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抱拳禮 The Meaning of the Bow

©2022 Kenneth S. Cohen, from my Facebook Post of October 21, 2022



Asian styles of bowing are among the most profound spiritual practices, whether it is the Namaste of palms together in India, the bend from the waist of Japan, the enclosed fist of China or the full prostrations of Tibet. I learned to bow from my Japanese Tea Ceremony teacher who described bowing as “yielding to the mystery of being human”. We could also say it is yielding before a common mystery, a realm beyond knowledge. In the tearoom there is no high or low, only Buddha bowing to Buddha.

If you have been in my classes or joined me for celebrations, such as the Chinese New Year, you have probably seen me bowing with my right hand in a fist, covered by my left. Unlike the Japanese bow, this bow is not used daily or regularly but reserved for Wu Shu (martial arts) and special occasions. The Bao Quan Li 抱拳禮, the Embracing Fist Ritual, has been practiced in China since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1047 BC – 772 BC). There are several layers of meaning. The two hands look like the Chinese characters for the crescent moon 月and the sun 日 (closed fist), suggesting yin/yang balance. And when these two words, moon and sun, are together in the same Chinese character, they produce ming 明, meaning brightness, clarity, and understanding. This is the same “ming” as in “the Ming Dynasty”, when the salute was used as a sign of patriotism.

And there’s more. The hand shielding the fist means that we meet with respect, with wisdom rather than aggression. Indeed, the five fingers may represent the five Confucian virtues: benevolence, integrity, social decorum, wisdom, and trustworthiness. Some scholars add that the bent thumb is like a person bowing from waist and demonstrates humility. The salute also suggests harmony. The five fingers of the fist along with the four fingers that cover it represent the lakes and seas of China or the five continents and four oceans, meaning unity among all the peoples of the world.

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