In dealing with the recently popularized concept of kung fu, one must begin the discussion by explaining that
kung fu is not a martial art unto itself, yet it encompasses the most effective and
devastating methods of self-preservation known to man. The identity of kung fu
is diverse; over 1,000 styles are known or recognized. From kung fu came Karate, Escrima, and most important, a way of thinking that became
a code of life.
Kung Fu requires of the practitioner a strict code of
physical and mental discipline, unparalleled in Western pursuits. It is
only as a whole concept that kung fu can be discussed, and this entails
more than fighting.
To be adept, one must follow the Tao, the way, the essence
of the philosophy and life of the originators of the arts. One cannot pay
to learn this art; it is only acquired by the desire to learn, the will to
discipline one's self, and devotion to practice.
The standards to be met to attain proficiency are so high
that the Chinese refer to the master as a disciple of the way of the
tiger, the sign of the dragon.
The concept of a style is a rather complicated one, and Chinese martial
arts claim as many as 1500 different styles. By "style" we mean
a particular school of martial practice, with its own training methods,
favored techniques, and emphasis on attack and defense. While it is impossible
to quantify differences between most styles, it is easy to see the distinctions
between such disparate approaches to combat as practiced by Tiger, Crane,
and Monkey stylists. In choosing a style (a contemporary privilege; traditionally,
styles were assigned by the teachers), try to find one that suits your physical
attributes, interests, and sense of utility. It does no good to study the
graceful single-leg and flying techniques of White Crane if you have the
flexibility and grace of a turtle! On the other hand, and kung fu practice
will enhance your physical skills, dexterity, and alertness, and it is not
uncommon for a beginner in one style to change to a more "appropriate"
style later. Whatever else may be said of styles, the first year basics
are almost universal - punches, kicks, and stances show little variation
at the beginner's level.
The power of the kung fu practitioner lay in his ability
to defend himself against impossible odds and situations. After years of
the most diligent practice, these monks became more than merely adept at
the ways of survival. But the initial acceptance to be one of the chosen
few was difficult.
As children, applicants for priesthood were made to do the
most menial and difficult work related to the upkeep of the temple. Their
sincerity and ability to keep the secrets of the order were severely
tested for years before the finer aspects of the order were revealed to
them. But, upon being accepted by the elders of the temple, his or her
entry into kung fu was to open a whole new world. The student would work
long hours training mind and body to work together in a coordinated
effort. He would learn the principles of combat, the way of the Tao, and
together they would ensure his way to peace.
One would be taught initially the first basic fist sets,
the prearranged forms which simulated multiple attacks. These in turn
became more complex as the student advanced, while he would simultaneously
be learning the way of Taoism.
Upon completion of the student stage, one became a
disciple who would be taught the higher secrets of the arts and
philosophies. Weapons of all descriptions would become familiar to him as
weapons of attack and defense. One would perfect his movements to coincide
with his breathing. One's mind would meld into the realm of meditation
known as mindlessness. And one would learn to harness ch'i.
Ch'i is a concept of such magnitude that we shall deal
with it throughout this site in many different lights. For now, suffice it
to say that ch'i is the power governing the universal power, so to speak.
Only by harnessing such energy can a person of mild stature learn to break
bricks with his bare hand, or learn to sense the movements of an opponent
in the darkness. The list of feats goes on and on; we shall discuss some
of these in other sections of this site.
Essential to movements in kung fu are ch'i-controlled
actions. Compare the movements of a Karateka and a kung fu practitioner,
and the differences are at once obvious. The Karateka moves deliberately,
forcefully, each move unique and distinct from each other move. He punches
linearly, kicks in a straight line, and keeps his body as rigid as iron.
The Chinese boxer, on the other hand, is smooth and fluid in motion,
allowing several moves to meld imperceptibly into one long, graceful
action. In short, kung fu is fluid.
Ch'i properly coordinated allows for fluidity. Consider a
single drop of water. Alone, it is harmless, gentle, and powerless. But
what on earth can withstand the force of a tsunami? The concept of ch'i is
the same. By tapping into the universal energies, one increases one's
abilities many times. How can one damage a kung fu practitioner, when one
is unable to strike and injure a body of water?
