Top 10 Creatures that Influenced Martial Arts

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Martial arts has a long history of associating fighting techniques with animals. Early practitioners in China and Japan mirrored their fighting styles on the observed attack and defense techniques of the animals around them. Each animal has a specific style and collection of techniques that takes into account surroundings and the opponent. A large opponent using brute force would require a specific style of fighting to counter and defeat. Likewise, a smaller, more mobile opponent would require a much different fighting style. Categorizing techniques into animal styles gave the martial artist the advantage of a focused, coherent attack and defense. Rather than trying to assess, on an ongoing basis, which techniques to use in a fight, the martial artist could simply assess in the beginning which style would be appropriate. Clearly, teachers expected their students to not only master the techniques, but to master the styles – to know exactly how to fight when opting for one style over another. Different martial arts use different animals, but here are 10 of the most common.

10. Tiger

Tiger style is one of the classical Five Animals fighting system associated with southern kung fu. Tiger style is aggressive and uses a hand claw technique to claw, slash, and tear at an opponent. The hard-hitting style is primarily close-range and meets an opponent force for force, rather than deflecting an opponent’s attack. Students learning the tiger style focus on strengthening the bones, muscles, and tendons and fight with short, choppy, but powerful bursts of energy.

Much of the style is centered on a low stance that pounces, much like the great cat itself. Traditionally, students learning the tiger style spent months or even years practicing stances to master them. Although modern-day students may not follow the same regimen, their mastery of the stances is still critical to successfully learning the style. For Shaolin students, tiger style was central to their study, as it embodied all aspects of combat, both armed and unarmed.

Tiger kung fu is also a family of fighting styles that includes eagle, leopard, monkey, and dragon, among others. Eagle, leopard, monkey, and dragon are diverse enough, though, that they are considered independent subsets of tiger kung fu.

9. White Crane

The white crane style is the second of the classical Five Animals system included in this list. White crane style traditionally involved deep stances and complex hand movements to imitate the pecking of a bird. Over time, the style developed into five branches, which incorporated other bird-like characteristics, such as broadly sweeping motions that mimic the flapping of a bird’s wings.

The white crane is also part of the Five Ancestors system, which consists of the breathing methods and hard body of Da mo, a Buddhist monk credited to bringing zen to China; the posture and power of Luohan, a style of boxing that also includes grappling and locking movements; the precise efficiency of Emperor Taizu; the hand techniques of White Crane; and the agile footwork of Monkey.

Traditionally, the origin of White Crane is attributed to a woman from the mid-18th century who wanted to avenge her father’s unjust murder. While working in the field, a white crane had landed nearby. She tried to shoo the bird away, but the crane evaded and blocked her every attempt. From that point on, she began to study the crane’s movements and developed a fighting style that relies more on evasion and precise attacks to an opponent’s vulnerable areas.

The white crane style is still taught widely today and is popular among self-defense classes for women, since it doesn’t require brute strength or force.

8. Leopard

Leopard fighting, sometimes known as Panther, emphasizes speed and attacking from various angles. It is the third member of Five Animal kung fu. Unlike Tiger and White Crane, Leopard does not practice a deep and rooted stance. Instead, practitioners of the leopard style employ a hit-and-run technique that is characteristic of leopards in the wild. The style is aggressive, like Tiger, but does not focus on defensive blocks. Leopard fighters are always on the offensive.

Leopard fighters will attack with elbows, knees, low kicks, and leopard punches, which are formed with a half-opened fist that push the second row of knuckles outward. Their fierce aggression springs from their speed and persistent onslaught of attacks. The aggression is not strength-dependent, though, unlike the Tiger. The leopard style tries to outwit the opponent by constantly repositioning the fighter.

The leopard style is considered a mix of Tiger and White Crane, as its attack style is aggressive like Tiger but its movement is reminiscent of the Crane’s evasive maneuvers. Traditional training for Leopard involved strengthening the knuckles by punching heavy bags with the leopard fist and performing push-ups on the knuckles rather than the palms.

7. Snake

The fourth of Five Animals kung fu is the snake. The fluid motions of the snake make this style one of the “soft” martial arts that is based more on precise strikes and evasive defense (as opposed to the aggressive, “hard” styles, such as Tiger). Snake style relies on a strong core to enable the fluid motions. Students strengthen their spine and fingers, as the fingers perform the attack.

Practitioners rarely leave the ground, but they stance necessarily is fluid to allow the snake-like motion. The movement is also key to allow for a whipping-type attack. Since the fingers do most of the attacking, Snake fighters aim for the weakest points, such as eyes, pressure points, or the groin. Fighters form a type of open fist in which the first two fingers are straight out and firm, while the rest of the fingers curve in a fist-like fashion.

Practitioners also use it as part of meditation, as it is built around slow, rhythmic breathing. The style is known for its calm attitude and reliance on patient, almost hypnotic motions. Striking while using the snake style is infrequent, since the attack requires such specific target points to be openly vulnerable.

6. Dragon

The fifth of the Five Animal fighting system, the dragon, is an integral part of Chinese culture that is still one of the more recognizable images even to Western societies. The dragon represented earth and water and was thought to be the guardian of the gods who brought the rain. The fighting style, too, embodies earth and water. Students learning the style would initially train “hard,” by practicing powerful strikes, blocks, and stances (including stomping into position), which served to instill the power of the fighting style. Over time, Dragon fighters would transition into a more fluid motion.

