Recently China's leader Xi Jinping took the Constitutional oath of office of China. Five years ago his left hand was on a document (China's constitution?) and his right hand was raised, palm forward, fingers curled but not closed. This year he took the oath again but with his right hand more tightly closed1.

The only other presidential oath to a constitution that I'm familiar with is that in the US, where the president holds the same right arm in a similar way but with the hand palm forward, open and flat (see also).

Question: What are the origins and symbolisms involved in the differences in hand positions2 when leaders are taking oaths to constitutions?

Answers should focus on these two countries but certainly other examples can be referenced.

1It is worth noting that in politics, a closed hand, what those in the West might call a "fist" can have other symbolism(s) in the East, thought I'm not familiar enough to say exactly what those might be.

2Supporting screenshots from the above-linked videos:

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    I’m voting to close this question because it appears to be off topic based on the linked meta question and how someone holds their hand is likely a cultural issue and not a political one.
    – Joe W
    Mar 19, 2023 at 3:07
  • @JoeW No, not "cultural". This is a specific gesture carried out by a politician, at a political even, over and over, broadcast to millions if not potentially billions of people. Culture is everywhere in politics, but that doesn't make politics off-topic in Politics SE. Also, one can't close a question based on a meta question post. If there was a community consensus there based on a highly up-voted answer, that would be a different story. Why not let some politically-based answers about specifics of political events be posted instead of trying to prevent them? Mar 19, 2023 at 5:27
  • Why would those in the east not call this a fist? Because they're not speaking English? Wiktionary gives 拳头 (traditional 拳頭) for this; would a Chinese speaker not use this word in this context?
    – phoog
    Mar 19, 2023 at 10:21
  • @phoog the shape of the hand might be considered fist while at the same time the gesture might not be best described as "making a fist" or "raising a fist". See my comments under QuantumWalnut's answer for example. As you may know (I sure do) simple word-by-word translations between very different languages can go terribly sideways, lets focus on the entire gesture. Mar 19, 2023 at 10:30

1 Answer 1


Generally speaking, taking an oath of office calls for sincerity, honesty, and seriousness. So the genstures involved should reflect these values.


  • A raised open-palm is a vulnerable position, because it proves one does not hold weapons in their hand (i.e. openness, transparency, compliance). This is in juxtaposition to imagries of holding weapons behind ones back, signalling bad-faith and malicious intent.

  • Placing ones palm on a book also singals a lack of weaponry (unless you throw a book at someone...). It helps symbolically when the book is a sacred text.

  • Pointing ones finger towards the sky not only shows a lack of weaponry, but also an appeal to higher power (i.e. God). It is both a gesture of humility and submission, acknowledging that they are bound by duty while in office.

Honestly, I have never seen a fist gesture during an oath ceremony. A fist carries authoritarian attitude, which I guess is the point in China:

  • A closed fist symbolizes "will to power", an idea coined by Friedrich Nietzsche. It describes the tendency to manifest (or perhaps "imposing") ones will on reality, rather than the democratic tendency to meet others where they are.

  • A closed fist could also symbolize hidden intent. You do not know what they are holding in their hand, which could be weapons.

  • This genture could be appropriate for an autocrat or a revolutionary (who sees themselves as rebelling against tyranny). But overall, it does not signal an interest in dialogue or compromise.

  • Thank you for your answer, but please check footnote #1 in my question, and see for example businesstoday.com.tw/article/category/80392/post/201601210016 showing Tsai Ing-wen with what westerners might inaccurately consider to be an "authoritarian clenched fist". Applying a western-centric "A closed fist symbolizes..." may not be suitable for eastern political symbology. Is it possible to better address "origins and symbolisms involved" from an easter perspective as well for better ballance? I don't think Xi takes his cues from Nietzsche. Mar 19, 2023 at 6:00
  • also autos.yahoo.com.tw/… Mar 19, 2023 at 6:04
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    @uhoh I'm Taiwanese so I can verify there is a slight difference. Tsai was not taking an oath of office in that picture, she was on stage celebrating her landslide victory, her punching fist in the air would be equivalent to a baseball player doing the same gesture when he just hit a homerun. Mar 19, 2023 at 10:59
  • when I see politicians raise a closed hand with back of hand facing out (e.g. on billboards and the sides of buses here in Taiwan) it reminds me a little bit of Rosie the Riveter's We can do it! But for today's question we have a palm-forward closed hand, so ya it's not the same thing. I wonder if Xi's predecessors used the same gesture during the oath, or if it's relatively new? Mar 19, 2023 at 11:07
  • @uhoh While I understand your train of thought, I think there is a negligable difference in how oaths are administered in the west and the east. Taiwan's oath ceremony is administered in Roman fashion, which is from the west. You can also see the fist version in the west, such as Ross Greer taking oath for Scottish Parliament, where he as member of Green Party advocates for republicanism. Mar 19, 2023 at 11:08

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