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This motion shows up in some styles of Karate (opening movement of several Shotokan kata - Bassai Dai, Jiin, Jion, Jitte) and some Kung-Fu styles. What does it represent?

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It's also known in Taekwondo: Ready stance a, b in traditional and Bo-Jumok in WTF –  Sean Patrick Floyd Feb 9 '12 at 16:10
    
There is a similar one in Vovinam too, but with a straight palm (basically looking like -|O- if it makes sense). But the interesting part is that it is actually considered a fighting stance, and some moves are made to be started in this position. And as an addition, there is another salute - not often done - of covering the left hand with the right hand. It means exactly what it says: "I cover peace/mercy/non aggression", and ends up quite messy. –  Cristol.GdM Feb 14 '12 at 5:24

9 Answers 9

up vote 18 down vote accepted

This ritual is called Bao Quan (抱拳), literally meaning "Fist Wrapping", and is a common etiquette derived from (but not exclusive to) Chinese Martial Arts. It is not necessarily a bow, but rather a salute. Traditionally, this is practiced by:

  • Standing upright, the body straight.
  • Clenching the right fist.
  • Straighten your left palm to have your four fingers in a plane.
  • Wrap the left four fingers together around the right fist.
  • Place the two hands in front of your chest, without bringing the elbows up. [Edit: I come to understand that the elbows may or may not be "up" dependent upon the situation, locality, or perhaps personal preference.]

There are two traditional explanations.

  1. The left palm with its 4 fingers represent the 4 nurturing elements: Virtue, Wisdom, Health, and Art. These symbolize the spirit of martial arts. The left thumb is slightly bent to imply one should never be arrogant or self-centered. The right fist symbolizes rigorous practice. Since the right hand is clenched in a fist, it symbolizes attack, while the left, being virtuous and disciplined, stops the attack, symbolizing self-discipline and restraint.

  2. The left hand symbolizes the 5 (major) lakes of China, the fist representing the 4 seas surrounding China. The two hands together show the unity of martial artists. This is exemplified in the saying 五湖四海皆兄弟 (I believe wu hu si hai joe xiongdi, but I don't know much Chinese), which means "The people of the 5 lakes and 4 seas are all brothers." This, I'm lead to understand, is commonly taught as a meaning to Bak Mei practitioners. This also has ties to the Hung Society, but this trends off-topic.

Edit: I have also heard numerous other explanations from various instructors in different styles of Kempo and Wushu, ranging from the "Right is war, left is peace" to the meeting of Taoist (right) and Buddhist (left) cultures in unity. The two I list as traditional (above) come from sources who've been very helpful in researching things in the past. These edit-included excuses tend to be perpetuated down less reputable lines.

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Notably, in Bak Mei the salute is a little "backwards" from the common salute. In Bak Mei, the right palm sits on top of the left fist, rather than the left palm wrapping the right fist. –  The Wudang Kid 10 hours ago

There are many reasons for this action. It is, by the way, not the opening movement of a form, but a salute, a ritualistic motion. Here are a few reasons:

  • Closed hand is aggression, fight & open hand is peace. Cover aggression with peace to indicate that there is such a power within you but you choose not to use it.
  • Closed hand is yang, open hand is yin. Join yin and yang.
  • Connect the meridians from the specific point in the open left hand to the specific point in the knuckle of the right hand to close an energetic loop in the body
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The idea of salute makes sense too, as we do this in the beginning of our kempo class. Before we start any activity, we do this motion and bow in the beginning. "Front position and bow", which that was how I took it was a gesture of respect - "salute". I like that explanation about the peace and aggression too. Very interesting and informative answer. Thanks! –  eidylon Feb 9 '12 at 17:24

In the system that I teach in, the left hand symbolizes the mind, the right symbolizes the body. We have three bows as you progress through training:

  1. For beginners, the hands are at the side in a fist to symbolize your mind and body are far apart.
  2. Roughly half way to Black Belt, hands together similar to the picture, however left hand fingers are straight out, symbolizes your mind and body are coming closer together.
  3. From 1st Degree and up, as in the picture above to symbolize your mind and body have come together.
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May I ask which system you teach? I've never heard about this before. –  Trevoke Feb 13 '12 at 20:57
    
Our school teaches a mix of tae kwon doe, aikido, kung fu, bagwa zhang and weapons. bodymindsystems.com –  AndyDrav Feb 14 '12 at 16:36
    
