Animals in Kung Fu

Well, I’m sitting here on a park bench in Oregon and watching a squirrel circle my bench. He’s waiting for another nut.

Everyone knows that Kung Fu has animal styles. Everyone is familiar with the tiger and the dragon… but the subject is a little more interesting that what people first suspect.

We have to start with one particular group of animal movements, namely the ones invented by Hua  Tuo, one of China’s great doctors. Even though these are not Kung Fu animals, even though these are used for Qigong and health, they were extremely influential on the idea of organizing movements by animal style. Long before the Shaolin Temple, around 500 ce, everyone, including the Vikings, had totemic and symbolic relations to animals. The importance of Hua Tuo lay in his determination that it was the essence of the animals that you were trying to catch (the anima of the animal?).

The exact meaning of this may vary from style to style. For instance, if you compare Northern Shaolin to Southern Shaolin especially through one of its most popular representatives, Hung Gar, you will realize that in the Southern version the animal movements are very easy to identify. You can see the tiger and hear the player make the tiger sounds. In contrast, when you look at Northern Shaolin you can barely see any animals and Northern Shaolin is supposedly where the Five Animals of Kung Fu started.

Well, the idea is this: animal styles exist on two levels. On the first, they emphasize the actual  motions the animals make, like doing claw movements with your hands. And on the second, they encompass the less visual spiritual, strategic or psychological abilities of the animals. Take “ferocity” from the tiger. These qualities are not always manifested in physical form. For instance Praying Mantis uses the well known Mantis Claw. But what some people don’t know is that there are certain styles of mantis which use the claw while there are other types which never use this distinctive hand formation. In other words, the actual physical form of the mantis is insignificant. What is significant are the principles of the mantis such as hooking negative movements, skipping engagement techniques, angular changes and things such as that.

So what you want to do is understand that a style must have the animal and its strategic and spiritual aspects all matched. It’s not enough just to imitate a leopard. You have to ask what is it about a leopard we are trying to capture. And, of course, it has to be the kind of thing a human being can imitate. Human beings can imitate things quite well, part of our primate heritage no doubt. But sometimes the people doing that tiger style who look the best are really not expressing any aspects of the tiger’s principles. In Kung Fu you always try to catch the essence of what that animals represents as well as the outward manifestation.

Some styles, like Shaolin, enjoy multiple animals. What does that imply about styles based on a single animal like Praying Mantis, White Crane or Monkey? You will notice that inside Praying Mantis they have a Swallow/Tiger form. They also have some aspects which, though we may consider them to be animal ideas, are not necessarily called by animal names. For instance Mei Hua plum blossom moves have to do with ‘open and close’ which you could just as easily call Eagle movements. The true essence is the Open/Close and whether designated as an animal or a flower doesn’t matter much as long as it’s there.

There’s yet another aspect to this which has been particularly emphasized by George Xu, at least in the West. He says that what you are trying to do is create a predatory attitude. Even beyond that, a predatory space.  In some ways this means abandoning our humanness to a degree.

George Xu

You still want to use the intelligence of the human being but otherwise to not be restricted by the tendency of a human being to be a human being and walk upright, or be a social animal and numerous other human traits. So part of the idea is to get yourself into a predatory mode just as the Berserkers did before battle, where you give up part of your humanity because you are a warrior. It’s not just going crazy, though. It’s a controlled predation. I remember talking to David Chin about his Hop Gar years ago. He believed that people viewed animal styles too analytically: “oh I’m going to use the tiger claw this way while leaning that way then I’m going to attack the eyes.” He said that was completely unlike an animal approach. To an animal, if the opponent sticks out a hand then that hand is meat and you go for it. The animal reacts with “I’m going to eat that hand, then I’m going to eat the arm, then I’m going to eat the person.” No strategies. In  this sense it’s all spontaneous. And that’s a major element of animal style: to be spontaneous. And to find that animal within you.

This predatory mode is also how you dominate the other person’s space. Though I’ve painted a picture of a sort of psychotic moment it’s all actually very cold. The predatory aspect of Kung Fu is to control the space and, in some ways, the battle  is over before it starts. Movements are seen in this sense not so much as though you are imitating a tiger or a dragon as if you are moving the ways they do—interpreted by the human mind you understand—to dominate a certain space which the opponent happens to be occupying.

When we get down to specifics the whole idea may be easier to understand. The tiger is fierce and its Shaolin brother style, the leopard, is canny. In other words the tiger will attack you  and the leopard will harass you. The leopard is not as large as a tiger so it will often attack from strange angles. The tiger is fierce, the leopard is mean. The leopard represents tendons where the tiger represents muscles. If you’ve ever fought anyone who is really wiry you know what “mean” means.

Now we look at the dragon. Well, first of all, the dragon doesn’t exist. It is a mental construct. The dragon is therefore representative of the mind. The dragon as mind is like the Loch Ness monster, its scaly body appearing then disappearing.  Thus the substantial and the insubstantial. The dragon is the leader of the animals, not just because it is imperial but also because it is the strategist. As Sun Tzu wrote, “The Art of War is the art of deception”. The dragon is the one who makes illusions appear.

What about the snake? When the snake coils its body it looks like it is filled with moving qi. Snake coiling becomes completely understandable in any touching situation like Sticky Hands or Pushing Hands where the arm, permeated with qi, moves like an undulating snake.

These are just some of the attributes. We should remember that what was put into the classical style is by no means all that you can get out of the style. Like primary colors the animals are primary attitudes and its up to you to mix and balance them.

Oh, here comes that squirrel again.