Veteran Hong Kong actor Wu Fung took centre stage for an emotional 90th birthday celebration concert last weekend. But it was a gesture by Wu’s godson, Hong Kong singer and actor Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, known in the city as the “God of Songs”, that grabbed the attention of the media - and has sparked a heated online debate. While performing the hit song “Love is Eternal”, originally sung by Cheung, Wu was surprised when the younger star appeared on the stage, it was reported. Then something unusual happened: Cheung dropped to his knees to kowtow to Wu. “It’s been very long since I knelt before someone, other than my wife. I wish you a Happy Birthday, and hope that you’ll stay healthy and live a long life,” Cheung was reported to have said. Kowtowing is the act of bowing down, sometimes until the head touches the ground. The word kowtow literally means “knock the head”. A virtue advocated by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, it is a sign of respect to elders, particularly parents and ancestors. Lisa Lim, of the School of Education, Curtin University, in Perth, Australia, and Honorary Associate Professor, the University of Hong Kong, said kowtowing has ancient roots and was performed before the Emperor in Imperial Chinese protocol. “Commoners making requests to the magistrate would kowtow, as would emperors to the shrine of Confucius and foreign representatives appearing before the emperor to establish trade relations,” said Lim. She said the grand kowtow - “three kneelings and nine kowtows” - was reserved for more formal ceremonies. There is also a full kowtow - three kneelings and nine knockings of the head on the ground. While not a common practice in daily life, it is still performed on special occasions. Traditional weddings might include it with couples performing three bows: to heaven and earth, to the parents, and to each other. It is also seen at graveyards during festivals such as Ching Ming, a Chinese day for the remembrance of ancestors, when worshippers bow to show respect to the dead or while making offerings. Martial arts students might also kowtow to a master and staff to their bosses. Lim said other countries have similar gestures: bowing in Japan and the wai - a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion - that is part of some South Asian cultures. Many netizens applauded Cheung for his gesture: “It’s the ultimate act of respect,” wrote one. Others were not impressed, accusing Cheung of being fake and groveling to the entertainment industry. “Is there a need for such a public display, it makes the gesture so damn fake lah,” wrote another. Another netizen jumped to Cheung’s defence. “This is an actual custom from a junior to a senior. In fact, it’s a must-do during important festivals and celebrations, for example, Chinese New Year. In fact, Hong Kong public holidays follow the Chinese lunar calendar like Ching Ming. So it’s not a surprise at all.” What is also not surprising is the confusion surrounding its use. Some say it’s a show of respect, others an act of submission. It depends on which part of the world you live. European emissaries in the late-18th-19th-century were not impressed with kowtowing. They often refused to acknowledge the Chinese emperor as the “Son of Heaven”. The definition then shifted far from its Asian origins. “In today’s English it means to act in a submissive, obsequious manner,” said Lim. In July, Chinese rock star Zheng Jun felt the wrath of social media when he boasted about punishing his son for lying by offering him a choice between a beating, kowtowing 1,000 times or an uncomfortable sitting pose for an hour.