Most of the people who come to Plum are knowledgeable enough about Chinese martial arts to know that the Chinese word “fist” means boxing and the word “palm” doesn’t just refer to the bottom of the hand. Most styles of Kung Fu are called fists, but this means “boxing” in the context of a title. So when you see the words “Shaolin Quan” you don’t call it Shaolin Fist, you call it Shaolin Boxing.
There are only a couple of exceptions to this: like Pigua, Bagua and Cotton Palm. And in these cases they use the word palm instead of the word fist and what they are referring to is the martial idea that the palm, say the right palm, represents the entire right side of the body, and the left palm represents the entire left side of the body. They are also referencing the fact that these particular arts use the palm a great deal more than they use the fist. The question is, why?
The first thing we notice when we look at the palm is that it had far more angles of application than the fist does, at least for beginners. This is one of the reasons the palm is used to educate the beginner in all the unusual angles employed to attack or defend. Yet most styles start with the fist. Why? Because it’s safer for the practitioner. Palms can be very difficult to use well. You have the problem of wrenching the wrist, of breaking the fingers. You also have the problem that, unless applied correctly, that the large area of the palm will disperse the impact of the strike and in fact deaden its force.
The trick is to understand this. The palm gives you the angles and the fist gives you the proper alignment of the bones. So for instance some instructors start with the fist but evolve the hand usage till the palms are spinning all over the place. Someone who is really good with the palms, started with them and learned all the angles, can generally translate that back into the fist. When you add that little nicety to punching it is generally called a “bite”; in other words taking that normal fist blow and at the last second twisting the wrist to cause the fist to strike this way or that is like striking with a palm. This tremendously adds to the force and the inflicting of pain on the opponent.
So in the art of Kung Fu, palm and fist are really equivalents. They are really more approaches to training than anything else.
NOTE: As far as the idea that the palm represents the entire hemisphere of the body, you have to understand that Chinese is one of those languages with all its technical terms in the original language rather than borrowed from, say, the Latin or the Greek. Thus words are yoked to double duty, common and technical. The word “wind” means just what it says, but has a different use for a Chinese doctor where it refers to disease. The word palm means palm but in the martial context has a number of technical turns.
Resources, a few lesser known palm arts: