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Shaolin Kung Fu Animal Styles

In the world of martial arts there are few styles that capture the imagination the way animal styles do. Although these systems are famous and often commonly practiced in Gong Fu, they are often misunderstood and misrepresented. In this article I hope to shed some light on the animal styles themselves and their relevance to modern education.

Common myths about animal styles

In martial arts today there are many misconceptions about animal styles, some of which we need to address before we move on.

Common Myth One: Animal styles are just for show and have no real function.

When you look at the vast majority of animal stylists around today, it’s not hard to believe that. Animal styles were developed to emphasize groups of similar concepts, and so the mimetic actions of the styles seek to highlight functionality. Unfortunately, many practitioners get so caught up in trying to become an animal that they forget why they were there in the first place.

Common Myth Two: Animal styles are about hand positions.

Often the depth of many practitioners stops at the formation of the hand position. I have heard instructors tell students that the tiger style is the tiger claw and the crane style is about using the beak hand. If you believe that, I guess it’s true, but in my experience it’s not. There are many animal styles that contain no hand signature techniques at all. There are complete Tiger Boxing systems that don’t use the claw at all, and crane styles that almost never use a beak are common enough, but often go unnoticed because they don’t look the part.

Common Myth Three: Animal styles were created by Bodhidharma at the Shaolin Temple.

This is complete rubbish and unfortunately it is the Shaolin Temple that seems to be spreading it around. If you watch any of the traveling monk shows or watch any of the Shaolin documentaries that have been produced in the last couple of years, you will see this myth being promoted very strongly. The modern animal styles coming out of the temple are not classic styles. They are full of stunts and generally run around and act out the animal, but with very little real functionality (other than marketing).

Martial arts evolve and the current common Shaolin animal forms are valid in context, but to pretend that all the martial arts we see in Shaolin today were developed by Da Mo is ridiculous. If anything, Da Mo (Bodhidharma) lived more than a thousand years before the first Shaolin Beast form was created. This myth discredits the countless Masters who have made outstanding contributions to Shaolin Gong Fu over the 1,500+ years of Shaolin history.

So what are the animal styles?

Animal styles are more properly known as Mimic Styles (Xing Quan) and are a unique feature of classical Chinese martial arts. The Masters developed these styles as a way to explore the nature of human consciousness by exploring the different “minds” that animals represent. The animal is an archetype that the practitioner can explore to understand the variability of the human mind.

The purpose of imitation is to break free from our everyday identity and thus explore ways of thinking that we would not normally have considered. This creates a paradigm shift and expands our understanding and barriers accordingly. The first mimetic system was not warlike at all but developed for health prevention.

Wu Xing Xi (Five Beasts) was developed by Hua Tuo and by using the mimetic energies of the Tiger, Bear, Deer, Monkey and Bird, the body’s natural health systems can be regulated and balanced. These exercises were popular for health, but did not directly inspire the development of animal mimicry systems.

In 1600 a Shaolin Master, Bai Yu Feng, set out to revive the Shaolin system. He traveled throughout China for three years meeting teachers and learning a variety of styles. After the three years he returned to Shaolin and constructed a new style combining five systems he had encountered in his travels. This “new” style was Shaolin Five Animal Fist – Shaolin Wu Xing Quan.

Shaolin Five Animals

Shaolin Wu Xing Quan contains five distinct imitations – Tiger, Crane, Snake, Leopard and Dragon. Each of these styles existed before this form, but it was Bai Yu Feng who combined them into a single style in which each animal complimented the other. There had been records of animal boxing for centuries before Bai Yu Feng, but examples were scattered and none had captured the imagination like this style.

Each of these animals will be explored in detail in future articles, but I wanted to mention another version of Bai Yu Feng’s boxing – the Wu Xing Ba Fa Quan.

Wu Xing Ba Fa Quan means the Eight Laws of the Five Beasts Boxing and is an abridged form of Bai Yu Feng’s original style. In Wu Xing Ba Fa Quan the various aspects of the system help develop the practitioner so as to improve all of Gong Fu. In this form, Tiger exercises develop muscle strength and help increase bone density. Crane develops Jing (manifested Qi), while Snake develops the smooth control of Qi itself. The Leopard develops speed and strength, and the Dragon develops the ability to hold still. All of this is possible because of the correct application of the Ba Fa or the Eight Laws.

The eight laws are:

Proper use of internal skills

Proper use of external skills

Right application of the mind

Development of the Six Harmonies through the hands

Development of the Six Harmonies through the feet and legs

Correct application of the three body zones

Proper implementation of Chin Na functionality

Proper development of Qi Gong.

Although some historians believe that Bai Yu Feng’s style was originally called Wu Xing Ba Fa Quan, the versions most commonly practiced in Shaolin today are only variations on the abstract form.

After Bai Yu Feng

After Bai Yu Feng, imitative styles became very popular and many different imitations began to appear. Apart from the original five animals of Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Dragon and Snake, there are many others such as Mantis, Eagle, Monkey, Drunkard, White Monkey, Dog, Phoenix, Elephant, the Lion, the Swallow, the Hawk, the Rooster, the Duck, the Fish, the Tortoise, the Toad, the Scorpion and many more. Some animals became so popular that they evolved into unique systems while many others survive as just a few techniques like the Vulture.

As the concept of mimetic practice spread, entire systems of exercise began to appear as well as weapon styles such as the Monkey Pole and the Drunken Sword. Through cinema they remain popular to this day.

Mimic styles are popular in Shan Men Shaolin Quan and there are many mimic routines in the curriculum. Students begin learning Wu Xing Ba Fa Quan at Level 6 (Purple Sash).

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