The Kung Fu Salute: History & Culture
The Kung Fu salute, or bow, is known in Chinese as wushu baoquan li 武术抱拳礼, which roughly translates to the “Kung Fu courtesy of covering one’s fist.” The Kung Fu salute is generally characterized by an open left hand placed next to a closed right fist.
The importance is that the fingers on the left hand should stay extended and not flexed to cover the right fist. This is a variation of the traditional Chinese greeting known as Zuo Yi作揖, and the entire ceremonial practice known as Yi Li揖礼, which can be roughly translated as the greeting courtesy.
The Kung Fu salute varies upon this to form a unique and sometimes secret greeting amongst martial artists in the pugilistic world known as Jiang Hu 江湖. The term Jiang Hu literally means Rivers and Lakes. This terminology was coined from the concept that in the past martial artists were wanderers and vagabonds who had no fixed place of residence, poetically similar to the ever-changing scenery of rivers and lakes.
As there are variations in the salute, there are many interpretations as to the exact meaning behind the salute. The first meaning which became popular within Chinese folklore and fiction, in particular Heroes of the Water Margin 水浒传, is the association with the concept of wanderers living in the Jiang Hu. The five fingers of the right fist are five lakes 五湖 (in ancient Chinese geography there were only five main lakes) and the four straight fingers of the left hand represent the four seas 四海 (one per direction: East, West, South, and North 东西南北). Together they represent a union of everything encompassed within the five lakes and four seas, which as the ancient Chinese knew was the world and ultimately becomes the proverb, “Across the five lakes and four seas all men are brothers” 五湖四海皆兄弟 or simply “All men are brothers.” This simplified translation has also been used as an alternative title for the novel Heroes of the Water Margin.
Another explanation of the salute comes from the Confucian ideal of perfection through pursuit of both the scholarly and martial arts 文武双全, and the process of perfecting both arts 文武双修. Confucius himself stated the need for a true gentleman to be a master of both the scholarly and the martial, so that should the need arise he could lead armies to defend his family and country. Confucius himself was a skilled horseman and archer. In this explanation the right hand represents the martial component of a martial artist, Wu/Mo 武, whilst the left hand represents the more scholarly aspects of a person, Wen/Mun 文. This can be examined through the closed fist; a universal symbol for violence, it is rigid and does not have the capacity to grasp new things and be gentle. Meanwhile an open hand symbolizes openness, respect, courtesy, and piety, representing the more scholarly pursuits of knowledge and wisdom. The combination of the left hand upon the right fist symbolizes that while a person is capable of the martial, he or she will refrain from it as it is suppressed by respect and courtesy for others, which is above any need for martial conflict.
While the above two are the more commonly accepted explanations for the Kung Fu salute there are others which have had strong political influences. In our style of Hung Ga Kung Fu the use of the salute as a secret code for compatriots was strongly seen in the early Qing dynasty after the Han Chinese government, the Ming dynasty, was overthrown by the foreign Manchu empire. During this time of political discontent, the Han Chinese often formed secret rebel groups. As martial artists were the most likely candidate for these rebellious anti-government activities, it was only natural that they formed their own secret codes. Some used the Kung Fu salute or its reverse to symbolize to another stranger that they were allies in the same cause. The closed fist was likened to the character for the sun 日 whereas the open hand was likened to the character for moon 月. When these two characters are placed together, they form a new character Ming 明, which is both the name of the previous dynasty and the character meaning illumination or to understand. This shows their allegiance to the old Ming dynasty and their cause to repel the Qing (Manchurians) and restore the Ming (Han Chinese), or "Fan Qing Fuk Ming." 反清复明.