For thousands of years and countless generations kung fu practitioners have looked to the animal kingdom for inspiration on how to move and how to fight. For most of us as civilised humans our lives have become pretty easy in many ways. We rarely have to fully exert ourselves physically, and we are rarely faced with threats that we need to respond to quickly. Because of this our senses become dulled, our bodies weakened and our movements stiff and unnatural. Wild animals provide us with an example of natural, graceful and responsive movement. By copying them we can come closer to understanding and realising our own physical potential – even while living in a civilised society.
There are five animals that are commonly practiced in southern style kung fu. These are the Tiger, Snake, Crane, Leopard and Dragon. While these animals are well known in Shaolin, the evidence seems to suggest that they actually originated in the southern family styles of kung fu and were later adopted by the monks due to their effectiveness. They have since become famous throughout China and the world.
Some people theorize that the five animals were developed in line with the Chinese theory of five elements, and that each animal develops one of these elements. Interestingly though different schools ascribe different animals to different elements and the set of five does not even contain the same group of animals as the ones used in five animal qigong which is specifically designed for developing the five element energies. In addition to this there are other animal kung fu systems that focus on anywhere between just one animal and up to twelve.
A simpler answer is that there is nothing magical about the number five. From each animal we learn different styles of movement, methods of power generation and tactics for fighting. If we focus on just one animal we have just one set of tools and tactics. If we focus on learning too many, we may become overwhelmed and not be effective at any of them. Over generations it has been found that by learning the distinctive movements of the traditional five animals the student gains a wide enough range of skills to deal with most situations without becoming overwhelmed by the options. By practicing the movements the student also learns a lot about their own strengths and weaknesses and begins to break out of bad postural and movement habits and to move more naturally and freely.
What about the other animals?
I am often asked about other specific animals and how they fit in. The answer is that each of the other animal styles has much to offer, in fact all adult students at Long White Cloud Kung Fu learn at least the basics of another animal – the praying mantis, before even starting the five animals, as the training methods of the praying mantis style are so useful for developing short range, explosive striking power. Each animal style will provide the practitioner with new inspiration and unique patterns of movement and fighting tactics. Once a student has built a solid foundation by learning the five animals they may want to pursue training in other animal styles that take their interest to broaden their skills and experience. Equally they may find that they are satisfied with just the five or that they are more interested in pursuing other areas of kung fu training such as iron palm or advanced weaponry – after all the overall aim is to discover your own natural and instinctive way of moving, the animals styles are just a tool to help you on this journey. In the end, like it or not, you will always move like a human.