Salute: a gesture of respect, homage, or polite recognition or acknowledgment, especially one made to or by a person when arriving or departing.

This gesture could simply be a strong feeling verbally expressed, as in the video below. But it could also be something more.

In the martial arts, and in Chinese Martial Arts or Kung Fu, especially, the salute is physical and yet is packed with meaning.

This is not only a part of martial culture, but also an essential part of Martial Virtue, known as 武德 (Wu De in Mandarin or Mo Duk in Cantonese) in Chinese.

Salutes have been around for a great many years. Reaching far back in history, knights greeted each other by raising their visors to show their faces, using a motion that resulted in what looks like a modern Military salute.

Martial Artists commonly salute with a bow, gesture, or some other trademark of style and tradition.

And display honor and respect for each other’s skills, abilities, and the work it took to get there.

You’ll see bows or salutations between people, towards places and things symbolic, and also within martial art forms, practices, and ceremonies.

When starting the Martial Arts, a student is taught the required details of when, why and how to bow and/or salute. For students of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, this is typically done in a fist and palm combination.

The Kung Fu student will perform this fist and palm salute countless times in just as many circumstances. With some measure of pride, they will recognize it being performed by great Chinese masters on the silver screen of Kung Fu movies. They might see celebrities shaking the salute towards the camera on TV specials or at Chinese New Year celebrations. And then they might see a strange version of it being done in some historical piece by “fancy people wearing hats.”

That’s because they are three unique types of Chinese salutes.

  1. Confucian Salute
  2. Common Salute
  3. Martial Salute

You’ll see some Chinese language below – traditional Chinese characters, some Chinese Romanizations for both Mandarin and Cantonese and English translations. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Romanization, check out this article here.

Three Types of Chinese Salutes

Confucian Salute

Having its origins in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 771 BC) the Confucian salute is part of a ceremonial practice was known as Yī Lǐ 揖禮, roughly translating to greeting courtesy. This salute can be seen performed by scholars, generals, nobility and the elite in movies, but was the Confucian embodiment of respect for all to practice. 

The fingers are somewhat together, one hand in front and covering the other, thumbs either up or hidden, forearms mostly horizontal, held up between heart and chin-height. Sometimes a bow is involved, sometimes not. But “the hats” have nothing to do with it; it’s the noble and Confucian thing to do.

Throughout the centuries, this salute has morphed into many unique customs, with the most prevalent being the Common & Martial salutes.

Confucian Salute | Classical Chinese Etiquette | PATHS Atlanta Kung Fu
Confucian Salute | Classical Chinese Etiquette

Common Salute

Next we have the Common Salute.

This salute is called 作 揖 (Zuō Yī / Jok3 Yap3) or “to bow with hand folded in front.” However here one hand makes a loose fist and the other forms a palm, covering it, with the forearms relaxed. Tradition dictates that the right hand is the fist for males, left hand fist for females, except at funerals, when the designations are switched. And like any tradition, not all people follow this rule.

People might make this fist and palm common salute when visiting others during traditional Chinese new year activities, attending wedding receptions, birthdays, banquets, congratulatory celebrations, holiday celebrations, funerals and other special occasions. But it can also be used in a manner of greeting or saying farewell.

As a traditional greeting, both hands are raised to the brow, bend at the waist and shake the salute towards the other gently three times, while perhaps offering a special greeting dictated by the occasion.

If you watch any kind of Chinese special program on TV, you’re more than likely going to hear the hosts saying “大家好!” or “Hello Everyone!” while they are shaking the Chinese Common Salute toward the camera.

Chinese Common Salute for Greeting, Farewell, Well Wishes, etc.
Chinese Common Salute for Greeting, Farewell, Well Wishes, etc.

Martial Salute

Coming full-circle, a more stylized version of the Common Salute emerges, full of meaning and metaphor: the Martial Salute.

By itself, the fist and palm combination is called “Fist Wrapping,” “Wrapping the Fist” or Bao Quan 抱拳 and is the most common salute in Chinese Martial Art styles (of course, some styles have their own unique salutes).

The technical name for the full Kung Fu Salute is 武 术 抱 拳 礼 (Wǔ Shù Bào Quán Lǐ / Mou5 Seut6 Bou5 Kyun4 Lai5) and roughly translates to the Kung Fu Courtesy of Covering one’s Fist.

For a proper Kung Fu Salute, pay attention to these points:

  • Make a Fist with the Right hand
  • Place the Palm of the Left hand over the Right Fist
  • The Left Thumb is bent, and the four fingers are pressed together & straight (some might actually “wrap” the fist, however)
  • The arms form a circle with the elbows bent
  • The hands are held between nose and chest height, depending on the level of respect shown
  • The posture is erect and the eyes are focused on the person (or object) who is being saluted
  • Many students will bring their hands higher when saluting an altar or Sifu, accompanying it with a slight bow

A proper salute shows respect for teachers, training partners, traditions, their art and possibly more.

An old adage, in regards to the sincerity one should feel when executing a martial salute says “When you drink a glass of water, you should always consider its source.”

Martial Salutes are executed when entering a martial arts school or training area, to teachers & fellow students, within forms, performing demonstrations and many other situations as well. 

