Kung Fu Styles: The Immortal Animals and Fists of Chinese Martial Arts

As we begin our discussion of the styles of Kung Fu, we must consider these two quotes by the incomparable Bruce Lee:

  • “Truth cannot be perceived until we come to fully understand our potential and ourselves. After all, knowledge in the martial arts ultimately means self-knowledge.”
  • “All knowledge ultimately means Self-knowledge.”

At its core, the Martial Arts is a practice of self-discovery. If you would like to feel an unwavering certainty as to your true identity, than the Martial Arts are for you.

The discovery of your own personal style, and the style of Martial Arts that is uniquely suited to you, is an integral part of the pursuit of self-knowledge. You have a soul, a spirit, and a style that is uniquely your own. This is something that can be unearthed only through the practice of the Martial Arts.

You cannot approach the Martial Arts with the decision “I want to be a master of the Tiger style” or “I want to be a fighter who uses Preying Mantis style”. This type of decision is similar to waking up one morning and deciding that you want to live your life as a dog. If you are reading this, you are a human, and you cannot live your best life unless you come to understand that.

In this way, destiny is alive within the Martial Arts. Who you are already exists. Your only work is to dive into the darkness within, so that you may bring yourself into the light.

We begin by deciding we are ready to face the truth of ourselves. Only at this point will a teacher become available to us. With honest and diligent practice, we begin to discover ourselves and our abilities. We begin to see whether the “snake style” or the “tiger style” is right for us.

Physical attributes and capabilities are only a small part of the consideration. An individual’s emotional composition is the greatest consideration when it comes to determining a person’s fighting style.

The tiger, the leopard, the crane, the snake, and the dragon are first and foremost a representation of ourselves at the emotional level. It is the true nature of your heart and soul that will reveal itself in your practice as a Martial Artist.

Preconceived notions and expectations can only stand in the way. Are you a tiger? Are you a crane? First, you must practice the fundamentals. The basic principles of striking are the same in every style. You must first understand these principles, before a style can be yours. Quiet the fickle desires of the mind, practice with patience, and everything you want to know will become apparent.

That being said, these are the styles that exist in Kung Fu. Here is what you have to look forward to:

The Five Animals

The External Martial Arts

As they are currently understood, the Chinese Martial Arts are divided into two families: The external family, and the internal family.

The practice of the external family focuses on physical details, and an unwavering commitment to the task at hand. The target must be hit and destroyed. Every part of your body must lend itself to your current endeavor, and the spirit and mind must lead this pursuit. When you punch, you do it with the entirety of your being. This is the external way.

Tiger

Tiger style

Tiger style is the most popularly pursued in the external Chinese Martial Arts. The strength and majesty of the Tiger is something we all hope to embody. A tiger is authoritative: attacking directly and forcefully, entirely at ease imposing his will. Physically, the tiger is naturally powerful and strong. Through practice, this style strengthens the bones so that they can support such a frame, and deliver such powerful strikes.

One can imagine the way in which a tiger leaps upon and tears at its prey. This is the personality of a tiger, and its natural reaction to an opportunity. The tiger may wrestle and struggle with its victim, because it is big and strong enough to survive the ordeal.

In China, the tiger, and not the lion, is the king of beasts. Using short movements in low stances, the tiger’s first strike breaks through the defense, after which it applies a series of two or three strikes for the final victory.

Movements and stances are low. Besides the “tiger paw” (where the palm is the major point of contact, not the fingers), a tiger strikes using the horizontal fist, forearm, elbow, and edge of the hand. There are also double strikes, where both hands attack simultaneously. Kicks are short, made powerful with effort from the hip, and usually come as a singular attack.

Just as a tiger sinks its claws into its victim, pulling its target towards its jaws, the tiger style will teach you how to pull your enemy into your striking range. Once contact with the opponent is made, a tiger can multiply the effect of any strike by pulling his opponent towards the next coming blow.

Tiger blocks are frequently done by the forearm. They overwhelm rather than redirect.

