The Kung-Fu Bow

As martial artists, we have our own moral standards and our own code of ethics. There are several gestures of protocol and etiquette used in traditional gung fu; all of which we use all have unique meaning.

Of the myriad styles and schools of martial arts, Chinese gung fu comes from the longest history, containing the widest variation in customs. Despite this vast diversity, due to common roots and sociocultural development, there are several similarities of etiquette and ways in which martial artists acknowledge and express respect to one another throughout the gung fu world. One of these expressions is achieved through the martial salute or bow.

In the Chung Wah Gung Fu System, this is one of the traditions which is greatly honoured, for the Formal Gung Fu Salute or Bow , represents many important things, which may be summarized by two main concepts: First, it is a gesture of respect transmitted to another person or idea. This includes the martial tradition in which we learn and are part of, our school and its founding teachers, as well as our present teacher, junior and senior classmates. It is also a gesture of humility. Self-respect and humility set the foundation for the martial virtues.

Secondly, it represents the ideals of the true martial artist which one strives to embody. In cultivating these virtues within ourselves, we are able to further our own intellectual and spiritual development.


The salute or bow is always done at the beginning and end of our training. The Sifu or Instructor will call the class to line up. All students promptly return to their place, standing at attention in even rows, facing the Sifu. The Sifu or Instructor will initiate the salute and/or give a verbal cue. At this time, all the students perform the salute.

Bowing at this time represents both respect and humility towards one’s Sifu and classmates, but also reinforces the concept of the gung fu family structure and a healthy attitude towards learning.

The salute or bow is performed each time we enter and exit the training area.

Bowing at this time shows respect for the school, its traditions and the effort that is put forth by everyone who studies gung fu, as well as one’s personal commitment to the art. Furthermore, it forms the practitioner’s intention, or attitude into one that is productive and concentrated in striving towards self-improvement. Once crossing the threshold into the training hall, one’s ego must be left behind; personal problems and difficulties are to be set aside. The mind should be fully concentrated on the training.

The salute or bow is performed when one does a form or demonstration both at the beginning and the end of the performance.

This is similar to entering and exiting the training area. In public, this represents the principles illustrated in the proverb, ‘Before you learn any art, you must first learn civility and manners; Before you learn martial art, you must first learn the virtues’. When we show our art to the public, it is both a privilege for others to witness, an honour for us to share. Using the gesture reflects one’s acknowledgement of the aforementioned principles. Another meaning corresponds to the philosophy that, when a martial artist starts something, he or she always finishes. He or she sticks to what is right and follows through. This is a basic principle to martial arts, to an education, to a relationship or family. We acknowledge that we have a responsibility and we are fully committed. The message we share is not merely the physical refinement, but also the ethical understanding. The symbolism of continuity and completion is reflected as part of the art.

The salute or bow is also done to General Guan (school shrine) and one’s teachers.

This is done in a gesture of respect for past achievements and contributions to the legacy of gung fu, as well as to respectfully acknowledge a person’s present contributions or efforts toward gung fu training and its ideals.

The bow is done when greeting other martial artists. This includes to Sifu and students from other schools, judges at tournaments, sparring opponents, and so on.

In the traditional way, martial artists when greeting each other, perform a bow. This is a gesture of good manners, mutual respect and humility. Physical contact in the martial world is seen, in certain circumstances, as a sign of aggression. And so, one reason for not shaking hands is that it allows both parties to remain in a safe, non-threatening position while exchanging a greeting. This tradition persists due to a deeper symbolism associated with the bow. When we bow, we show respect for the martial world and its practitioners. We respect what we do. All true martial artists have the same goal, and so, using this gesture is not limited to our own gung fu family. Conversely, it does not matter if others do not have the same standard or morals. This is a standard and etiquette we must uphold. Regardless of what others do, one must continue to strive for self-perfection.


The following is a description of the standard gesture used in Chinese gung fu. When done properly, this type of salute or bow is of the highest class, and represents the most dignity and refinement.

This bow is always done without any objects in the hand. Ideally, there should also be no food in the mouth and the mouth should be closed. The posture is erect; legs, back, neck are straight, with the feet together.

The arms rise from the sides of the body to mid-chest level, travelling in a smooth arc towards the centerline at chest level.

The right hand closes into a fist and meets the open, vertical left palm at the centerline.

The fingers of the left hand are kept vertical and close together, with the thumb tucked in.

The right horizontal fist is centred into the open left palm.

The right fist remains placed in the open left palm as the body bends slightly forward from the waist and the arms push slightly outward.

The head is held up with the eyes respectfully focused upon the person(s) or area you are bowing to.

The bowed position is held for a second or two, then the body returns to an upright position and the arms return to the sides of the body.

When exchanging a bow with another person, it is good manners to initiate the gesture, not unlike being the first to extend a hand in a handshake.


1. The shape of the open left palm represents the moon, and Yin aspects pertaining to the theory of Yin and Yang, such as passiveness, yielding, rest and reflection. The left open palm represents Wen , the literary, scholarly and intellectual principles, and the development of oneself through their ideals. The left palm also represents Wu De, martial virtue, and the duty of the martial artist to uphold and adhere to ethics.

2. Four fingers close together represent everyone in the martial world as being equal. Between the four seas, all are honest and open with each other, coming forth with unity and mutual respect to promote the art.

3. The thumb represents yourself. It is bent to signify your humility; you don’t regard yourself as being superior to others. The bent thumb is very important to give a proper message when bowing.

4. The shape of the right fist represents the sun, and Yang, aspects pertaining to the theory of Yin and Yang, such as strength and determination, movement and action. The right closed fist represents Wu, the martial traditions, martial arts training and the development of oneself through its ideals.

Hands Travelling: The right fist and open left palm travelling towards one another symbolizes the efforts towards the merging of the ideals of Wen and Wu, or total physical and intellectual balance and harmony. In this way, the martial skills are never employed without the balance of martial virtue.

5. Hands Meeting: The true martial artist cultivates both their intellectual and physical abilities, combining both towards self-understanding and refinement. The meeting of both hands represents the ideal combination of the two principles, and the combination thereof, which supersedes their individual value or achievement.

Left Hand Covering Right reflects that the principles of martial arts are rooted in theory, philosophy and virtue. The theory (left hand) covers, and governs the fighting aspect (right fist). The techniques of combat are thus dictated by the principles of civility, peace and etiquette.

Hands Merged, Moving Forward represent sincerity, good intentions and the ongoing quest for self-improvement. The martial artist goes forward with forthright honesty and righteousness, never driven by ego or desire. One stands for truth and justice, adhering to their beliefs. Zheng Yi or true righteousness, doesn’t sway.

When the characters for sun and moon are placed together, the word Ming, meaning ‘clear and bright’, is formed. Before one learns gung fu, the path towards profound knowledge and self-understanding is dark and uncertain. Through diligent, persevering effort, all becomes clear. One moves forward, preceded by ideals of Wen and Wu, with the light of understanding and wisdom gained through gung fu to illuminate the way.