[FOUNTAIN]When a handshake is something more

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[FOUNTAIN]When a handshake is something more

In May 1989, Qian Qichen, China’s foreign affairs minister, faced a knotty problem: how to greet Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, during his visit to China. The visit was a milestone in the shaking-off of decades of bitterness between the two countries, but that bitterness was not quite gone. Finally, Deng Xiaoping announced the guidelines: “Handshakes allowed, but no hugging.”
There is a saying that a handshake is how a god in the heavens grants power to a leader on Earth. In the New Year festival in ancient Babylonia, the king used to grasp the hands of the statue of the god Marduk, a gesture that symbolized the handing down of power to the king for the year.
There are other theories about the origin of the handshake. In Roman times, people would sometimes hide daggers in their sleeves, and grasping each other’s wrists upon meeting was done for reasons of self-defense. This evolved into grasping one another’s palms, and by the 19th century the handshake had become the standard greeting between businessmen. A handshake is now a sign of intimacy. An embrace, to show love and friendship, was often used politically in Eastern Europe ―a gesture between communist leaders meant to demonstrate their “brotherhood.” Mr. Deng’s “no hugging” rule for Mr. Gorbachev’s visit meant that while relations between the two countries were now normal, China still intended to keep an eye on the Soviet Union.
In Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland, a recent handshake between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Donald Tsang, the acting chief executive of Hong Kong, has become an issue. They met Monday at the Fortune Global Forum in Beijing; Mr. Hu reached out for a handshake that lasted a full 11 seconds.
Of course, there was political meaning there. It was a gesture of encouragement to Mr. Tsang, and a sign of support in the July election. There are many pro-China delegates in Hong Kong’s 800-member-plus electoral college, and if they had not decided who to vote for, that handshake may have given them the answer. It was not unlike the handshake offered by Marduk in Babylonia.


by You Sang-cheol

The writer is a deputy international news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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