People have an infatuation with the particular fists and hand-forms attributed to each of the Kung Fu styles, but the fact of the matter is that these special hand forms (i.e.: tiger claw) are not the norm in the expression of an animal style. The tiger claw is used in the Tiger form, but the predominant hand strike in the form is the standard fist. Obsession with specific, particular, and unusual hand-forms will only make you one-dimensional and ineffective as a Martial Artist. Clawing in every direction will not allow you to fight like a tiger—it will only allow you to lose a fight.

Leopard

Quickness is the hallmark of the leopard, in body and mind. Ironically, it is patience—the ability to wait for the right moment—that allows one to be quick.

The fastest person you know might not be suited for the leopard style, if they do not have the emotional constitution of the patient.

The physical strength and accuracy of the leopard are similarly echoed in a person’s emotional being: Do they know what they want? Can they put themselves in a position to achieve it? This person may be a leopard.

A leopard is not as strong as a tiger, but the absence of hard, powerful strikes allow it to move much faster. Body positioning is generally low and wide, but changes frequently.

The level of each strike in sequence constantly changes. A strike to the face may be quickly followed by a leg sweep, and then followed by another strike to the chest or face. A leopard punches with the fist, by “eye” of the fist (the inner side of the index knuckle), and “leopard paw”. The leopard paw is not as strong as a fist, but it can be faster and more accurate.

Unlike the tiger, there are no double punches, but simultaneous punches and kicks are common. A leopard uses an offensive series of five or six strikes. The angle of attack changes rapidly, you have to dance around the enemy and beat him. The strikes should be fast and strong enough.

The leopard-paw fist is one designed to penetrate at the weak points of the human body. This is the strategy of the leopard: To encircle the target, to find the moment to attack the weakest point, and to do so in the most damaging way. Is this how you solve your problems?

Crane

Who can fly above to see the big picture? To a tiger or a leopard, distance is something to eliminate. To a crane, distance is a key to its success.

The crane waits in stillness. It hovers in the air. It hunts in a shallow stream, where it perches itself unmoving. It waits for its next meal to arrive.

A broad view, and a willingness to watch events unfold without meddling, are the emotional necessities of the crane style.

The crane does not force itself into a situation, it relies upon it’s vision. The ability to see the place in the stream that is bound to deliver the opportunity. It does not wrestle with its prey, because it may be destroyed in such a struggle.

In the form of Crane there are a lot of high kicks, as well as jumping kicks (the crane does fly, after all). High kicks require a great deal of exertion and energy, so the main physical demand of this style is endurance.

Just as the crane spreads its wings, all movements within this style must be “big”, executed with a wide amplitude. Strikes are done with the outer and inner edges of the palm, with the fingers, and with the crane’s “wing”. Only single punches can be done with the fist. Strikes are rounded, like the flapping of wings – catching the wind beneath it, while also cutting through the air.

There are no hard blocks in Crane form. Crane blocks divert the coming attack, and have a wide amplitude. The blocks are done in the same places as strikes – palms, palm edges, and wrists. As for the kicks, there are a lot of them. You have to have a lightness about your movement that enable you to fly like a crane. Sweeping kicks inside and outside, circular kicks, reversed circular kicks, side kicks, straight kicks by the heel and by the ball of the foot. All of these kicks are done at different levels, and most of them are done while jumping. There are no knee strikes. Standing on one leg is also a hallmark of the form, which trains balance and stability.

If you see the crane hunt in the stream, you will see that the body and legs are still, but the beak strikes with a definitive and fatal power. In this way, a crane must be able to focus its attack at a single point, while the rest of the body acts as a foundation.

A crane must be willing to keep the distance from something it wants. It must be willing to wait for nature to deliver its opportunity. It cannot throw itself at an opponent. When the moment comes, it must be able to remain still, and only extend what is necessary towards achieving the goal.

Snake

When the snake coils itself, it simultaneously assumes its most well-defended and ready-to-attack position. In this way, defense and offense are one-and-the same for the snake. The opponents every advance is met with an embrace; a new opportunity to strike or surround.