There can be little doubt, after examining first hand the
structure of kung fu, that mastery of it is indeed mastery of a fine art
form. It requires a tremendous amount of background, information and
disciplines, which would shame our liberal-arts students. The priests of
old were adept in all of the following: medicine, music, art,
weapons-making, religions, animal husbandry, cartography, languages,
history, and of course, kung fu. The artist had to be more than a fighting
machine, he had to know how, where and why to enter a fight, and even of
greater importance, how to avoid conflict. Only with
"unbeatable" ability of the priest was he secure enough not to
need to fight.
There was a ranking system of sorts used, beginner,
disciple, and master. The beginner (novice or student level), was the
menial servant. Only very crude rudiments of kung fu were in his domain.
Disciples were in effect almost priests, still having to master
themselves, but of the right mettle to carry the traditions and secrets of
the Shaolin. The pinnacle of master was reached by very few; it was truly
the achievement of a lifetime.
The primary obstacle that a disciple had to pass to attain
the priesthood was the test for master rank. Actually a series of oral and
practical exams, they culminated in the test of the tunnel. The candidate
was lead to a corridor linked with the outside world. In the corridor were
booby-traps, all lethal, all unpredictable. The disciple had to pass all
of these, for there was no going back, no way out but to succeed. Most
never even began the journey; few finished it. The adept who passed the
traps faced one last obstacle; a several hundred pound urn filled with
burning iron filings. On each side of the urn was an emblem, different for
each temple, usually of a dragon and a tiger. The urn had to be moved with
the bare forearms to unblock the exit. In so doing, the now priest was
forever branded as a Sil Lum monk.
Many priests just out of the temple would wander about the
country acting as doctors, roving law givers, and guardians of the poor.
Some would return to the temple then it was their job to prepare the next
generation of priests. Entry was between ages five and seven. Graduation
was at the age of at least twenty-two. And every bit was part of a long,
The stylistic variations within the Chinese martial arts
are due to various factors. First, some priests were not content with one
"truth", and engineered improvements or variations on the old
standards. Some arts had their origin from Indian exercises, while others
were influenced by Greek wrestling, and equally unexpected pursuits.
Secondly, the priests were not all content as priests.
Some went civilian and taught parts of the temple boxing, mixed with moves
of their own. A man who preferred the use of one style of attack, i.e.
claws, would build a whole discipline around gouging, claw-like attacks
(Eagle Claw system).
Thirdly, the civilians taught by priests would adapt what
they needed in their real lives. For this reason, Southern Chinese
preferred hand techniques with stable stances, adaptable to boats, while
the Northern Chinese adapted almost bizarre foot techniques, flying kicks
and wild sweeps.
The concept of hard/soft and external/internal martial arts is not one
easily described. In terms of styles which most people are familiar with,
Karate would be an example of a hard style and Aikido or T'ai Chi examples
of soft styles. A hard style is generally considered one where force is
used against force; a block is used to deflect an incoming strike by meeting
either head on, or at a 90 degree angle. A soft style does not use force
against force, but rather deflects the incoming blow away from its target.
There are uses for both hard and soft techniques. A practitioner may wish
to break the attacker's striking arm with the block. On the other hand,
a much smaller opponent would not be able to accomplish this, so instead
may wish to deflect the incoming attack.
An external style is one which relies primarily in strength and physical
abilities to defeat an opponent. In contrast, an internal style is one that
depends upon ch'i and timing rather than power. Aikido (at the master's
level) would be an internal style, while most karate styles are external.
However, the concepts of hard/soft internal/external are finding fewer
proponents among senior martial artists. Both conceptual twins are impossible
to separate in reality, and masters will generally acknowledge that any
distinction is largely only a matter of subjective interpretation. Arguments
about the reality of the concepts are often waged by novices and philosophical
dilettantes, ignorant of the inseparable nature of duality. They see yin
and yang as elements that can exist independently, while philosophical and
physical reasoning demonstrate that they cannot. Without their union (=Tao),
neither can exist. Ergo, a "hard" technique such as a straight
fist is guided by the soft power of mind and the internal component of ch'i.
Equally, the softest projection of Aikido requires the "hard"
element of physical contact and movement, coupled with actively redirecting
the opponent. In short, preoccupation with distinguishing soft from hard
is a distraction from learning martial arts and moving towards a unifying
technique and mastery.
