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The 5 Kung Fu Animal Styles of the Chinese Martial Arts

Updated: Jun 17

chinese martial arts

To longtime readers of Black Belt, Steve DeMasco needs no introduction. A student of the martial arts since 1968, he's been a fixture in the magazine since his debut in the February 1998 issue. Over the ensuing years, he's espoused his views on the physical and philosophical sides of the Shaolin fighting arts—specifically, Shaolin kempo. At the end of 1998, he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Instructor of the Year. In the following article, the New Hampshire-based master, who serves as Shaolin Temple's cultural ambassador to the United States, continues the topic he started in his March 2007 Shaolin Path column by describing and demonstrating the self-defense techniques of the five animals of the Chinese arts.

Kung Fu Animal Style #1: Tiger Popularity: high (for tiger), rare (for black tiger) Shaolin saying: "Tiger strengthens the bones." Characteristics: strength, agility; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology Strategy: tends to charge the opponent and attack directly with brute force, uses circular arm movements to overwhelm the enemy, relies on the arms but occasionally uses low kicks Targets: any part of the body, especially those that react to tearing techniques Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, speed, solid build, ability to adopt a strong stance and quickly change to another stance Training: push-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics, sparring, chi-development exercises Trademark: tiger claw, an open-hand grabbing and striking weapon formed by spreading the thumb and fingers, then bending them slightly In legend: "It offers the power to shake the earth and to be the authoritative king of its lair," kung fu master Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #2: Leopard Popularity: high Shaolin saying: "Bend fingers hard, like iron." Characteristics: strong, efficient, fast, technical, defined by accuracy, capable of stealth attacks Strategy: strikes quickly to inflict pain, then follows up for the kill Targets: soft-tissue regions and other vital areas, including the ears, neck, armpits, temples and groin Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, supple strength, ability to quickly retract the arms and legs after a strike Training: striking drills that develop accuracy and precision Trademark: leopard paw, a half-fist that strikes with the second knuckles of the four fingers. It's a rigid weapon that makes contact with a small, penetrating surface. In legend: "It's nature's master of precision and prowess—sharp, efficient and lightning fast," Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #3: Crane Popularity: medium Shaolin saying: "The spirit of the crane resides within the stillness." Characteristics: evasive, rarely offense-oriented, subtle, graceful Strategy: keeps the opponent at a distance and capitalizes on the length of the arms and legs, tends to strike with the very end of the natural weapons, attempts to overwhelm the enemy with rapid hand strikes, evades using circular movements Targets: soft areas such as the eyes, throat, ears and heart; sides of the head; ribs Physical requirements: tall, long reach, ability to remain still for extended periods, good balance, concentration, minimal strength Training: mobility-enhancing drills to develop the ability to maintain distance between oneself and the opponent, speed training, quick retraction of natural weapons, chi-development exercises Trademark: crane beak, formed by bunching the thumb, index finger and middle finger together to strike with the fingertips In legend: "It dances with accuracy and control, and offers weightlessness to rise above crises," Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #4: Snake Popularity: medium Shaolin saying: "Hard like steel and soft like a rope of silk." Characteristics: deceptive, agile, fast, accurate Strategy: relies on awareness, employs coiling motions and hisses to intimidate, uses whipping toe kicks to the lower half of the opponent's body, utilizes simultaneous striking and locking techniques, avoids using the traditional fist Targets: vital parts of the body, especially the eyes, face and throat Physical requirements: thin build, quick muscles Training: drills to increase explosiveness, which enables one to take the opponent by surprise; exercises that enhance balance and accuracy Trademark: snake hand, which uses one or two fingers—or, in the case of the spearhand, all of them—to attack and defend In legend: "It has extreme chi power, which helps activate profound sensitivity and enables all the muscles to work as one," Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #5: Dragon Popularity: rare Shaolin saying: "Dragon fist trains the spirit." Characteristics: strong, smart, deceptive, unpredictable; includes traits of the other four Shaolin animals; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology and the sign of the emperor Strategy: uses quick, snapping kicks that hit with the blade of the foot; uses the full fist and the forearms to strike; may combine physical techniques of the other Shaolin animals Targets: any body part that can be grabbed; the head, which is simultaneously grabbed and struck Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, ability to switch from soft movements to hard movements Training: drills to build explosive power Trademark: dragon-tail kick, which is used to hit or sweep; dragon claw, which positions the digits in a flatter orientation than does the tiger claw In legend: "It protects treasure, defends against famine and floods, and is filled with ancient wisdom and folklore," Rob Moses says.

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