The sinusoidal undulations of the snake are the perfect combination of circular and straight movement, and so the snake can effortlessly adjust its angle of attack, keeping the straight line motion towards the target while avoiding any trouble along the way.

Snake utilizes precision and flexibility. Therefore, its strikes, punches, and kicks are precise, but not powerful. All strikes should be light and quick, used one-at-a-time or in a series.

There are no strikes to the abdomen; your targets are the groin, knees, inner thighs, neck, and of course, the face. Punches are made with the fingers, palms, and wrists. Kicks are done more frequently with the ball of the foot, because it is faster than kicking with the heel. The heel is used only for side kicks. A snake uses sweeps and grappling with the legs. Blocks and grabs are used to evade and penetrate the opponent. Positioning is often low; the snake may use rolls or somersaults to move.

Psychologically, the snake is entirely unafraid to engage in a game of mental chess with an opponent. The victory of the snake is an inevitability—it pursues in the same way it receives—and achieves it’s goal by being the most willing to embrace..

The snake has all-encompassing attitude of attack. It attacks the interior with a single venomous bite, or surrounds the exterior with a pulverizing constriction. Upon victory, it swallows its prey whole.

Physically, the snake relies on elongated movements, and hands that can unfurl themselves in the same way a snake elongates as it strikes.

Dragon

The dragon is the most revered of all symbols in traditional Chinese culture. The dragon represented the emperor, and everything in this world that must be held in high esteem.

Dragon style is marked by fluidity, and a natural transition from hard and powerful attacks to sensitive and elegant action. Dragons are as serious as they are silly. As even-keeled as they are explosive. Change is the only constant, and the dragon approaches every situation with an acceptance and awareness of this fact.

A dragon is comfortable in a position of leadership and has an authoritative air, but it has a decidedly different attitude to that of the tiger. While a tiger may strive to dominate or lead a group, a dragon assumes a position out of necessity. He or she does not wish for fame, glory, or recognition; a dragon becomes a leader because they have no other choice.

Power is nothing. Technique is nothing. The essence of the dragon is its spirit. A dragon overcomes an enemy with heart and determination. A dragon never retreats. He is like a river: never flowing backwards, only forwards. It does whatever necessary, going above, below, or around, to get where it needs to go.

A dragon attacks and blocks at all levels, and from all sides. Dragon requires perfect coordination and a well-trained body. The Dragon is the most difficult form to learn, and the most difficult style to implement in combat. It is also the most effective. You must move properly and quickly on your feet in order to quickly change direction and level of your attack.

The Dragon form requires stepping very quickly from one leg to another, as if you are on hot coals. The technical arsenal of the dragon is very, very rich. It includes almost all types of strikes and blocks. As a symbol, the Chinese Dragon encompasses many other animals: The body of the snake, the paws of the tiger, etc.. That being said, as a fighting style, the Dragon does not have Tiger’s hardness, Leopard’s spurts, Snake’s recoil or Crane’s wide swings. Dragon is not an amalgamation of all styles, but rather a compromise made amongst them.

These five styles are the traditional and preeminent in the history of Kung Fu. They are all incorporated into the overarching practice of Hun Zha Chuan, which is taught at the Golden Dragon Martial Arts school.

Beyond the classic Five animal styles, many others have been developed in the last few thousand years. The thousands of Kung Fu styles currently in existence, both legitimate and ridiculous, are the products of the many eccentric and unusual personalities that exist among us.

Preying Mantis

The Preying Mantis makes a daily habit of eating others alive. A cold-blooded killer, the mantis in entirely focused, methodical, and efficient by nature. With one move, it cascades upon its opponent and proceeds to eat a hole through the top of its head.

There are two essential steps in the hunting strategy of the preying mantis:

  1. It latches onto its prey. Enfolded in the front legs of the preying mantis, the victim is rendered powerless.
  2. Using its razor sharp teeth, the Mantis bores a hole into its living meal. The mantis has no reason to rush the eating process. One insects impending doom is another’s satisfaction guaranteed.

