Kung Fu Animals

The Combat Techniques of Shaolin Kung Fu’s Legendary Animal Styles

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.

The …

Praying Mantis Kung Fu Methods and Monkey Kung Fu Movements

Various systems of praying-mantis kung fu can be found in the different locales and subcultures of China. Of them, the northern seven-star school is perhaps the most widely practiced.

The art dates back to the end of the Ming dynasty, when the invading Manchus began to subjugate the Han Chinese. Legend has it that Wong Long, a native and nationalistic Han, traveled the countryside studying different martial arts in an effort to help remove the Manchus and restore Ming rule. He reportedly spent some time as a disciple at Shaolin Temple in Henan province, where he learned basic combat skills. Eventually, the Manchus’ increasing surveillance caused him and many other freedom fighters to seek martial arts instruction elsewhere.

When he finally went home to further his development, however, the abbot of a local temple bested him repeatedly. While sitting exhausted under a tree after one such match, Wong happened to see a praying mantis catch a large cicada with ease. He studied the motions of the insect’s grasping forelegs, watching it tease its prey with a reed and goad it into fighting. Later, he also observed monkeys chasing one another in the trees and noted their rapid and agile footwork. The synthesis of his knowledge of kung fu with the animal-inspired movements became the foundation of the northern praying-mantis system.

A leading seven-star authority, Dr. John Cheng teaches the system at his three schools in Orange County, California. Here, he reveals the 12 basic keywords formula that conveys the style’s essential concepts:

  • Ou—To hook or intercept an incoming strike (by bending your last three fingers into a partial fist with your thumb supporting your index finger), then deflect the strike laterally.
  • Lou—To grasp the elbow of the striking limb for firmer control of your opponent.
  • Choi—To pluck or pull the incoming strike to the outside in combination with your own strike.
  • Kwa—To hang or block upwardly to move your opponent’s strike from a lower to a higher position.
  • Diu—To use the mantis hook with soft energy to block and intercept the attack.
  • Beng—To chop or crash downward offensively from a high position, as with a backfist.
  • Jim—To strike.
  • Lim—To use strikes to make contact with an attack, then stick to your opponent’s arm using your sensitivity so you can flow into a trap.
  • Tip—To close the gap.
  • Kao—To lean on your opponent after you enter so you can throw him or knock him off-balance.
  • Shim—To dodge or avoid an attack by means of superior footwork.
  • Teng na—To bounce or use quick leg movements to effect a jump kick, avoid a sweep or hop away from an attack.

If you’re a beginner, you may not comprehend the subtlety of the 12 keywords, but once you’ve invested some time in your training, you’ll see how you can use the concepts to create powerful and effective combinations. For example, the first three keywords, ou-lou-choi, reflect a common defensive technique that’s employed in almost all northern mantis styles. As your opponent attacks with a hand strike, you deflect and ensnare his wrist with a mantis hand, then immediately establish control over his elbow with your other hand. You finish by yanking him off-line and into your counterattack.

This logical system of kung fu exemplifies the appeal of fusing existing systems with combative principles taken from nature. The result is then tailored to suit the needs and goals of any martial artist.

(Mark Cheng is a traditional Chinese-medicine physician and martial arts researcher based in West Los Angeles.)

The 5 Kung Fu Animal Styles of the Chinese Martial Arts

To longtime readers of Black Belt, Steve DeMasco needs no introduction. A student of the martial arts since 1968, he’s been a fixture in the magazine since his debut in the February 1998 issue. Over the ensuing years, he’s espoused his views on the physical and philosophical sides of the Shaolin fighting arts—specifically, Shaolin kempo. At the end of 1998, he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Instructor of the Year. In the following article, the New Hampshire-based master, who serves as Shaolin Temple’s cultural ambassador to the United States, continues the topic he started in his March 2007 Shaolin Path column by describing and demonstrating the self-defense techniques of the five animals of the Chinese arts.

Kung Fu Animal Style #1: Tiger

Popularity: high (for tiger), rare (for black tiger)
Shaolin saying: “Tiger strengthens the bones.”
Characteristics: strength, agility; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology
Strategy: tends to charge the opponent and attack directly with brute force, uses circular arm movements to overwhelm the enemy, relies on the arms but occasionally uses low kicks
Targets: any part of the body, especially those that react to tearing techniques
Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, speed, solid build, ability to adopt a strong stance and quickly change to another stance
Training: push-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics, sparring, chi-development exercises
Trademark: tiger claw, an open-hand grabbing and striking weapon formed by spreading the thumb and fingers, then bending them slightly
In legend: “It offers the power to shake the earth and to be the authoritative king of its lair,” kung fu master Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #2: Leopard

Popularity: high
Shaolin saying: “Bend fingers hard, like iron.”
Characteristics: strong, efficient, fast, technical, defined by accuracy, capable of stealth attacks
Strategy: strikes quickly to inflict pain, then follows up for the kill
Targets: soft-tissue regions and other vital areas, including the ears, neck, armpits, temples and groin
Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, supple strength, ability to quickly retract the arms and legs after a strike
Training: striking drills that develop accuracy and precision
Trademark: leopard paw, a half-fist that strikes with the second knuckles of the four fingers. It’s a rigid weapon that makes contact with a small, penetrating surface.
In legend: “It’s nature’s master of precision and prowess—sharp, efficient and lightning fast,” Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #3: Crane

Popularity: medium
Shaolin saying: “The spirit of the crane resides within the stillness.”
Characteristics: evasive, rarely offense-oriented, subtle, graceful
Strategy: keeps the opponent at a distance and capitalizes on the length of the arms and legs, tends to strike with the very end of the natural weapons, attempts to overwhelm the enemy with rapid hand strikes, evades using circular movements
Targets: soft areas such as the eyes, throat, ears and heart; sides of the head; ribs
Physical requirements: tall, long reach, ability to remain still for extended periods, good balance, concentration, minimal strength
Training: mobility-enhancing drills to develop the ability to maintain distance between oneself and the opponent, speed training, quick retraction of natural weapons, chi-development exercises
Trademark: crane beak, formed by bunching the thumb, index finger and middle finger together to strike with the fingertips
In legend: “It dances with accuracy and control, and offers weightlessness to rise above crises,” Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #4: Snake

Popularity: medium
Shaolin saying: “Hard like steel and soft like a rope of silk.”
Characteristics: deceptive, agile, fast, accurate
Strategy: relies on awareness, employs coiling motions and hisses to intimidate, uses whipping toe kicks to the lower half of the opponent’s body, utilizes simultaneous striking and locking techniques, avoids using the traditional fist
Targets: vital parts of the body, especially the eyes, face and throat
Physical requirements: thin build, quick muscles
Training: drills to increase explosiveness, which enables one to take the opponent by surprise; exercises that enhance balance and accuracy
Trademark: snake hand, which uses one or two fingers—or, in the case of the spearhand, all of them—to attack and defend
In legend: “It has extreme chi power, which helps activate profound sensitivity and enables all the muscles to work as one,” Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #5: Dragon

Popularity: rare
Shaolin saying: “Dragon fist trains the spirit.”
Characteristics: strong, smart, deceptive, unpredictable; includes traits of the other four Shaolin animals; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology and the sign of the emperor
Strategy: uses quick, snapping kicks that hit with the blade of the foot; uses the full fist and the forearms to strike; may combine physical techniques of the other Shaolin animals
Targets: any body part that can be grabbed; the head, which is simultaneously grabbed and struck
Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, ability to switch from soft movements to hard movements
Training: drills …