Kung Fu styles may generally be divided into three classes: Shaolin Temple
styles, temple-derived non-temple styles, and family styles, or Pai. Within
the Temple styles are those arts generally and consistently taught in the
temples, with many having their origins in pre-Shaolin history. There are
two major divisions in Shaolin kung fu. The southern temples are predominantly
hand technique oriented, while northern temples put more emphasis on kicks
and foot techniques.
The northern Shaolin styles primarily consist of Northern
Praying Mantis, Black Crane, and Black Tiger.
The southern Shaolin styles primarily consist of White
Crane, Tiger, Dragon,
Leopard, Snake, and
Southern Praying Mantis.
There were also styles that had their roots in the Shaolin temples, such
as Wing Chun and Hung Gar.
Many of the movements were representations of the behavior of animals.
A system sometimes comprised the maneuvers of one specific animal and no
other. All the blocks, attacks and stances were done in imitation of the
bird or beast. Each system had certain aspects peculiar to it since each
of the animals was designed differently by nature. However, most styles
were not so rigid and limited; northern praying mantis, for example, uses
mantis and tiger hand techniques, and monkey and generic northern style
In general terms, the styles followed specific training objectives (but
there are always exceptions). The dragon movements were devised to develop
alertness and concentration. These movements were executed without the application
of strength, but with emphasis on breathing in the lower abdomen along with
the coordination of mind, body and spirit. Movements are long, flowing and
continuous, and provided Shaolin practitioners with the equivalent of t'ai
chi or pakua.
The tiger movements were formed to develop the bones, tendons and muscles.
The execution of these movements was the opposite of that of the dragon,
since emphasis was placed on strength and dynamic tension. Movements are
short, snappy and forceful.
The snake movements were used to develop temperament and endurance. Breathing
was done slowly, deeply, softly and harmoniously. Movements are flowing
and rippling with emphasis on the fingers.
The crane movements were used to develop control, character and spirit.
Emphasis is placed on light, rapid footwork and evasive attacking techniques.
Movements in the one-legged stance are performed with a considerable amount
The Shaolin systems were developed from animal actions and were divided
into low systems and high systems. The list used below is from the temple
from the Honan province during the Ch'ing dynasty. The low systems of the
Shaolin were choy li fut, crane, cobra, and tiger. The high systems of the
order were snake, dragon, Wing Chun, and praying mantis. The primary features
that separate high from low are the fantastic economy of movement and the
differences in application of ch'i in the high systems.
The low systems were so called because they had their basis both in physical
maneuvers and in earthly creatures. Choy li fut was based on a posture called
a riding horse stance, so called because when adopted, one appeared to be
straddling a horse. The movements are very stiff and hard, depending primarily
on muscular power to perform adequately. There are only three kicks in the
original system, although recently the style has adopted many techniques
of the Northern Shaolin system. According to legend, it was designed for
use on the house boats of the south where a stable stance and powerful hand
techniques were necessary. The certain portion of its history is that the
system was named for two Chinese boxing masters, Choy and Li. Fut means
Buddha, serving in this instance to refer to the Shaolin temple's Buddhist
The next system is crane, one of the traditional Shaolin systems. A legend
is also attached to its birth. One day a monk stumbled on a battle between
an ape and a crane. It seemed as if the ape would rend the bird in two.
However, the bird continually stymied the ape, flapping its wings and darting
in and out with its beak; at last the animal was driven away. The graceful
movements of the bird were copied as well as its one leg stance. The principle
weapons of the system are its long range kicks and a hand formation, the
The cobra system is a strange, nearly dead system. Its basis is a stance
that resembles a cobra risen from the grass with spread hood. The maneuvers
are strictly defensive in nature, devastatingly effective and swift. Cobra
is designed for speed and tenacity for once the reptile strikes, it hangs
on and makes certain that its opponent will die. Most of its techniques
are hand maneuvers aimed at the eyes and throat. It is primarily a dim mak
Tiger is another natural system, this the opposite of crane. It is a
vicious method of fighting utilizing powerful kicks and grim clawing motions.
Like the tiger, its practitioner fights fiercely, rending, tearing and breaking
any open space of skin or limb that is left unguarded. It is highly defensive
in nature, waiting until being backed into a corner, then unleashing an
unstoppable assault. Its principle hand weapon is the tiger claw, also useful
for unarmed defense against weapons. By clasping the weapon between the
hands or enmeshing it in the crushing grip of the hand, the enemy's advantage
Snake is an interface between the high systems and low systems. It is
one of the easiest systems to learn and also one of the most deadly. The
reason that it is a transition system is because it has the movements of
a spiritual system and the physical applications of a low system. The spiritual
movements are all flowing and continuous, akin to the movements of a cloud.