Like much of the insect population, the mantis can generate a tremendous amount of power relative to its size. Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for the skinny mantis to feast on small birds. For all of its prowess, the mantis is an example of how power and fragility often occupy the same body. The mantis does not hold up well against direct blows from the side or above, and so it must be sure to deflect and transform the opponent’s attack.

The mantis style requires a person to come to terms with their own weaknesses. They must trust themselves, even when their strength may be inferior.

Emotionally, the Mantis style is available to those who are willing to clash. Contact must not only be accepted—it must be embraced. A mantis is ready to become interlocked with a problem—to hang upon and survive the worst—while maintaining the composure to strike at the proper moment.

Many of the movements of the mantis style are short, and therefore extremely fast. The power is generated from the waist, whether it is an explosive strike or a contracting grasp. Aerobically, mantis does not require as much physical exertion as other styles.

The preferred distance of this style is known as the trapping range (in which an opponent may be grasped). A common practice to those specializing in the Mantis style is “sticky hands”, where two people maintain unbroken contact at the wrist. This practice develops sensitivity and an understanding of the principles of deflection.

Wrist and arm techniques are particularly emphasized in the mantis form, as well as elbow and knee strikes. One of the most distinctive features of Northern Praying Mantis is the “praying mantis hook”: a hook made of one to three fingers directing force in a whip-like manner. The hook may be used to deflect, grasp, or attack weak spots (with precision).

Monkey Style

Traditional Monkey style Kung Fu is nearly impossible to find in modern times. The practice of this form has devolved into extremist performance art, in which the actor’s main priority is to act like a deranged monkey, seemingly in heat. There is little to be gained from the practice of wild, delusional flailing.

In its classic form, the monkey-like gesticulations appear in a decidedly subtle manner. In all the animal kingdom, it is the monkey that most resembles the human, and so it is somewhat puzzling that this style is one that seems to have become the most inhuman.

Monkey style focuses on low positioning (in which a practitioner can easily put their hands on the floor, as monkeys do). This style builds a tremendous connection between the arms and the legs. The power generated from the legs, is conducted in its entirety through the arms. The monkey style often target the lower parts of the body (the groin and the lower legs), with occasional clawing towards the face.

The Monkey style requires a high-level physical condition, and very strong and flexible legs. Much of the form happens in very low stances which are impossible to maintain without great endurance through proper training.

Eagle Claw

The style of Eagle Claw Kung Fu was created by one of the most famous figures in all of Chinese History: the legendary Song Dynasty general Yue Fei. It is said that he created this style as the most effective form of training and practice for his troops.

Eagle Claw is known for its gripping techniques. It is a system of joint locks, takedowns, and pressure point attacks. A large portion of this style is rooted in Chinese grappling, known as Chin Na. These are some of the most functional and practical techniques for self-defense, making them very suitable for the soldiers in the time of hand-to-hand combat.

Bai He Chuan (White Crane)

Bai He Chuan was developed by Fang Qiniang, a female martial artist. Elongated strikes and blocks along the horizontal plane are a hallmark of this style, as well as the circular transformation of effort from the horizontal to the vertical to enable downward pulling power. Much of the strikes involve straightened and elongated palms and figers, as well as the outside of the forearm. There is a great deal of attention payed to the straightness of the arm from the elbows to the fingertips, allowing the fingertips and and elbows to work in very precise ways.

All Traditional Chinese Martial arts include practice with weaponry, but some schools of the White Crane style have stopped using of weaponry.

The term “Chuan” can be translated to mean “fist”. This is a symbolic description of the knowledge and wisdom incorporated into any style. It is what can be held, the emptiness of the palm allows for the formation of the solid fist. This is a core understanding of the Martial Arts.

Hun Gar

Hun Gar style was created by Wang Fei Hun, one of the most famous fighters in the history of China. His father was the creator of the Hun Zha Chuan style, and Hun Gar is Wang Fei Hun’s interpretation of how these original five animal styles were practiced. Wang Fei Hun was a very powerful and strong man, and so Hun Gar style demands a great deal of physical strength in order to effectively practice and apply.

