If you’re on the prowl for new ways to improve your martial arts skills and expand your knowledge base, the five animals of Shaolin kung fu are for you. By studying the fighting methods of the snake, crane, tiger, leopard and dragon, you’ll glimpse kung fu through the eyes of its legendary masters of yesteryear. Like them, you’ll be able to tap into the mental and physical characteristics of those denizens of the wild kingdom in a way that’s guaranteed to benefit all aspects of your training.
The concepts of the five animals is thought to have originated early in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) at Shaolin Temple, located on Song mountain in China’s Henan province, says Black Belt Hall of Fame member Eric Lee. “The animals of Shaolin made a huge impact on the development of kung fu and are still doing so today. That’s because the animals, like nature, offer the same insights today as they did centuries ago.
“In the beginning, the old masters studied the animals and adopted many of their habits. Those habits included how they rested, how they gathered and released their chi (internal energy), how they stalked their prey and how they fought. The five animals were chosen for their superior attributes for fighting and defense and for other mannerisms that contribute positively to human life.”
Practicing kung fu with the attitude of one of the five animals can help you see things more clearly, says Eric Lee, who began teaching the Chinese arts in Oakland, California, in 1970.“You’ll be more aware, and you’ll be more in balance internally and externally. The animals help you express yourself wholeheartedly in any direction. They’ll help you know what it’s like to be anything you want to be. If you let nature be your teacher, good things happen.”
Shaolin Kung Fu: Snake Form
Full-body awareness gives the snake a heightened sensitivity, and that allows it to use all its resources to accomplish its goals. The animal coils its body for speed and power, then strikes without hesitation or fear. It’s a relentless hunter that uses every muscle to push, slide, penetrate, wrap and eventually control its prey. The snake is a natural ground fighter— which is why grapplers often find its movements to their liking.
The snake hand, in which all four fingers are extended to strike like a spear, is the primary weapon. “You can move the snake hand up, down or from side to side using it or your arm to block, then you can strike your opponent’s throat or another vital area with the same hand,” Eric Lee says. “When doing snake moves, you can strike and lock simultaneously. Offense becomes defense, and defense becomes offense.”
A useful snake technique entails raising your hand like a cobra lifting its head, then relaxing your arm and shooting it out and back for a lightning- fast strike, Eric Lee says. In super-tight quarters, he adds, you can increase your effectiveness by switching to the snake tongue: Extend your index and middle fingers and hold them together as you jab them into a pressure point.
Shaolin Kung Fu: Crane Form
The crane epitomizes yin and yang as it passively stands on one leg for hours yet maintains its ability to kill in a heartbeat. When it springs into action, it’s the embodiment of subtlety and grace. The movements of its wings create hollow contours, allowing it to move with seeming effortlessness. It can adapt to harsh weather and fly through the severest of storms. In a battle on the ground, it uses its wings to deflect attacks and propel its body along a circular path. That, augmented by the animal’s long legs, enables it to use evasion techniques to create distance between itself and its adversary.
When an enemy is within range, the crane will slap with its wings and stomp with its feet, thereby creating openings for impeccably timed beak strikes. Its long, flexible neck enhances its attacks.
Crane training boosts your concentration and balance, Eric Lee says. “The crane style teaches you to lift one leg and use it for blocking or deflection. Then you can execute a fast snap kick out and back with the same leg.” You form the crane beak by extending your thumb, index finger and middle finger and hitting with their tips. It’s perfect for short- to medium-range strikes to pressure points and other vital areas, he says.
A variation of the fighting method uses dual crane beaks. After striking with one, it becomes a hook that pulls your opponent close. Then you attack with your other hand. Eric Lee recites an old kung fu adage: One beak lies while the other tells the truth. Your enemy never knows which hand you’ll use for offense and which for defense.