredulity. After all, the Middle Kingdom had never accepted emissaries from other countries as anything more than inferior "tribute bearing" supplicants who might periodically be allowed to travel to Beijing bearing gifts for the Son of Heaven. Accepted as equals? Never! When Macartney was told that he must kowtow -- bow and touch his head to the floor -- before the emperor, he refused. "Being the representative of the first monarch of the Western world, his dignity must be the measure of my conduct," he wrote in his diary.

Two months of wrangling ensued over the vexing question of the manner of genuflection Macartney would be required to make to the emperor. The deadlock was at last broken when the Chinese thought to ask what the "ceremony of presentation to the King of England." Macartney explained that subjects kneeled upon one knee and then kissed his majesty's hand. "Why then, cried they," Macartney reported his Chinese counterparts as responding, "Can't you do so for the Emperor?"

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"'Most readily,' said I," replied Macartney. "The ceremony I perform to my own King I am willing to go through for your emperor, and I think it a greater compliment than any other I can pay him."

Alas, another problem of equivalence emerged. "Soon after the Legate arrived, and declared that it was finally determined to adopt the English ceremony, only that, as it was not the custom in China to kiss the Emperor's hand, he proposed I should kneel on both knees instead of it [one knee]," wrote Macartney. "I told him I had already given my answer, which was to kneel upon one knee only on those occasions when it was usual for the Chinese to prostrate themselves."

It is easy to see in this exchange how difficult it was, even during this first encounter, to bridge the culture gap and to work out the niceties of relative East-West status. As Lord Macartney noted in his diary, "Thus ended this curious negotiation which has given me a tolerable insight into the character of this Court, and that political address upon which they so much value themselves." Perhaps the main "insight" Macartney glimpsed was that maintaining face in a culture where equality can never be presumed involves an infinitely complex negotiation over symbolism. Before departing Beijing, Lord Macartney was moved to conclude with some discouragement that, "The Chinese character seems at present inexplicable."

A century later, after the Middle Kingdom had fallen so precipitously from its place of unchallenged global superiority that it had been dubbed the "sick man of Asia," an enormous reservoir of sensitivity toward western dominance and bullying had built up. This sensitivity became especially raw in any public interaction or joint ceremony where Chinese inferiority of status might be implied. For a nation that had been accustomed to strength as a birthright for so long, the idea of weakness -- much less to be despised, as China sometimes was during the early 20th century -- was excruciatingly painful.

As China nose-dived towards collapse, the Chinese found less and less basis left for any presumption of superiority, even equality. However, their yearning for respect -- or even for a ritualized semblance of such -- did not diminish. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party elaborated a unique ideology of victimization that depicted China as having been exploited and humiliated by the imperial powers, and so the need for manifestations of respect only grew. Who went first, bowed before another, or sat higher than someone else all became part of the ongoing shadow play of maintaining face -- a balm calculated to soothe the actual respect deficit.

Maintaining face in a culture where equality can never be presumed involves an infinitely complex negotiation over symbolism.

More recently, of course, China has regained much of its former wealth and power, as well as renewed confidence, and sometimes arrogance. But has this resurgence of self-assurance, whose flows had been in such drought conditions for so long, finally begun to assuage China's long-standing psychological thirst for equivalence? That moment may yet arrive -- if all goes well -- but it is not yet at hand. In reality the Chinese have chinned their country up to a status that is at last approaching that of the so-called "great powers." But it usually takes a generation or two for actual changes in power balance within and between countries to be absorbed psychologically by the actual people on both sides of the proposition.

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From here on, as China's wealth and power increases, its national challenge will be to start letting itself feel sufficiently reinstated in the congress of great nations that it does not need to wallow in narratives of victimization, or be so militant about grasping symbolic demonstrations of its equality or superiority. The highest stage of evolution for any truly great power is to reach that point where it is possible to transcend the notion of both inferior and superior, the better to cultivate a self-confidence that leads to modesty. This is a lot to ask of China, or any country. Even the United States, the strongest nation on the globe today, has only rarely demonstrated such national maturity.

What made such exemplars out of Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma on that Beijing stage -- which fittingly lies just across the street from the Forbidden City, where the Qianlong Emperor reigned over 200 years ago -- was their rare deportment toward each other. Instead of one seeking to stand taller than the other or to bolster one ego at the expense of the other, each tried to deflect acclaim from themselves to the other in what ended up being an almost slapstick comedy of competitive humility. Theirs was a stellar example of magnanimity born of accomplishment and confidence. They helped create a wonderful night of artistry, but more important they gave a subtle but powerful demonstration for Chinese and Americans alike of the level to which collaboration built on true equality can sometimes rise.

While a great nation must, of course, seek its own self-interest, it does not need to do so by remaining selfishly unmindful of the interests and accomplishments of other nations. True greatness does not demand endless adoration, but thrives by sometimes deflecting acclaim to others. It was this element that was so heartwarmingly evident in Yo-Yo Ma and Meryl Streep's joint performance -- and, two centuries before, was so missing from Lord Macartney's visit to the Qianlong Emperor. Alas, it is still all too often missing from U.S.-China relations today.

Vice President Xi is largely unknown to the West. What a pleasure it would be to see him and his American counterparts break the stranglehold of the past and come forth on the public stage as self-confident equals, bent on helping each other solve some of the world's most challenging problems.