Good evening! Having returned roughly one week ago from my trip to Europe, I shall now-… well… I guess I should give y’all some account of how my trip went. Okay then! Here goes.
Firstly, we arrived in London via Paris, because apparently Air France doesn’t like England enough to fly directly there from Detroit… losers. We crashed there, visited Winston Churchill’s house at Chartwell, his grave, and his birthplace at Blenheim Palace – both of which were fantastic. I can now say that I’ve stood in the room where arguably the greatest statesman of the 20th century was born. No big deal. After that we visited Oxford and had a grand auld time there; I really liked Oxford. Lots of fun. After we finished our time in London, seeing the War Cabinet bunkers from which Churchill and his aides directed the British portion of World War Two as well as Buckingham Palace (featuring the changing of the Guard), we took ourselves down to Portsmouth and thence by ferry to Brittany, landing in St. Malo. Beautiful little French port town; it’s a walled city, so we got to go up on the battlements and wander around taking pictures. After St. Malo the journey continued on to Caen, where we would spend the majority of our time in Normandy. We saw the grave of William the Conqueror, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Bayeux Cathedral,D-Day beaches, Pointe du Hoc, the American D-Day Cemetary, and most sobering of all, the German Normandy Cemetary. About 22,000 German soldiers buried there, not all of them named and some of them in a mass grave. It was a sobering reminder that no matter what we may say about the Nazis and the Germans in World War Two, they were humans too, and they died too.
After we finished in Caen, we were on to Paris!… aaaand I found it to be underwhelming, honestly. The Musée d’Orsays, the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph were all impressive (I didn’t see the Louvre, sorry, deal with it), but Paris itself I found to be loud, crowded and smelly. The same goes for Versailles, which we saw on our way in to Paris – resplendent, magnificent, but just too crowded. Didn’t have enough time to see it properly, either. Apart from that, I really enjoyed my trip. DONE, on to the rest! Now for my promised martial arts blog – today, the fabled arts of the Shaolin Five Animals style.
Shaolin Five Animals
Shaolin Five Animals is one of the more fabled of the Chinese martial arts, although not many actually know what the Five Animals are. Some think they are Snake, Eagle, Monkey, Tiger and Crane. Others think that the Mantis fits somewhere in the quintet. In reality, Mantis, Monkey and Eagle are separate schools of wushu. The Five Animals are the Tiger, Leopard, Crane, Snake and the Dragon. These five were selected because the founders of Five Animals saw that these five together would answer the problems that they saw in the wushu of their day.
Chinese wushu, as far as is known, actually originates in India. Bodhidharma, also known as Buddha, journeyed to the Orient in the mid-late 500’s A.D., and brought with him the physical exercises and mental methods that now typify wushu. He spent time with the Shaolin monks, and recognized that physically they were far too weak; they could not perform basic chores around their temple or defend their temple from enemies. Therefore, Bodhidharma imparted to them a handful of basic exercises. From these came Shaolin Wushu. There were already some martial arts in China, but these were seen as too focused on physical strength and not focused enough on mental discipline. A martial artist named Zhue Yuen recognized this and began to travel throughout China reformatting Shaolin Wushu. During this time, Yuen met two other famous martial artists named Li Sou and Bai Yu Feng. Together these three men formed “Wu Xing Quan,” translated as “Five Animal Form.” Wu Xing Quan was comprised of 128 movements divided into five groups. These groups were modeled after the motions of the five animals previously mentioned. These groupings were created to be practiced in conjunction with each other so as to help the individual develop five aspects of the body: physical or muscular strength, bone strength, vitality, chi energy (an inner energy, natural to each person), and spirit strength. According to Bai Yu Feng, these were the essential areas for a martial artist to develop.
The most surprising of the Five Animals is the Dragon. Everybody knows that the wondrous dragons of myth are fictitious, so if the motions were based off of the movements of the animal, then how did the founders of Five Animals know how a dragon moved? The answer is simple: they didn’t know how a dragon moved. They created the Dragon form based on what their folklore told them about dragons. They knew that the dragon was a serpentine creature, so the physical motions of Dragon are similar to those of Snake. They knew that the dragon had claws, so they incorporated a hand technique similar to Tiger’s trademark claw hand. They formed Dragon from what they knew of dragons. Dragons, in Buddhist folklore, are oceanic spirit creatures, and are though to have great physical strength as well as great inner, spiritual strength. Thus, Dragon is a more internal form, and the movements of Dragon are softer and more circular, yet with great energy. The soft power of Dragon’s movements suddenly morphs into hard power upon contact for a strike.
Dragon was created to form a balance between Tiger’s raw power and Snake’s soft, flowing movements. While Tiger mandates brute force, Dragon contributes much in the way of internal training by enhancing the practitioner’s spiritual energy. This difference is evident even in Dragon’s signature hand technique. This is known as the long zhua, which literally translates as “dragon claw.” Locking the fingers in a flat, wide claw creates the long zhua, as if you were grasping a thick pole. The long zhua is used to lock an opponent’s attacking limb and to pull or push it aside, or as a battering, blunt attack.
