One of my kung fu teachers refused to shake hands with anyone.
He was a bit of a germophobe, but this was primarily a cultural thing. Shaking hands is a Western custom that, although widespread in Asia, still hasn’t been completely adopted.
One time, I saw him meet with a high-level CEO (who was learning kung fu and qigong) for a private session. The CEO offered his hand with a big smile and…
…my teacher left him hanging. Ouch!
Confused, the CEO looked to me in puzzlement. (I was there as liaison between him and my teacher.)
I just smiled and motioned to my teacher, who was now offering a Kung Fu hand-salute.
Clumsily, the CEO returned the salute.
This happened years ago — long before the pandemic taught us to rethink the custom of shaking hands.
Today, it’s the opposite. It’s the norm to be left hanging if you offer your hand. I mean, what are you thinking?!? Put that thing away!
I once asked my teacher why he didn’t shake hands.
“Strange custom,” he said. “People shouldn’t do it.”
Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci said something similar: “I don’t think we should shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.”
I agree with him. I think it’s time to retire the habit of shaking hands.
The Typical Alternatives
There are several alternatives to shaking hands:
- prayer palms
- the fist bump
- the elbow bump
- the footshake (yep!)
But there are some problems with all of these options.
The bumps — whether with a fist, elbow, or foot — are risky. If you get that close, you’re breaking the 6-foot social distancing rule and you run the risk of spreading or contracting the coronavirus.
That leaves us with prayer palms and bowing if we want to keep our distance
But bowing feels weird to me — and I say that as someone who spent many years bowing in karate classes. I’ve even been complimented by a native Japanese person on my bowing etiquette. No easy feat!
Still, I can’t see bowing catching on in the Western world, and especially not in the US.
Prayer palms also feel a bit weird to me. If a Zen teacher showed me prayer palms, I would of course return the gesture! But if my nephew did it, I would just give him a strange look.
Enter the Shaolin Salute!
I’m going to offer you an alternative that gives you a good layer of protection. As a bonus, it will make you feel like you’re in a kung fu movie, which is always a good thing.
The Kung Fu Salute, also called the Shaolin Salute or the Martial Salute, is an ancient custom that probably dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). In Chinese, it’s usually called:
武 术 抱 拳 礼
wu shu bao quan li
The Martial Fist-Covering Ritual
Often, this is shortened to bào quán (抱拳), which means Covering Fist.
In ancient China, it was used to show that you had peaceful intentions and that you were not carrying a weapon. Or if you were carrying a weapon in your hand, like the Chinese straight sword (jian), then you were covering it with your palm to show that the sword would remain sheathed.
How to do the Salute Correctly
In the image at the top of this article, Jet Li is showing the correct salute (taken from one of his movies).
- Make a fist with your right hand
- Cover the fist slightly with your left hand (watch the video)
- Gently extend the salute from the heart area
Watch this short video to learn how to do the the salute properly.
The Common Salute
Don’t confuse the Shaolin Salute with the Common Salute (作 揖 zuo yi). Notice the floppy arms and the relaxed palm. Sometimes, a bow is combined with the salute and sometimes people will “shake” the salute up and down gently.
You’ll see the Common Salute used as a greeting among Chinese people, especially during festivities like weddings and Chinese New Year. But you will never see this salute used by martial artists.
Traditionally, men make a fist with the right hand and women make a fist with the left. It’s interesting to note that this distinction was never made with the Shaolin Salute. Despite the history of sexism in China, female kung fu masters were respected as highly as male ones.
Yin and Yang, Dragon and Tiger
There are many interpretations of the Shaolin Salute.
My favorite is as follows:
The right fist symbolizes the Tiger, and the left fist symbolizes the Chinese Dragon. Together, the Dragon and Tiger symbolize the forces of yin and yang. In other words, the Shaolin Salute is a symbol of balance and harmony in all things.
I also like that it expresses the Shaolin attitude of non-violence — but with an edge. The Shaolin Monks were peaceful Buddhists, but they were also formidable fighters capable of defending themselves from bandits and gangs when necessary.
I like to sum up this philosophy as follows:
Using the Shaolin Salute
For years, I taught martial arts classes, specifically Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi Chuan. In these classes, we always began and ended the class with the Shaolin Salute.
But I never used the salute in my qigong classes. I was (and still am) determined to make qigong accessible to everyone, so I did away with traditions that I felt were unnecessary, like the salute, the Chinese suit, and the teacher/student hierarchy.
Nevertheless, the Shaolin Salute is part of the qigong lineage that I teach. So if you have been practicing our qigong for a while, then you can feel good about adopting this custom.
Like with the CEO I mentioned above, I think you’ll find that many people instinctively return the Shaolin Salute.
Often, it becomes a conversation piece. This can be a good thing, especially with people who are not yet on board with social distancing. Rather than talk about distancing, you end up talking about the Shaolin Salute.
And who knows. In the end, maybe you’ll encourage a few people to take up qigong! [They can even learn qigong for free from me in my COVID-19 support program.]
What do you think? Will you use the Shaolin Salute when greeting people?From the heart, Sifu Anthony