Physical applications of such movements are seen by the stabbing hand motions
to the face, throat and genitals. Ch'i is present in the practitioner as
his body mimics a snake in its coiling, undulating motions; for only through
ch'i can the proper flow be achieved to allow the technique to work. It
is an earthly animal by nature, yet still somewhat spiritual due to its
mysterious character. The snake has thus been appointed as the guardian
of the dragons.
The basis of the dragon systems is ch'i, the inner power of Taoism. The
movements and applications of the dragon systems are dependent on the use
of ch'i. The special flow that distinguishes it from the flow of the crane
system is due to ch'i. Also, the ch'i is substituted for muscular strength.
For example, a tiger stylist would break a rock by sheer force and physical
technique, while a dragon stylist would shatter it by ch'i projection.
The praying mantis has as its watchwords silence and determination. Although
it is a physical system in terms of its origin, it nonetheless is classified
as a high system. Praying mantis warrants its prominence because of its
extreme efficiency. Despite the fact that it is hand oriented and lacks
the fancy leg maneuvers of dragon, it is versatile and overpowering. Characteristic
of mantis, as well as dragon and snake, is the virtual lack of blocks. Since
blocks are inefficient, the high systems follow the advice of the ancient
sages and yield in order to conquer. Also, it combines ch'i and extreme
awareness to be virtually invincible.
The systems of the Shaolin can be arranged on the pyramid illustrated
below. The best method for this is to take the tiger family as a representative
of the low systems and the dragon family as a representative of the high
systems. The remaining Shaolin systems will be placed in the appropriate
The lowest level of the pyramid is composed entirely of basic techniques.
These are common to all martial arts and can be claimed exclusively by no
one system. The maneuvers are comprised of kicks, punches, stances and blocks.
Since they are universal to most martial arts, it is very difficult to distinguish
a student from a karate style as opposed to a choy li fut pupil. All of
this class of basics belongs to the low systems and so are dependent on
hard, muscular movements in order to carry them through properly.
Next we progress to the low systems. As stated earlier, this level has
its basis in earthly rather than ethereal beings. The subsystems of tiger
are numerous at this level. Tiger, eagle, leopard, hung gar, the drunken
system and the crab system all belong at this level. Tiger, leopard and
hung gar are very oriented toward physical body strength and the destruction
of an opponent by breaking his body's structural system. Eagle is a vicious
ripping system with the bulk of its work directed against the eyes and throat.
The drunken system is a lurching, seemingly unstable system that strikes
with little power and thus tries to exhaust an opponent with an arrhythmic,
oddly placed series of blows to tender, exposed areas. The crab system concentrated
on closing off blood vessels and pinching nerves, thereby immobilizing part
or all of an attacker's body.
In the category of the higher low systems are found four different tiger
subsystems: hong tiger, s'hu tiger, imperial tiger and white tiger. They
are placed above the previous systems because ch'i and some concepts of
spiritual motion have been incorporated into them. Hong tiger was a system
which evolved from a mixture of tiger and white dragon. It was used by palace
guards especially against weapons. S'hu tiger was the weapons training that
went with the unarmed system of hong tiger. Imperial tiger is a modern adaptation
of hong tiger. The techniques are sophisticated at this level. Also contained
in the band of high low systems is monkey, placed there because of its liberal
use of parries and advanced striking techniques, taking it out of the realm
of brute strength. White tiger is a highly sophisticated, forbidden style
similar to snow tiger.
The main systems of the Shaolin that are left are placed thus: choy li
fut, white crane, and tiger all low systems. Snake is a lower high system
and may be classified as a low or a high system. Dragon, praying mantis,
and Wing Chun are all classified as full high systems due to their efficiency
of movement and the use of ch'i to both supplement and in some cases replace
physical technique. These systems were taught to some extent to all monks
as part of their training. The complete systems were reserved for the few,
the priests that would remain in the temple after being granted their priesthood.
You will find style specific basic technique here along with 2-person drills and forms.
This video is essentially what we had on our CD-ROMs and is now available for free! For basic gung fu technique,
check out our Training Section.
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