My recently published article from Martial Tao Magazine LINK
My first teacher used to ask questions every class, standard stuff for beginners like “What is the weight distribution in a Bow Stance (弓步 Gong Bu)?” or “Name five animals in Kung Fu”. I can still remember vividly standing in a horse stance (馬步 Ma Bu) or holding a plank and having to answer these questions or hear younger students try to answer them. Wrong answers, of course, were met with more people being asked and as such more horse stance or planks or some other creative torture. 60/40 for Gong Bu of course and usually the five animals were dragon, tiger, crane, snake, leopard sometimes you might hear monkey or praying mantis mentioned as well. As a teenager I really just thought it was need to know information and as I progressed it became questions about what each of the animals represented or trained when you learned them. He would have me quote things like “Tiger strengthens the bones, snake the tendons, dragon the spirit…” and so on.
But he missed the forest for the trees. The finger for the moon. The trappings and traditions for the art.
However, this is a very common thing, he was teaching what he was taught, and so did his teacher – I checked. This is repetition of what must be true because master said it is, not the attempt at transmitting the masters understanding to the students. It is memorizing not learning. We all start out as teachers in this way, teaching as we were taught simply because it seems to work out for ourselves in our own training and skill set, tradition, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if this is where we stay in our own training and teaching abilities, we are simply passing on the DNA and not really working to expand, research, and improve our understanding or our students.
Animals are used as examples in martial arts for many reasons, lots of good ones even. Throughout the decades I have discussed this idea many times and found many different answers like:
- Copying animal movements will change the body (tiger strengthens bones etc)
- Copying animal movements reveal many different fighting methods that are effective. To clarify this tigers pounce on things, praying mantis will pull opponents in towards itself, and so on.
- Copying animal movements reveal structure useful to create force “Tigers Back, Crane’s Neck”
These are all examples of imitative animal styles; styles trying to look and move like the animals they have taken as their examples. But another side of the animal arts is not to imitate the movements of the animals as seen in things like Shaolin, but to find and replicate the spirit of the animals instead and allowing the outward appearance to be what it needs to be rather than trying to strengthen the fingers to create claws like a tiger for example. This tends to be the realm of the internal martial arts more so than what are considered the external arts, and this falls very much in line with this way of thinking. The external, the appearance, means nothing without the internal intent, mind, and spirit of the animal. A good example of this can be found in an art like Xinyiliuhe (Ten animals Xinyi AKA Six Harmonies Xinyi). The ten-animal art has a short line of poetry for each animal looking to show it spirit rather than its movement exclusively.
“The Bear exits the cave, Snake slithers through the grass, Monkey shrinks elusive and devious, Tiger pounces through the bones, Swallow skims the water, Horse cannot be tamed, Eagle flies through the forest, Dragon rolls through the clouds, Sparrow hawk penetrates the branches, Chicken likes to fight.”
Take a single one of these and look for the spirit of the movement and the animal itself and it is easy to see the outward appearance may not even resemble the animal. Xinyi tiger has no claws for example and instead works on being upward and aggressive in movement to pounce on prey. My favorite of course is “Chicken likes to fight”. No reference whatsoever to what its movements are like, but the spirit is obvious. Chicken is not hunting to eat like a tiger, no it actually LIKES to fight. If you have ever raised chickens just go ahead and watch a couple roosters decide to kill each other. The technique does not matter to them, only that the other cock gets eaten.
Seems like at this point we have looked more deeply into things than my first lineage did, but we are still staring at the finger in the case of the first imitative styles and investigating everything about the finger in the second. But we still have not taken it far enough to say we see the moon. What is the moon then? We have seen the outward appearance and now thought about the internal spirit of the animals for our arts to bring that spirit into our practice. What is left?
As usual instead of going to higher and higher ‘levels’ with each of the examples and adding complexity that in the end just confuses everything (see bagua and the 64 hexagrams as maps of the body for example) we need to reduce and find the base, the foundations. Why should we study animals for martial arts?
We are animals.
We consistently deny that we are omnivorous, predatory, mammals with brains so advanced and high level we have actually forgotten this most fundamental part of ourselves. Remembering we are animals ourselves brings a new light to the idea of all this intellectual study of animals in martial arts. Return to moving naturally, connected and relaxed. Look at some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom monkeys, chimps, and apes. A man-sized primate is much stronger, faster, and more dangerous than any human being. We get to be on top of the food chain due to tool use but in martial arts we are training to use nothing but our bodies as our tools and barehanded the ape would win. Nothing interfering with natural movement, no mental obstructions to killing a threat if its needed, no need to uphold a lineage or where the right clothes or belt to fight. Natural Martial Ability. The first step is to realize that we are animals, and it is a remembering through training of this and the type of movement that engenders it, that brings us closer to the Way.
If you look at some of the earliest photos of martial arts master’s, they look animalistic in their postures. Not in an imitative surface way either, but in a primal, dangerous one. Don’t pretend to be an animal – you already are one. This is the reason I start every one of my classes with a monkey run as a warm up exercise. All the body must be connected and work together to run on all fours, the back bends and rounds itself like a drawn bow and the legs must become active and spring like throughout the exercise. Internally this could be called a nearly Shamanic practice embodying not only the movement of the animal (human animal) as many primal attributes come to the surface. The eyes look to the horizon, the tail is held down, each limb works individually but as a cascade of movement making four sounds each step (hand, hand, foot, foot), and the tendons of the legs must engage without rest making skillful changes of direction or explosive bursts of speed possible.
Students at first see this as a conditioning exercise, then as an imitative one. Ideally, they come to see the spirit of the exercise is embodying a monkey not copying one’s movements. If they reach this level of understanding their monkey style becomes fast, dangerous, elusive and devious. But it when they see the moon that they see the point of not just this exercise but all the animal work throughout the arts. No matter the style of the art, there is only one art. Natural, spontaneous, and connected. This is what drives the skill level of a practitioner past good and towards great.
Styles belong to people; people do not belong to styles.