@Trevoke: And that's why you've never heard of it. –  stslavik Feb 14 '12 at 17:55
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I'm very surprised that the system would have a type of salute for beginners to signify that they are... I can't really word it in a nicer way: to signify that they suck. What if you had a 'beginner' who had ten years of serious martial and mental training? Would you then teach him the third salute, or force him to symbolically regress? My opinion (for what it's worth) is that even a beginner is on the path of body and mind coming together, and that is very important to represent. May I ask the logic why it is not so? –  Trevoke Feb 14 '12 at 18:56
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@Trevoke: My assertion is not inaccurate; many new hybridizations of arts use varying salutations that are given meaning to create cohesion in that environment to the exclusion of "outsiders". Further, the assertion that a beginner in their course is only on the path to unification of the mind and body establishes hierarchy, and seeks to differentiate their training as "the way", vs. anything previously learned. My philosophical believes (Cynic or otherwise) are not at issue here. –  stslavik Feb 15 '12 at 21:41

I think this is being over analysed. This is simply a courteous symbol of respect. All martial art instruction emphasises that conflict should be avoided wherever possible. I must admit that I find the idea of different expressions of respect dependent on grade a little bizarre.

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Hi, and welcome to the site. Your answer seems like it could be a little more detailed, perhaps with some references. For instance, hand gestures all have some origin; the western handshake may be traced back to warrior cultures, in fact showing up as a terminus for the initiation rights of the Mithraic Mysteries. Rituals all have meaning; sharing their history can better help us to understand from where our arts come. –  stslavik Oct 28 '13 at 13:33

The fist is symbolic of fighting or war, the open hand is covering it showing that we come in peace, but are ready for war if that is what the other person wants or brings. The open hand with the fingers straight is also similar to an extended open hand ready to be shaken. With the fingers outstretched towards the other person it's basically showing that we prefer to be at peace over war.

There are of course many other meanings attached to it as well, but that is basically what is taught in the gung-fu system that I learned.

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This hand posture is also found associated with the sho chiku bai (pine, bamboo, plum) formations as seen at this link: http://www.skski.net/sho-chiku-bai-mon.html. More details about that can be found there, as well.

In Morihei Ueshiba's book on aikido talks about the sho chiku bai throughout its pages, but doesn't discuss the hand postures: http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Teachings-Aikido-Morihei-Ueshiba/dp/1568364466/

Robert Trias of Shuri-ryu karate mentions Sho Chiku Bai. He doesn't necessarily stress it, at least not within his Pinnacle of Okinawan Karate book. However, all of the Shuri-ryu katas (and perhaps others) end with each of these hand positions. The connection between them is not well explained, though (in my experience).

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Bowing has been used thru the ages, throughout the world mostly to show subservience to your betters, to be lower than them, that you acknowledge them as your superiors. It has been adapted to show greeting salute, humility, apology and other salutations.

Many Kung fu and martial arts adapted the traditional bow to a new form to never take your eyes of your opponent. The open hand wrapped over closed fist bow was originated by a group of Quen Daoist monks from wu dang mountains. The two fists together meant battle salute while the hand covering fist meant 'I do not wish to fight but stand ready'. The monks migrated to the Shaolin temple. The Shaolin monks then edited this bow and gave new meaning to it with the left open hand. The closed fist represents the sun while the left open hand signifies the moon. The sun and the moon are the two great sources of light and when placed together they signify “Ming” which means bright in Chinese. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was an amazing era in Chinese history which saw an explosion in culture and prosperity. Many different martial disciplines adapted this bow and gave their own spin to it but it originated with the fathers of Gongfu not to be mistaken with the originators of martial arts which is ancient Thera 1650 bc with Minoan boxing.

As for Asian disciplines, Boddhidarma an Indian monk brought weapon styles to China and they adapted the styles to unarmed combat styles praise be Kung Fu and Karate were born but that's another topic.

Off topic: Martial discipline history is fascinating. Many styles predate any we currently practice. Japanese Koryu, German Ringen, the Togakure-Ryu manuals from India is exquisitely rich in disciplines also. I teach at Michigan state devoted my life to martial study and after 20 years barely scratched the surface

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When you quote sections verbatim from other sites please make it obvious within your answer that you are quoting an external source. As someone involved in academia you should understand the need for that. –  slugster Jan 20 at 11:56

I always get them mixed up, but I used to know a Northern Shaolin form that started with the right fist in the left palm and then you 'shot' out your right fist to the side, pushing with the left palm. From that I always remind myself that right fist covered with left palm is 'begin fight' and left fist covered with right palm is 'peace' or stop fight.

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It's called Bojumeok (보주먹) in Kukkiwon Taekwondo (http://taekwon.net/mks/files/attach/images/130/859/002/d9a9a87f6fc340c73053285d96bba4f7.jpg).

As far as I understand it (and it wasn't touched on much in our Kukkiwon Master Instructor Course in Korea) it's a mainly symbolic movement, simply representing umyang (the Korean version of yin-yang, used on the Korean flag) - one hand tightly clenched representing strength and rigidity and one hand softly wrapping it representing gentleness and fluidity, both are useful in martial arts and it's knowing when to use each that is important.

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