Cold Mountain Internal Arts
Special thanks to Sifu Steve Higgins and Senior Students of Cold Mountain.
The Animals in Tai Chi
In 1972 the first episode of the "Kung Fu" TV series aired for the first time. For many of us this show was an introduction to Chinese culture and Chinese martial arts. Each episode began with "Shaolin monks" demonstrating Kung Fu animal forms and expounding the specific martial tactics that made each animal special. Everyone wanted to learn these secrets, and North American martial arts schools experienced a boom that lasted at least 10 years. Many martial arts schools use animal motifs such as dragons and tigers to promote their schools, and in fact Hung Gar Kung Fu is literally a Tiger-Crane style. Modern Shaolin schools teach the Shaolin Five Animal form and often teach a rudimentary philosophy using the animals to exemplify the virtues they want to encourage. This brings us to the question: " If Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese martial art, what does it have to say about the animal energies?" As it turns out - a lot, but only if you are party to certain lineages and only if you can connect it to other parts of Chinese culture.
The purpose of this article is to explore the aspects of Tai Chi that link it to ancient Chinese concepts of animal energies. These "energies" consist not only of signature movements, but also basic approaches to combat.
The origins of the Tai Chi form and sequence remain a mystery. All modern styles of Yang Tai Chi trace their lineage to Yang Luchan. We know that Yang studied with the Chen family, but the Chen sequences and postures differ from Yang forms. Some Tai Chi origin stories claim that Yang Luchan was a student of Long Fist before he studied with the Chens. Other legends suggest that a Taoist monk named Chang Sanfeng created the beginnings of Tai Chi. According to this legend Chang was inspired by fight between a crane and a snake, which suggests that Tai Chi was originally a Crane/Snake style, but apart from a few posture names this transmission has been lost. The names given to many Tai Chi postures refer to animals, but how the animal names relate to the movements is often obscure. For a deeper understanding of this we must look to the "Old Yang Middle Frame" transmitted to us from Tian Zhaolin.
The Old Yang Middle Frame Form and Xing Yi
The modern form was created by Yang Chengfu and included many modifications of the older form. Comparison of the older middle frame form taught by Tian Zhaolin reveals that the original form was longer, rounder, and more explicit in its martial aspects. More significantly, the older forms show a much closer similarity to Xing Yi and Ba Gua forms. It's known that Yang Luchan went to Beijing where he would have been exposed to many other styles of martial arts. It seems likely that during that time Yang LuChan was heavily influenced by Ba Gua and XingYi practitioners.
Xing Yi forms mimic the movement of ten to twelve animals depending on lineage. In particular five of these animals show the most commonality with the Old Yang form; namely Tiger, Snake, Alligator, Dragon and Rooster. These animals are special: they are closely aligned with mythical beasts associated with the five elements of Chinese Alchemy and the most important mythical beasts from the Song Dynasty. Many elements of the old form resemble the Xing Yi animal forms. For example in the Old Form the "Grasp Bird's Tail" sequence includes a number of blocking and pushing movements that are identical to certain Xing Yi Tiger forms. The sequence that includes "Dragon Seeks Pearl, Fan Through The Back and Circle Punch" is very similar to Xing Yi Dragon forms. Many of these movements were eliminated or modified in the "Modern form", but some key elements remain, such as Hit Tiger, Stork Spreads Wings and Needle at Sea Bottom, but stylistic differences and a change in transmission has obscured the connection. It seems likely that Yang Cheng Fu and his senior students made an intentional break with the "animal energy" approach in an effort to appear more "modern". In an age when the Imperial Dynasty was falling apart, reference to mythological creatures was probably seen as obsolete.
Animal Energies in Xing Yi and Wu Xing
Xing Yi theory also underwent a revision of fighting theory. At some point the animal energies were consolidated into a five-element framework. These Five Elements are the same as the Five Elements of Chinese Alchemy: metal, fire, earth, water and wood. Traditional Chinese Medicine and the practice of Feng Shui uses this identical Five Element system today. This five element system is a thinking framework referred to as Wu Xing, and according to Wu Xing everything in our world can be categorized according to its affinity to one of these five elements.
Most importantly for analysis of Tai Chi animal energies; according to Wu Xing tradition, each of these elements has an associated mythical animal: Fire is Peacock; Metal is Tiger; Wood is Blue Dragon; Water is Snake and Turtle; Earth is Yellow Dragon. Many of the postures in the Old Yang form reference these animals directly, for example "Yellow Dragon Goes to Its Lair".
Some information on Wu Xing and on the five animals: White Tiger, Yellow Dragon, Vermilion Bird, Black Tortoise (always accompanied by a Black Snake), and Azure Dragon.
The Wu Xing Animals in Old Yang
Cold Mountain Internal Arts practices both the modern 108 and the "Old Middle Frame Form" as taught by Dr. Shen Zaiewen. According to Dr. Shen's transmission, performance of the Old Form is enhanced by practice of four animal Chi Gong's. These animals are Snake, Crane, Dragon and Phoenix. In many cases these Chi Gong's serve to categorize the postures of the old middle frame form, but there are also many cases where this analysis is inconclusive. Dr. Shen's Dragon Chi Gong is mostly Blue Dragon; the Crane form does not include many of the bird movements in the form such as "Golden Cockerel" and "Chicken Foot". Important movements such as Partition and Hit Tiger are not categorized. Nevertheless, these four Chi Gong's are very instructive.
When analyzed using the Wu Xing animal approach, large portions of the Old Yang form are revealed to be variations of only five motifs, strongly resembling movements from Xing Yi and corresponding to each of the five animals.
