In Chinese history, Chinese scholars greeted each other with a hand sign using the right open hand to cover the left fist symbolizing peace. A martial arts warrior (Wu, martial, uses characters meaning scholar and warrior), however, generally held his weapon in his right hand and therefore greeted each other with the left open hand covering the right “fist”.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) many Chinese fought against the Qing government which they considered corrupt and the standard bow’s (Bao Quan) meaning started to change. The Left open palm symbolized the Moon (Yue), and the right fist the Sun (Ri). When placed together it meant Bright (Ming). However, this was also understood by martial artists and revolutionaries as “over throw the Qing and restore the Ming”.
In a philosophical way, the Confucian ideal of the perfection of a person through the pursuit of both the scholar’s path and the martial path can be seen in the martial bow. The right fist represents the martial component of the martial artist or Wu and the left open palm represents the scholarly aspects of the person or Wen (man). In the traditional arts of kung fu one will notice that the left palm covers the right fist.
The closed fist is a universal symbol for violence, rigid, and does not have the capacity to grasp new things and become gentle. The open hand palm symbolizes openness, respect, courtesy and piety. This represents the more scholarly pursuits of knowledge and wisdom.
The kung fu bow (Bao Quan or Bao Jong) is generally done with the left open hand representing the moon (Yue) covering the right fist representing the sun (Ri). The union between the two represents that one is bright (Ming). The left open palm covers the right fist, in the open palm the thumb is kept bent, not kept straight like the other four fingers, this represents that on is humble.
In a general greeting (Zuo Yi, non-martial artists) it looks almost the same as the kung fu bow, however, the fingers of the left hand are not held out straight but are all bent and touch the back of the right fist.
The Five Rivers (or lakes) and the Four Sea’s is a more poetic expression of the standard kung fu bow. The meaning of this expression is; when the Five Rivers (the left open palm) joins the Four Sea’s (the right fist) then the people within the Five Rivers and Four Sea’s are all brothers. In actual meaning the explanation of the Five Rivers and Four Sea’s is as follows:
Five Rivers Four Sea’s
Dong Ting Hunan Province Bo Hai Rising Sea
Po Yang Jiangxi Province Dong Hai East China Sea
Qing Hai Qing Hai Province Nan Hai South China Sea
Tai Hu Jiang Su Province Huang Hai Yellow Sea
Xi Hu Zhejiang Province
The symbolism of the Bao Quan in a Chinese kung fu school would have a more martial meaning based on the ancient philosophy of Wude, or the Martial Virtues. Wude was based on Confucianism, who principals are basically outlined in the Chinese Classics. The Books now recognized as the highest authority in China are comprehended under the denominations known as The Five Ching and The Four Shu. Notice the similar heading under Confucianism, The Five…and The Four…, and martial heading, The Five Rivers and Four Sea’s. The symbolism of the Bao Quan in a Chinese kung fu school would mean:
The Left open palm is the Moon Yue
The Five Rivers symbolizes the Noble Mind
The Thumb, bent, mean that no rules will be broken.
Integrity of Morals (Adherence to a Standard)
Intellect (Pertains to one’s Knowledge)
Physical (Pertains to one’s Health)
Aesthetics (Appreciation of the Beauty)
The Right fist is the Sun Ri
The Left palm covering the Right fist means that the left palm is stopping the fist, meaning that one is brave but not starting the trouble. The Dragon style motto fits perfect here; Control yourself, let others do as they will, this does not mean you are weak. Control your heart, obey the principals of life, this does not mean that others are stronger.