Though bowing is not a typical way of displaying respect in American culture, anyone who has trained in just about any martial art will see the practitioners bowing at various times throughout the training session. But why are they bowing? Some people may not understand the meaning of bowing in the martial arts. Is it a sign of subservience? Inferiority? Self-deprecation? NO!
Bowing is anything but a gesture by one person saying that he or she is below the other! If this were the purpose of bowing, then bowing would not be a mutual gesture between two people but rather a one-sided action. It is actually a great insult for one person to bow and then the other person to not acknowledge or return the gesture. Bowing is a sign of mutual respect and humility.
There are many times when a martial artist may bow. When one bows upon entering a Wing Chun kwoon (training area), they are not merely performing a training formality. They are demonstrating through a motion of their body that he or she respects the environment into which they are entering and the people with whom they are going to train. In the Sifu Och Wing Chun kwoon, a student will bow to the pictures of the elders of our Wing Chun lineage (Ip Man, Ip Chun, Ip Ching, Moy Yat, Simon Lau, and Dr. Master Nelson) as a sign of the high regard for their devotion, self-sacrifice and dedication to the training they gave so that we may have the opportunity to continue to learn the art of Wing Chun. The Sifu (teacher, father, master, mentor) of his own school should always be shown the greatest respect by his students because he is the living legacy of the Wing Chun lineage handing down his knowledge first-hand.
Students at Sifu Och Wing Chun will often stand inside the doorway to the kwoon, if they have seen that Sifu is already in the building, and will remain in a Wing Chun hand salute position until Sifu has seen them so they may exchange the traditional salute and bow to each other. The student shows respect to his Sifu, and his Sifu returns the gesture to his student demonstrating the respectful bond between student and teacher. The same bow and salute is done upon leaving the kwoon.
Bowing in the martial arts can also be used as a sign of thanks, as well as of respect. If Sifu or a Sihing (student of a higher rank) is teaching, demonstrating, or correcting you, the student will often initiate the Wing Chun hand salute and bow as a sign of appreciation for the personal time given to the student. Sifu or the Sihing always returns the gesture to the student.
If training partners are going to spar, do reaction drills/wrist against wrist training, or Chi Sao, the Wing Chun students will perform the Wing Chun salute and bow both before and after they have worked with each other. This is also used as a respectful gesture if one student accidentally causes another student a small injury, the offending student will show his regret for his infraction by using the Wing Chun salute and bowing to the partner. The gesture is returned by the other to show that all is forgiven and signal that respect is still shared between the two students.