For example: Lion Rolls the Ball and Push look like Xing Yi Tiger, Golden Cockerel looks like Xing Yi Fighting Cock; Dragon Seeks Pearl looks like Xing Yi Dragon; also Cloud Hands, Stork Spread Wings, Chicken Foot, and Golden Cockerel are essentially the same movement with slightly different footwork. Table 1 below shows categorization of the complete form. Of course such an analysis has limitations.
Table 1: Five Animal Categorization of Old Yang Middle Frame Postures
In most cases the main martial application also relates to its animal: the Blue Dragon postures often involve grasping; the Peacock movements involve warding with the forearms and kicking; the Tiger movements involve slashing back-fists, clawing fingers; the Snake movements involve coiling and finger jabs; the Yellow Dragon movements involve swinging an imaginary tail.
It is also worthwhile observing how each of these motifs is an expression of the Tai Chi symbol turning in a specific plane of rotation with the Lower Dantien at its centre. This is easiest to see in such postures as Cloud Hands, Repulse Monkey, Yin Yang Palms, Hit Tiger and Partition.
This analysis of the Old Yang Form is only one interpretation. As many practitioners will observe, some postures could be seen as belonging to different animals, and it is possible to perform most of the form with any of the five animal energies. Other animals have been proposed, such as Rooster, Monkey, Crane and Bear.
Animal Tactics in Combat
One of the chief values in referring to animals is their value as archetypes of movement. It's much easier to think about moving like a tiger or a bird, than it is to describe movements in detail.
The Tiger slashes and uses first strike advantage; the Snake is coiling and adaptable; the Yellow Dragon is very rooted and uses central equilibrium; the Blue Dragon is grasping and uses asymmetric response; the Peacock uses kicks and extended arm tactics and is persistent.
Some of the postures in the form are not named, and some of the names reference similar animals, for example Lion/Tiger; Stork/Peacock. It's worth noting that the Peacock was actually called "The Vermilion Bird" and was closely associated with the emperor. Perhaps this is why its use fell out of fashion.
Generally once a motif is established in the form we see variations of it expanded, turning, retreating, advancing and occasionally reversed.
Snake postures include: Repulse Monkey, Yin/Yang palms, High Pat on Horse, Penetrating Palm, Lotus kick and stepping Yin/Yang Palms, Brush Knee* and Press*. These movements should be done with a sense of coiling into empty spaces like water. Chi Na, finger strikes and "naked choke" is emphasized. See photos 1 and 2.
Peacock postures include: Stork Spreads Wings, Golden Cockerel, Cloud hands, Chicken Feet, Separation Kicks, Raise hands and Step up, Pull Down and Push*. These movements should be done with a sense of avoiding incoming strikes and persistently following up with a counter kick or strike with the wrist. Avoiding the peacock is like trying to avoid a fire. See photos 3 and 4.
Tiger postures include: Lion Rolls the Ball, Hit Tiger, Tiger Returns to Mountain, Winds Pierce the Ears, Pull Down and Push*, Turn Body and Strike. These movements should be mostly done with a follow-step and a sense of first-strike attitude. Punches and Back-fists are emphasized, as well as rolling the head to injure the neck. See photos 5 and 6.
Yellow Dragon postures include: Press, Ward Off, Partition, Slanted Flying, Cross-Hands. These postures emphasize movement around a central vertical axis and involve equal Yin and Yang energy. Good rooting is essential to these movements. Elbows are emphasized. See photos 7 and 8.
Blue Dragon postures include: Single Whip, Dragon Seeks Pearl, Needle at Sea Bottom, Fan Through the Back, Circle Punch, Lady Plays the Shuttles. These movements have a coiling and grabbing energy that is slightly different from Snake movements. In general they involve striking with the palm or the web between thumb and index finger. Asymmetric response is emphasized, for example the Ba Gua stepping kick. Circle punches have the same energy as a vine breaking up through pavement. See photos 9, 10,11, and 12.
It's quite true that people see other animals represented in the form, and that many postures can be done with a number of interpretations, but the five animal approach provides an integrated system with few gaps.
Mimicking the movements of animals is only the first step in understanding animal energies in Tai Chi. The Old Yang form also includes a number of movements that reference the five elements and the "Draw Bottle Gourd" movement that strongly suggest that practice of the form enables one to embody these elements and align the chakras, not only physically but mentally. To understand not only the movement style of these animals, but also the attitude and approach to combat of these animals we must turn to another icon of Chinese culture: the I Ching. Because the I Ching provides insights into psychic nature of the Five Elements and their associated Five Animals, we can see how the form provides a way of inspiring specific ways to respond in conflict situations.
In general, Metal or Tiger messages in the I Ching embody Boldness; Water or Snake embodies Adaptability; Fire or Peacock embodies Persistence; Wood or Blue Dragon embodies Discernment; Earth or Yellow Dragon embodies Fortitude.
The Wu Xing system predicts how the elements interact. It suggests that in conflict Persistence overcomes Boldness; Adaptability overcomes Persistence; Fortitude overcomes Adaptability; and Discernment overcomes Fortitude. Expansion of this idea will be dealt with in a further article, but these connections suggest that the Old Yang is designed to provide a physical analogy for shifting tactics from one style to another depending on the nature of the conflict. This is a far more sophisticated concept than just imitation of animal movements.
The idea that Tai Chi had its origins as an animal linking form may be seen as radical for those practitioners who are only familiar with modern forms. Personally I have found the animal form perspective very useful in deepening my understanding of the form's postures, and sharing that knowledge. The idea that practicing the form helps cultivate the primal fighting approaches that the five animals embody may also be challenging for some. On the other hand, most devoted Tai Chi practitioners believe that Tai Chi has changed them. Most would agree that practicing Tai Chi has made them a little more grounded, flexible, astute, patient and confident. The animal energy paradigm is one way of understanding this transformation.