Although evasion is the highest form of Dragon, strong blows also characterize the style. Like the snake, the Dragon fighter will demonstrate a zig-zagging motion and evade attacks, tiring out an opponent, then deliver a focused, powerful attack.

Dragon is one of the most complex styles of kung fu, incorporating tiger claws, snake-like movements, leopard-style hit-and-run, low sweeping maneuvers, and several types of fists and punches. Because of its complexity, it can be used in a variety of situations, whether to cripple or kill an opponent, or just to control a minor confrontation.

5. Praying Mantis

The praying mantis style is another style of kung fu that is based on deflecting attacks. The praying mantis insect is long and light, unable to withstand a direct attack. The insect will use a patient, focused approach to attacking, using circular motions to deflect strikes and attack in a whip-like fashion. The fighting style adopts a similar approach. To mimic a mantis leg, the practitioner will form a downward-facing fist one to three fingers pointing outward like a hook.

Since the style keeps the fighter from taking a direct blow, it tires out the opponent while keeping the fighter relatively unharmed. The hooked fingers attack the soft spots of the body, such as the eyes or the throat, making it imperative that the fighter adopt a patient, defense-oriented attitude.

The traditional history of the Praying Mantis puts it at 350 years old or more. A young student had been frustrated by his inability to defeat his brother in a fight. One day, while sitting down to read, he noticed a praying mantis fighting a cicada. He was impressed with the way the mantis moved in and out and eventually trapped the larger cicada with its forearms to eat it. Seeing the fight moved him to develop the style and incorporate movements that used the forearms and wrists, while moving around, to disable a larger opponent.

4. Eagle Claw

While most of the other styles mentioned in this list make use of quick strikes, evasive techniques, or sheer raw power, the eagle claw style is more about grabs, locks, and take-downs. Eagle Claw began as a close-range fighting technique, but over time it acquired more long-range and aerial attacks. At its core, Eagle Claw emphasizes incapacitating the opponent by limiting their ability to move. Using a series of grabs and joint locks, the fighter not only hinders mobility, but also has the advantage of forcefully opening up vulnerable pressure points.

The claw hand position that defines the style can be used for grabbing, clawing, slashing, and finger strikes to pressure points. Eagle Claw fighters move quickly, often grabbing an opponent and striking immediately. Fighters must also demonstrate the ability to twist and evade direct hits, requiring a powerful core of muscles.

Although many other animal fighting styles owe their origin to monks, the eagle claw style has traditionally been attributed to a military general who developed the system to help his armies defeat invaders. The style continued to be passed down through the military and is now practiced around the world.

3. Mongoose

The mongoose’s strength is in evasion and counter-attack. In nature, a mongoose will deliberately draw a snake out and entice it to attack, knowing that it can evade the strike. When the snake strikes, it overextends and makes itself vulnerable. The mongoose, having sidestepped the attack, is in perfect position to counter by grabbing the snake and never allowing it to coil again, keeping it in a state of vulnerability.

The mongoose fighting style is built around the same notion. Practitioners develop the ability to generate power from any position, whether balanced or unbalanced, so that they can evade any strike but still be in a position to counterstrike. Because Mongoose fighters use body position and leverage to generate power, size and strength are of no concern. In fact, a smaller fighter will find it easier to use the mongoose style than a larger fighter.

The mongoose style is thought to have come from ancient Egypt and later brought to China by the Buddhist warrior Da Mo.

2. Bear

Like the tiger, the bear style of martial arts relies on strength to batter an opponent. Many forms of martial arts use motions of the bear to form their basis. The bear’s fundamental movements are not complex. They employ linear shifts side-to-side and front-to-back and use a combination of speed and strength to generate tremendous power. Some styles of martial arts describe the process of obtaining a black belt as mastering the bear movements. At that point, the student is ready to “really” learn and master the other animal forms.

Evasion is not central to Bear fighting. Practitioners do not attempt to strike from angles or focus on pressure points. Bear fighters take a deliberate, direct approach. The movements are firmly grounded, and the power comes from reinforced strength, rather than whip-like movements or using body position and leverage.

1. Monkey

Monkey style is common to kung fu demonstrations or competitions for its popular and impressive acrobatics. The style may include flips, jumps, hand-walking, lunging, and spinning kicks. Monkey fighters focus on the lower half of the body, as well as the eyes and throat, when targeting their attacks. The form their hands as partially opened fists, monkey claws, or even open-handed slaps. Most of the movements come out of a crouching position, just as a monkey in the wild. Traditionally, practitioners even mimic the jerking head movements and the facial expressions of wild monkeys.

Monkey has developed into five distinct styles of fighting. Drunken Monkey fighters use a series of faltering, tumbling movements to lure an opponent into a vulnerable position, then strikes to the eyes, throat, and groin. Stone Monkey takes a different approach that is more akin to “iron body” fighting. Stone Monkey fighters will deliberately expose parts of their bodies to entice an opponent’s strike, then counterstrike a more vulnerable point on the opponent’s body. Lost Monkey, similar to Drunken Monkey, gives the opponent the impression that the fighter is incapable of fighting. Instead of stumbling, though, Lost Monkey fighters appear to be confused, then strike when their opponents lease expect it. Standing Monkey is more of a conventional Monkey style, except that the movements do not come from a crouching position. Finally, Wooden Monkey takes a more aggressive approach, attacking with ferocity and using grappling techniques to bring an opponent to the ground.

Monkey fighting is widely popular for its entertaining methods, and is used heavily in popular culture.