As you can imagine, practicing Dragon, or any martial art for that matter, requires training. Dragon focuses primarily on arm and hand strength. Students develop these by lifting and holding empty jars out from their body. When this can be accomplished with ease, the jars are slowly filled with increasing weight, until the shoulders and arms are very strong.
The second of the Five Animals is the Tiger. China does not indigenously possess lions, thus the tiger ranks as their King of Beasts. The tiger attacks fast and hard; being attacked by one is like being hit by a freight train. It is the Orient’s strongest, most aggressive land animal, and the wushu form corresponds. Tiger is a form that emphasizes all-out aggression and frontal attack. Internal training possesses no place in Tiger, because Tiger’s strength is strictly physical. Emphasis is instead placed on the strength of the student’s upper torso: fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, and neck. This allows for powerful stances and strong waist movement, which are key to delivering any sort of power in a technique.
This emphasis on strength of a purely physical nature is reflected in Tiger’s signature attack, the hu zhua, translated as “tiger claw.” This is a hand technique, formed by curling the hand into a circular claw, as if grasping a tennis ball. The tips of the fingers are used to strike, and on impact, they curl and tear at the opponent. For Tiger, training methods essentially identical to those of Dragon are used, save that Tiger students condition their fingertips and fingers. They do this by repeatedly catching small, airborne sandbags with the fingertips.
The Snake places at the top of Five Animals’ “Most Easily Remembered” list. Snake is the third of the Five Animals, and also the most passive. Developed to be the polar opposite of Tiger; it focuses almost exclusively on internal training and development of chi power. The snake is a very reserved and cool animal, thus Snake is very gentle and soft, focusing on internal strength. Following this rule, Snake uses no fist strikes whatsoever, and no noise is made during combat. While some Tiger practitioners will literally growl or shout to add power during a fight, the Snake is silent. Instead of fists or claws, Snake uses the fingertips to execute pinpoint accurate vital strikes on pressure points and weak areas. Mimicking the fluidity of a snake’s motions, there are no motions in Snake that are specific blocks or attacks; everything can be used one way or another. The movements are very soft and circular, yet when they connect there is definite power to them. Hence, Snake requires precision, accuracy and smooth execution. A Snake student keeps his body moving during the fight, never standing still. He must be relaxed, yet focused in order to best utilize his chi energy.
As a unique facet among the Five Animals, Snake has no especial training methods. The assumption is that the Five Animals student will be practicing all Five at once, and that the training methods of the other Four will sufficiently condition and train the student.
Crane places fourth among the Five Animals. In Shaolin, the crane is a symbol of longevity and vitality; a patient, calm animal with great strength. Crane, therefore, develops both internal and external strength. It hones the student’s chi and strengthens their bones and muscles. Crane’s movements are similar to those of Snake: soft, relaxed, and circular. Crane’s motions are designed to prevail with minimum effort, using soft power until the strike connects, at which point a quick, hard power is used. The motions mimic the wings of a crane by using long-hand and short-hand techniques. The short-hands are generally joint-locks, limb-locks and other techniques designed to incapacitate an opponent’s limbs. The long-hand techniques are pressure-point strikes on the opponent’s vital areas. Both long- and short-hand techniques use the he zui, translated as “crane’s beak.” This is a hand technique formed by clamping together all four fingers and the thumb into a single pointed striking unit and bending the wrist slightly. This formation allows for strikes and also a hooking block to scoop an enemy’s arm aside.
To effectively use these techniques, the student must condition their fingertips and wrists to withstand the force of the blows. This is Crane’s conditioning focus: the hands. Snake has added chi to his hands, and Dragon and Tiger have added power. Crane adds resilience. The student conditions his fingers by performing repeated he zui strikes on sandbags. Once comfortable with that, the student switches to rough gravel. For wrist conditioning, the student performs pushups on his bent wrists. Crane students also practice deep relaxation, focus and concentration.
The fifth and final of the Five Animals is the Leopard. In China, the leopard is second only to the tiger for strength and ferocity, despite the fact that pound for pound, leopards are stronger. The leopard has a power as solid as that of the tiger, but the leopard is a sleeker, faster animal. Their power is more loose, more relaxed. It stems from agility, speed and balance. Therefore, while both Tiger and Leopard are ferocious and strong, Leopard focuses more on speed and fluidity, resulting in a quicker and more dance-like form, balanced between Crane and Tiger. It develops speed as well as strength, emphasizing strong stances, footwork-speed, strike-speed, and waist power.
Very little of Leopard focuses of chi; primarily, Leopard focuses to train the skin, bones, muscles and tendons. The Leopard uses a certain hand technique for its signature strike; this is called the bao chui. It translates as “leopard fist.” A bao chui is performed by folding the fingers back at the first joint rather than at the knuckle, and laying the thumb alongside. This results in a stable, flat, streamlined knuckle attack, designed to penetrate and cause severe trauma. However, if attempted without training, a bao chui could severely damage the knuckles of the deliverer. Leopard students remedy this via repeated punches against hard sandbags and pushups on their knuckles. To increase hand strength, Leopard students also practice compressing a firm ball with both hands, full strength, at least one hundred times a day.
 Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, “Shaolin Five Animals,” (Unique Publications, CA, 1988), 5
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