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 crane style also teaches an esoteric vibrating technique. It’s effected by first attacking with a crane beak, then turning the beak like a corkscrew with a sudden release of inward energy before backing it out with a reversed twist, releasing the energy again as you withdraw, Eric Lee says. A lot of Chinese stylists joke about the technique, he adds, but done right, it can be extremely effective.
Shaolin Kung Fu: Tiger Form
A ferocious meat eater with strong bones and muscles, the tiger is physically gifted for combat. It boasts thick legs, huge paws with sharp claws, and an enormous head with razor-sharp teeth and powerful jaws. Its sturdy mid-section, back and neck help it generate maximum ripping and tearing energy. It hunts with great stealth, instinctively using ninja-type tactics to hit its prey from behind. The tiger’s speed comes from relaxed muscles; the more relaxed they are, the more quickly and silently it can move. Filled with pure power, its thunderous roar induces shock and fear in its enemies. The Chinese regard it as the king of all beasts.
Since the tiger is representative of the external, training in tiger kung fu involves lots of push-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics and sparring. “It’s important to strengthen your body, liven up your chi and get your blood flowing,” Eric Lee says. “Don’t forget the jing (chi-energized muscles) and shin (spirit), but especially the jing.”
The tiger claw is the primary weapon. Forming your hands into claws involves spreading your digits and bending them slightly. “Strong stances that create stable, grounded positioning contribute to the effectiveness of tiger strikes,” he says. “Circular arm motions with the tiger claws executed while changing from one stance to another result in maximum torque and power for deflecting an incoming blow—or for taking someone to the ground. It’s effective at tearing up muscles in the arms, legs and body of your opponent, or it can be used to press, push and drive him away.”
When you attack, you may want to adopt the roar of the tiger. Your opponent will react with fear, and his hesitation might give you the opening you need to deliver a decisive strike to a sensitive spot. “The roar is also used to develop your internal energy,” Eric Lee says. “When the tiger roars, it breathes out a huge amount of carbon dioxide, then replaces it with fresh energy, giving it more stamina and spirit.”
Shaolin Kung Fu: Leopard Form
This big cat is a magnificent creature that exudes speed and danger. It can move like the wind to chase its prey or escape from an enemy. It is ultra-efficient, resting as it observes and calculates, then exploding into a blur of tooth and nail. At other times, it may choose to rely on stealth tactics to close the distance with a victim.
After that, it’s relentless. The feline will run its dinner to exhaustion, then tear into its vital areas.The leopard fist, which utilizes the second knuckles of the four fingers, is seen in a number of martial arts—and for good reason. Flexing the fingers makes the hand rigid and strong. Since the knuckles form a smaller striking surface, the shock of a strike is not spread over a large area. And the thinness of the leopard fist allows you to insert it into narrow openings to hit soft targets.
“Strikes to the armpits, neck, spine and temples are easily done with the leopard fist, as are pressure-point techniques aimed at the legs or between the ribs,” Eric Lee says. “The strike usually begins from a relaxed position, then goes out and back quickly to make contact with the knuckles. You can also whip it out like a back-fist.”
Shaolin Kung Fu: Dragon Form
Representing internal and spiritual training, the dragon may live in the ocean or fly down from the heavens to provide the elemental benefits of water, metal, wood, earth and fire. Its mission is larger than life, always noble and full of wisdom. It bestows insight toward the infinite while accomplishing the impossible.
The dragon claw is the most formidable weapon of the style. “It uses the thumb and fingers like a tiger claw, but the fingers are bent less and the palm is flatter,” Eric Lee says. “If you try to grab a basketball, your hand will form a shape much like a dragon claw. The tiger claw is more like holding a baseball.”
You can use the dragon claw to grab, pull and lock your opponent or throw him to the ground. If you use the palm to attack his head or body, you should do it in a soft/hard manner, Eric Lee says. “Be relaxed and wait until you make contact to emit the power, then be soft again. That saves energy.”
The dragon also teaches you to be unpredictable and to use the insubstantial against the substantial, he says. “If you’re pushed, don’t use force against force. Just go with it and let your opponent fall. Or you can fall and use the tail of the dragon—your rear leg—to sweep him to the ground. Then you disappear into the night, leaving him wondering what just happened.”
Fighting like a dragon means being smart, calm and fearless, Eric Lee insists.
“Always think ahead, and lead your opponent away from your vulnerabilities or into the abyss of your power. Take the obvious and reverse it. With the spirit of the dragon, you will always rise to fight another day.”
(Floyd Burk is a freelance writer and martial arts instructor based in San Diego. )