Wing Chun

Made famous by the Ip Man movies, Wing Chun specializes in short range strikes and work with the wooden dummy. Wing Chun can be considered a limited and selected portion of the Chinese Martial Arts, which is only effective in particular enclosed situations. The lack of long range techniques makes it an unideal focus for real world conflicts, and a limited tool as a method of self-discovery.

Cha Chuan (Long Fist)

Cha Chuan, also known as the “Muslim Long Fist” was developed by Chinese members of the muslim faith. It is an acrobatic and effective series of practical striking and direct kicking. The legs on one who practices Cha Chuan are light and flexible, able to effortlessly perform twisting ascending and descending maneuvers.

There is a great deal of running in this style, as it involves what can best be described as gliding in wide, curved movements while performing all the various punching and kicking techniques.

Bajiquan

The specialty of Bajiquan is short-range power attacks. Similar to Tiger style, Baji quan involves attacks to wedge between and force open an opponent’s arms, followed by attacks at high, mid, and low levels of the body. It is most useful in close combat, as it focuses on elbow, knee, shoulder and hip strikes. When blocking an attack or nearing an opponent, baji quan techniques emphasize striking major points of vulnerability (the internal organs enclosed within the thorax), legs and neck.

Bajiquan is known for its strenuous lower body training, and its focus on the “horseman stance” (though its horseman stance is generally less extreme than other styles).

Choy Li Fut

Choy Li Fut combines various aspects of Northern and Southern Chinese kung fu: The twisting, extended body movements, and agile footwork of the north, combined with the powerful upper-body techniques from the South. It contains long and short range kicks, punches, sweeps, take downs, grappling, joint locks, and pressure point attacks.. For what it’s worth, Bruce Lee is quoted as saying:

“Choy Li Fut is the most effective system that I’ve seen for fighting more than one person. [It] is one of the most difficult styles to attack and defend against. Choy Li Fut is the only style [of kung fu] that traveled to Thailand to fight the Thai boxers and hadn’t lost.”

What is unique to the Choy Li Fut style is the use of the upper torso. In this style, emphasis is paid to the twisting of the torso, to amplify the power of arm techniques. In other martial art styles, the upper body is less dynamic, but generally more stable.

Shaolin Wu Shu

The translation of the term “Wu Shu” is literally “Martial Arts”. In an ironic twist of fate, the term “Wu Shu” now describes a practice that is not a martial art.

At a certain point in its history, the Shaolin temple did practice the traditional Martial Arts. As of 600 years ago, it stopped its traditional practice, and began to transform itself into a type of “Buddhist Circus”. From that point forward, it placed its emphasis on marketability and spectacle. It was not, and never has been, the birthplace of Kung Fu, as it has advertised itself to be.

In the 1970’s, fresh off Mao’s Cultural Revolution and purge of traditional culture, The Shaolin Temple ® adopted the term “Wu Shu”, and used it to describe its extreme dancing practices. From this point forward, “Wu Shu” no longer meant Wu Shu. “The martial arts” could not longer be considered the martial arts.

Similarly, the term Chang Chuan (loosely translated as “Long Fist”) was once used as a way to describe the slower practiced Martial Arts (such as Tai Chi). Today, “Chang Chuan” is the main style incorporated into Wu Shu, and so it has lost its traditional practice.

One reason that the Traditional Martial Arts have lost their reputation and grandeur as methods of fighting and development is because of the prevalence of modern day Wu Shu. Today, Shaolin Wu Shu mimics the movements of the traditional martial arts, but it is not a Martial Art. Wu Shu is a sport, where the players exploit and undermine the health of their body in order to accomplish arbitrary and meaningless feats. The priority of this practice is to appease the judges and impress the audience in a staged performance. One does not practice with the goal of health and self-discovery. The ability to throw an effective punch is unimportant in the practice of Wu Shu. The only thing that matters is the ability to perform a flowery movement. This is good for dancing, but it cannot be considered a genuine or authentic form of Martial Arts.