HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF
SHAOLIN FIVE-ANIMAL SET

Shaolin Five-Animal Set

Swimming Dragon Plays with Water


The prototype of Shaolin Kungfu was the Lohan Fist. But by the time Shaolin Kungfu was practiced in the southern Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou, it was characterized by the Shaolin Five Animals, namely the Dragon, the Snake, the Tiger, the Leopard and the Crane.

The earliest mention of the Shaolin Five Animals was probably in the Yuan Dynasty, the dynasty before the Ming when a Ming emperor built a southern Shaolin Monastery at Quanzhou in Fujian Province besides the northern Shaolin Monastery in Henan. The Shaolin Classics, composed by the Venerable Fu Yu during the earlier Song Dynasty, did not mention the Shaolin Five Animals. Interestingly, the Monkey was mentioned.

Another classic, "The Illustrated Explanation of Shaolin Principles and Techniques", reproduced by a well known modern kungfu master, Sifu Li Eng Erang, from classical text probably in the Ming Dynasty, fully illustrated the Shaolin Five Animals with short descriptions of their training. An interesting aspect of this classic was that most of the pictures of the Shaolin Five Animals looked alike. In other words, by viewing the pictures, it was difficult to tell a particular Animal form from another Animal form!

Later I realized that the difference lied in their internal significance, and not in their outward form. In other words, a particular Animal form might look the same outwardly as another Animal form, but inwardly their training process was different. For example, a Dragon form trained the mind, whereas a Tiger form trained internal force, though their outward appearance might look the same. The Shaolin Five Animals are the Dragon, the Snake, the Tiger, the Leopard and the Crane. The Dragon trains "shen", or mind. The Snake trains "qi", or energy. The Tiger trains "gu", which literally means "bone", but figuratively refers to "internal force". The Leopard trains "li", or external strength and speed. The Crane trains "jing", or elegance.

The development of Shaolin Kungfu from Lohan Fist, the prototype at the northern Shaolin Monastery in Henan, to Five-Animal Set, the prototype at the southern Shaolin Monasteries at Quanzhou and on the Nine-Lotus Moutain, represented the development of the best martial art in the world over many centuries. If you learn Lohan Fist, you would be able to fight well, besides enjoying good health, vitality and longevity. If you learn Five-Animal Set, not only you would be able to fight well and enjoy good health, vitality and longevity, but also you have presence of mind, better energy management, internal force, strength and speed, and elegance of movement and thought -- if you know the inner significance of the Five Animals. Otherwise, you would only have beautiful forms as flowery fists and embroidery kicks for demonstration.

The Shaolin Five-Animal Set can be viewed here, and the pattern names of the set here

Wong Kiew Kit
18th December 2015

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