I recently I learned about a character from Naruto named Rock Lee, one of whose moves is called "Drunken Fist" in official English translations. That's obviously an admittedly bad literal translation of the Japanese term 酔拳, which was borrowed from the Chinese 醉拳, which is better translated as "drunken boxing". But that got me thinking, how exactly did 拳 come to mean "boxing" to begin with? Pardon my ignorance, but I reckon even the earliest forms of Chinese martial arts must have involved some kicking too, no? How exactly was the entire discipline, which probably involved the use of your whole body, encapsulated by a word meaning "fist"?

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    There are Chinese martial arts and general terms for martial arts that don't include 拳 (e.g., 摔跤, 散打, 詠春, 武術, 功夫). Also, insofar as 拳 sometimes stands in for martial arts more generally, it doesn't seem much different from the English term "hand-to-hand combat". Apr 3, 2023 at 21:00
  • If sharks were to develop a form of martial art, it would be called "Jaws" Apr 4, 2023 at 1:04
  • @StumpyJoePete 武術 and 功夫 are generic terms, not for specific boxing styles which 拳 represents. 散打 is a very new form, and from the look of it it is heavily influenced by Western boxing, no wonder it was named differently. 詠春 is indeed called 詠春, the same way 太極 is called 太极. Apr 4, 2023 at 4:45
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    @Vun-HughVaw I know they're generic terms, that's why I said "and general terms" right before that! And it's sometimes the case that 拳 seems relevant to the specific style being very fist focused, and other times it's just generic (again, like "hand-to-hand combat"). I'm just not that sure what is supposed to be surprising about this state of affairs. (And 散打 is basically as old as most current forms of Chinese martial arts.) Sometimes people refer to forms of hand-to-hand combat that don't just use hands, and other times people use fist to refer to very punchy styles of fighting. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Apr 4, 2023 at 7:41
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    @Nobody "Box" as a verb has, among others, the meaning of "to hit with the fist", as in "I'll box your teeth out" Apr 5, 2023 at 12:26

2 Answers 2


How exactly was the entire discipline, which probably involved the use of your whole body, encapsulated by a word meaning "fist"?

It emphasizes the movement of fists (including arms), which delivers the most powerful punches in that style of martial art, although the entire sequence of movements can also involve the use of other body parts. For comparison, another style/branch/school of martial art, "彈腿", is named to emphasize/focus the powerful movements of the legs, but with the movement of fists/palms as a supplement.

  • by 彈腿, you meant 潭腿 (十二路潭腿)?
    – Tang Ho
    Apr 4, 2023 at 6:02
  • @TangHo Yes, 彈腿, 又稱潭腿. 流傳的有十二路弹腿、十路弹腿和六路弹腿。zdic.net/hans/%E5%BD%88%E8%85%BF
    – r13
    Apr 4, 2023 at 11:15

拳 is a representative word for a variety of martial art styles, just like 兵 is a representative word for military, e.g. 兵 in 兵法,兵書, do not mean just soldier but military elements in general

All martial art styles involving the technique of punching with one's fists can use this word in their name.

  • Fist strikes is prominent in 洪拳, therefore, the style is not called 洪腿

  • Palm strikes is prominent in 八卦掌, therefore, the style is not called 八卦拳

  • Foot strikes is prominent in 潭腿, therefore, the style is not called 潭拳

When we mention the term 太極拳, we are referring to its hand-to-hand combat technique. If you study 太極劍 along with 太極拳, you would most likely call yourself 太極門人 instead of 太極拳師

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