Chinese Kids giving a Kung Fu Salute

The Kung Fu Salute

Chinese Kids giving a Kung Fu Salute

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.

One of the first things a student is taught when starting Martial Arts is how to bow or salute.

Although there are several varieties of the Chinese salute, by far the most common is the fist/palm. There are typically two types of this:

  1. General Greeting or sign of Thanks
  2. Kung Fu Salute

The name of the General Greeting is 作 揖 (Zuō Yī / Jok3 Yap3). It can also be referred to by just Yi/Yap.

The 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.

While the General Greeting is more relaxed, the specifics surrounding the Kung Fu Salute have a bit more depth, and is obviously a bit more of our focus.

A proper salute not only shows respect for teachers and training partners, it is also an excellent indicator of the practitioners attitude and level of proficiency in the art.

Think of this the next time you Salute and what this phrase means:

When you drink a glass of water, you should always consider its source.


When using the General Greeting or a show of thanks, the right fist is merely surrounded by the left hand; the left hand is placed palm against the right fist so that the fingers of the left hand lay against the back to the right hand. Keep in mind, however, that there are those that switch the right & left designations.

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
  • The arms form a circle with the elbows hanging low and the shoulders relaxed
  • The hands are held between nose and chest height, depending on the amount/level of respect to be shown
  • The posture is erect and the eyes are focused on the person who is being saluted, except in special circumstances
  • Many students will bring their hands higher when saluting an altar or Sifu, accompanying it with a slight bow


As there are variations among styles in the salute, there are also many widely-different interpretations as to the meanings and symbols behind the salute.

They can generally be organized into seven different areas:

  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.


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.


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

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.




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 will conflict with each other in this way.

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.


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

Water Margin Kung Fu

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 I will touch on another time. 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 of the Five Lakes & Four Seas would be:

Five Lakes Four Seas
洞 庭 湖 (Dòng Tíng Hú / Dung6 Ting4 Wu4) in Hunan 湖 南 province 渤 海 (Bó Hǎi / But6 Hoi2) Rising Sea
鄱 陽 湖 (Pó Yáng Hú / Po4 Yeung4 Wu4) in Jiangxi 江 西 province 東 海 (Dōng Hǎi / Dung1 Hoi2) East [China] Sea
青 海 湖 (Qīng Hǎi Hú / Ceng1 Hoi2 Wu4) in Qing Hai 青 海 province 南 海 (Nán Hǎi / Naam4 Hoi2) Southern [China] Sea
太 湖 (Tài Hú / Taai3 Wu4) in Jiangsu 江 苏 province 黃 海 (Huáng Hǎi / Wong4 Hoi2) Yellow Sea
西 湖 (Xī Hú / Sai1 Wu4) in Zhejiang 浙 江 province  


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 and tradition. And more.

Here’s saluting you, Kung Fu!

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