The Animal Styles of Gong Fu

In the world of martial arts there are few styles that capture the imagination in the way that the animal styles do.  Even though these systems are famous, and often commonly practiced in Gong Fu, they are commonly misunderstood and misrepresented.  In addition to our other articles I will be offering a series of articles on the animal styles themselves and their relevance to modern training.

Common myths about the animal styles

In martial arts today there are a lot of misconceptions about the animal styles, some of which we should 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 isn’t hard to believe this one.  Animal styles were developed to emphasise groups of similar concepts and so the imitative actions of the styles seek to bring out the functionality.  Unfortunately, many practitioners get so caught up in trying to be 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 that the Crane Style is all about using the beak hand.  If you believe that then I suppose it becomes true, but in my experience this is not the case.  There are many animal styles that don’t contain any signature hand techniques at all.  There are complete systems of Tiger Boxing that don’t use the claw at all, and crane styles that almost never use a beak are quite common but often go unnoticed because they don’t look the part.

Common myth three: Animal styles were created by Bodhidharma at Shaolin Temple.

This is complete rubbish and unfortunately it is Shaolin Temple that seems to be spreading it around.  If you see any of the travelling 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 pushed very strongly.  The modern animal styles that are coming out of temple are not classical styles.  They are full of acrobatics and generally running around and pretending to be an animal, but with very little real functionality (except marketing).

Martial arts evolve, and the current commonly practiced Shaolin animal styles are valid in context, but to pretend that all of the martial arts that we see in Shaolin today were developed by Da Mo is ridiculous.  If nothing else, Da Mo (Bodhidharma) lived more than a thousand years before the first Shaolin Animal form was built.  This myth discredits the countless Masters who made outstanding contributions to Shaolin Gong Fu over the 1,500+ years of Shaolin’s history.

So what are the animal styles?

The animal styles are more correctly known as the Imitative Styles (Xing Quan) and are a unique feature of Classical Chinese martial arts.  Masters developed these styles as a way of exploring the nature of human consciousness by exploring the different ‘minds’ that the animals represent.  The animal is an archetype that the practitioner can explore to understand the changeability of the human mind.

The purpose of imitating is to free ourselves from our everyday identity and thereby explore ways of thinking that we wouldn’t have normally considered.  This creates a paradigm shift and expands our understanding and our barriers accordingly.  The first imitative system was not martial at all but was developed for health prevention.

The Wu Xing Xi (Five Animal Frolics) were developed by Hua Tuo, and by using the imitative actions of the Tiger, Bear, Deer, Ape and Bird, the natural health systems of the body can be regulated and balanced.  These exercises were popular for health but did not directly inspire the development of animal imitation systems.

In the 1600’s a Shaolin Master, Bai Yu Feng, set out to revitalise the Shaolin system.  He travelled around China for three years meeting with masters and learning a variety of styles.  After the three years he returned to Shaolin and constructed a new style by combining five systems he had encountered in his travels. This ‘new’ style was the 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 had 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 it was scattered examples and none had captured the imagination as this style had.
Each of these animals will be explored in detail in later articles but I wanted to mention another version of Bai Yu Feng’s boxing – Wu Xing Ba Fa Quan.

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

The Eight Laws are:

  1. Correct use of the internal skills
  2. Correct use of external skills
  3. Correct application of mind
  4. Development of the Six Harmonies through the hands
  5. Development of the Six Harmonies through the legs and footwork
  6. Correct application of the three zones of the body
  7. Correct application of Chin Na functionality
  8. Correct development of Qi Gong.

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

After Bai Yu Feng

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

As the concept of imitative practice spread, whole systems of exercise as well as weapon styles, such as Monkey Pole and Drunken Sword, started to appear.  Through cinema they remain popular to this day.
Imitative styles are popular in Shan Men Shaolin Quan and there are many imitative routines in the curriculum.  Students start to learn Wu Xing Ba Fa Quan at Level 6 (Purple Sash).

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