Kung Fu Salute in a large group
Kung Fu Salute

Kung Fu Salute:
Metaphor & Meaning

As there are variations among styles in the salute, there are also many different interpretations as to the metaphors and meanings behind the Chinese Martial Salute.

Seven points of view or frames of reference can help give a more complete understanding of the significance of the Kung Fu or Chinese Martial Salute.

  1. Official Standard
  2. General
  3. Practical
  4. Yin-Yang
  5. History
  6. Wu Xia
  7. Philosophy 

Official Standard

The modern Peoples’ Republic of China definition states that the fist demonstrates that you are pledged to the cultivation of the martial arts, and are using martial arts to make friends.

The open hand thumb is bent out of humility. Chinese people will point to themselves with their thumb instead of their index finger.

A straightened thumb, like the western ‘thumb up’ gesture means ‘I’m number one!’ to Chinese. Therefore, the bent thumb implies that that you are not the best. Proper martial etiquette would demand that you remain humble and not show off.

The four fingers symbolize uniting Kung Fu across the four directions. 

General

One of the most common ways of explaining this in Martial Arts schools in the West is that the right hand held in a fist represents your weapon, the left hand covers as the sheath. The interpretation is, “Here is my weapon. It is put away – out of trust and respect.”

In short, the fist shows martial ability, and the hand covers the fist to show civility.

The union of these symbols is uprightness, human justice, personal freedom while fully respecting the rights of others, and the humility of recognizing ones’ mistakes.

Another view is that the four fingers being extended means Martial Arts across the globe (or the four oceans) are of the same line and share the same goal. The bent thumb shows modesty and humility. To place the fist and palm together means you are willing to make friends through your martial arts practice, and to form a circle with the arms shows that all Martial Artists on earth are of one family. 

Practical

In historical China, many practitioners would train Iron Palm or other special skill training to the left hand. Supposedly they were less likely to use it and harm someone, since most folks are right-handed.

As right handed people are predominant, most weapon forms are done with the right hand holding the weapon. When one reaches across with their right hand to grab their sword, the left hand is typically either “shielding” or palming in some fashion or holding the scabbard, shield, another weapon, etc..

The right hand symbolizes our trained ability to fight. The open left hand symbolizes our preference for peace. Placing the left open hand over the right symbolizes that although we are trained to fight, we restrain that and prefer peace.

Yin-Yang (Taiji)

This is not a document about Yin-Yang dynamics, as that is a complete study in itself. In Martial Arts, Philosophy, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, one debate has lasted for centuries: The relationship of Left & Right vs. Yin & Yang. Keep this in mind, as some of the Yin-Yang theories of the Salute may conflict with each other in this way.

Taijitu | Taiji (Tai Chi) Diagram | Yin-Yang
Taijitu | Taiji (Tai Chi) Diagram | Yin-Yang

The right fist may symbolize the Yang principle: masculine, active, hard, hot, rising, projective, positive, etc. The left palm symbolizes the Yin principle: feminine, passive, soft, cool, sinking, receptive, negative, etc.

In combat, there is offense and defense.

In truth, Harmony is what we desire.

The left hand may be considered like the Sun – Yang; the right hand like that of the Yin Moon. The union between these two brightest objects in the sky is Brightness, illumination, etc., known as (Míng / Ming4).

Sun has two major names in Chinese:

  1. (Rì / Yat6) = Sun
  2. 太 阳 (Tài Yáng / Taai3 Yeung4) = Great Yang

Moon has many more names in Chinese. For simplicity’s sake, let’s consider the pairing best matched with Sun:

  1. (Yuè / Yut6) = Moon
  2. 太 阴 (Tài Yīn / Taai3 Yam1) = Great Yin

The Chinese characters for Yin and Yang actually contain the characters for the Moon and Sun within them, and the two celestial bodies are thought of as being the epitome of their expressions.

Putting these two together, you get (Míng / Ming4), meaning brightness, illumination, clear-sighted, etc. 

Historical

And now another usage of the word Ming.

The Salute was used as a code for compatriots – seen in the early Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) of the Han Chinese government; the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the foreign Manchu empire.

During this time of political discontent, the Han Chinese (main, native Chinese; not a minority) often formed resistance groups. Some used the Salute to symbolize to another that they were allies in the same cause.

Ming is both the name of the previous dynasty, and the character meaning illumination or to understand.

This showed their allegiance to the old Ming dynasty; their cause to repel the Qing (Manchurians) and restore the Ming (Han Chinese). The Ming dynasty has been described by some as “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history.”

A common phrase, even used by Sun Yat-Sen was 反 清 复 明 (Fǎn Qīng Fù Míng / Faan2 Ching1 Fuk6 Ming4):

Oppose the Qing, Restore the Ming 

Wu Xia

Lu Zhishen of the Water Margin / Outlaws of the Marsh / All Men Are Brothers

Wu Xia 武 俠 (Wǔ Xiá / Mou5 Haap6) means Martial Hero, and refers to a broad genre of Chinese fiction in books, movies, etc., concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancinet China. Although fiction, there is quite a bit of Wu Xia influence on actual Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA) and vice-versa.

The 四 大 名 著 (Sì Dà Míng Zhù / Sei3 Daai6 Ming4 Zoek3) “Four Great Classical Novels” (or Four Great Masterpieces) of Chinese literature are among the world’s longest and oldest novels and have influenced the creation of many stories, plays, movies, games, and other forms of entertainment throughout Asia. You’ll also find many Chinese proverbs and idioms, still in use today, that are derived from Classic Chinese novels.

And two of these four are considered Wu Xia:

  1. 水 浒 传 (Shuǐ Hǔ Chuán / Seui2 Wu2 Chyun4) Heroes of the Water Margin, aka Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, All Men Are Brothers, Men of the Marshes, or The Marshes of Mount Liang
  2. 三 國 演 義 (Sān Guó Yǎn Yì / Saam1 Gwok3 Yin2 Ji6) Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Inside, you’ll often find the concept of wandering warriors living in the 江 湖 (Jiāng Hú / Gong1 Wu4) “Rivers and Lakes.” This refers to a community of martial artists in Wuxia stories and, more recently, outlaw societies like the Triads. The Jianghu is similar, but different from the 武 林 (Wǔ Lín / Mou5 Lam4) and 遊 俠 (Yóu Xiá / Yau4 Haap6), which would be an interesting rabbit-hole, but let’s get back to the Five Lakes Four Seas.

The five fingers of the fist = Five Lakes 五 湖 (Wǔ Hú / Ong5 Wu4) and the four straight fingers of the left hand represent Four Seas 四 海 (Sì Hǎi / Sei3 Hoi2). Some more eclectic styles still emphasize this symbolism and use this terminology in the naming of their salutes.

This represents the five major lakes in China and the four seas that surround China (although some have different interpretations of these lakes & seas). But some also used the idiom to describe a vast domain, such as the entire country or the entire world.

In ancient China “5 Lakes 4 Seas” meant all (Han 漢) Chinese are one family. In a modern and broader vision, it means that all people cultivated by Chinese culture are brothers and sisters.

Together, they represent a union of everything encompassed within the Five Lakes and Four Seas. Ancient Chinese knew this as the World at large. Ultimately, this leads to the proverb “Across the Five Lakes and Four Seas, All Men are Brothers” 五 湖 四 海 皆 兄 弟 (Wǔ Hú Sì Hǎi Jiē Xiōng Dì / Ong5 Wu4 Sei3 Hoi2 Gaai1 Hing1 Dai6) or simply “All Men are Brothers.”

“Men” and “Brothers” are gender-specific, but their meanings here are gender-neutral.

The simplified translation, “All Men are Brothers,” has also been used as an alternative title for the Wu Xia novel Heroes of the Water Margin, mentioned above.

One association (there are several) of the Five Lakes & Four Seas would be:

Five LakesFour Seas
洞庭湖 Dòng Tíng Hú or Dongting Lake, in 湖南省 Hunan province渤海 Bó Hǎi, Bohai Sea, Bo Sea, or Rising Sea
鄱陽湖 Pó Yáng Hú or Poyang Lake, in 江西省 Jiangxi province東海 Dōng Hǎi or East [China] Sea
青海湖 Qīng Hǎi Hú or Qinghai Lake in 青海省 Qing Hai province南海 Nán Hǎi or South [China] Sea
太湖 Tài Hú or Lake Tai in 江苏省 Jiangsu province黃海 Huáng Hǎi or Yellow Sea
西湖 Xī Hú or West Lake in 浙江省 Zhejiang province 

And if you really like the Wuxia genre, by the way, I suggest you check out our Chinese Literature Podcasts page, as there’s some related goodies in there you might enjoy.  🙂 

Philosophy

The Confucian ideal of perfection through pursuit of both the scholarly and martial arts 文 武 双 全 (Wén Wǔ Shuāng Quán / Man4 Mou5 Seung1 Chyuhn4) and the process of perfecting both arts 文 武 双 修 (Wén Wǔ Shuāng Xiū / Man4 Mou5 Seung1 Sau1), actually lends itself well to the Salute.

孔 夫 子 (Kǒng Fū Zi/ Hung2 Fu1 Zi2), better known as Confucius, 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 fist represents the martial component of a martial artist 武 (Wǔ / Mou5) and the palm represents the more scholarly aspects of a person 文 (Wén / Man4).

This can be seen in the closed fist; a universal symbol for violence, is rigid, and does not have the capacity to grasp new things and be gentle.

An open hand symbolizes openness, respect, courtesy and, piety, representing the more scholarly pursuits of knowledge and wisdom.

The combination of the two shows a person is capable of the martial, yet he or she will refrain from it, suppressed by a strong respect and courtesy for others which is above any need for martial conflict. 

Kung Fu Salute

So what is the meaning behind the Salute in Kung Fu? It means a depth of understanding, a depth of character. 

Respect, honor, tradition. 

And more. So much more.

Here’s saluting you, Kung Fu!

Kung Fu Friends Salute in Downtown Decatur - Atlanta, GA
Kung Fu Friends Salute in Downtown Decatur - Atlanta, GA

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