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Some Thoughts on Northern and Southern Kung Fu, a Brief History of Shaolin, and What's with These Animal Forms?


Hundreds of styles, thousands of years, two main variations.

Kung Fu is one of the most ancient martial arts on the planet. Its development can be traced back thousands of years in China. Pottery depicting wrestling moves and hand-to-hand combat has been discovered in China dating back to 2000 B.C. The development of even more sophisticated fighting techniques can be traced back to the Chou Dynasty (1122 - 221 B.C.) in which Chinese martial arts, sometimes referred to as wushu, started to develop into what we know today as kung fu.

Many of today's martial arts developed from some of the more ancient forms as Chinese influence spread throughout Asia and the world. Kung fu is at its most basic a combat system using everything from kicks, hand strikes, throws, locks, and grappling techniques. Most masters say the true value of kung fu lies in its marriage of health, moral, philosophical, and spiritual development and combat training to create an entire lifestyle.

It is estimated that there are between 400 and 800 unique styles of kung fu. A discussion of the differences between each style would be quite impractical, but one can easily recognize the differences between northern and southern styles. The terrain, political environment, and the nature of combat training all play a part in the regional variations which developed over hundreds of years.

Northern styles: fluid, elegant, dynamic.

If you were to watch a fight between someone trained in a northern style of kung fu versus someone trained in a southern style the difference would be apparent. Northern styles are generally based around much wider stances, much higher kicks, and greater mobility. Much of the whirling motions and spin kicks you see are typical of northern styles.

Northern China has a much rockier terrain, and constant climbing up and down hills would strengthen the legs of its people. The people from this region were generally of a much taller stature and better able to make use of long-range kicks. With Mongolia to the north there was also much greater need to focus an army in this region as well. A martial arts style developed primarily for fighting in situations like this will be more fluid. With the dynamics of war one is constantly being pushed or pulled by soldiers on all sides, and one must learn very fluid stances in order to react. It would be likely that a martial artist has a weapon in hand so kicks would become extremely useful.

It is typically thought that this environment is what led to the development of northern styles of kung fu, in which kicks are used frequently and there is a lot of movement in one's stance. Northern styles are characterized by their long range techniques, quick advances and retreats, agility, and whirling or circular motions. Changquan and Xingyiquan are some examples of northern styles.


Southern styles: stable, powerful, grounded.

When the Qing Dynasty overthrew the Ming the Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian Province was destroyed. The Shaolin masters who managed to escape fled to Guangdong. There they developed an insurgency and would often train the locals and peasants to fight against the oppression. Since martial arts training was prohibited it was impossible to train as they have for centuries. The combat they would face was also entirely different from the clash of armies, and fighting techniques needed to adapt to these conditions.

In the south the terrain was flatter, with mor wide open spaces. Its people were often shorter than those in the north, and cities cropped up with densely-packed buildings, restricting mobility within cities. More combat was also happening in small numbers in city streets. With an insurgent force training in secret the fights were usually one-on-one or a few fighters at a time, usually in very close proximity to one another in alleyways and streets with densely-packed buildings surrounding them. Flourishing kicks and whirling blocks would not be as effective in such close combat, and southern styles adapted to meet these conditions. Martial arts training was prohibited, and therefore one could not train with weapons. A fighter had to rely on his hands.

Low stances, low kicks, greater use of the hands, and stability are all characteristic of southern styles. Many of the strikes are designed to get as much power out of as little motion as possible, and it is in this tradition that you commonly hear of the "one-inch punch." Stances had to be low to the ground, so that the fighter could remain grounded. Much of the fighting philosophy was geared towards economy of motion and restricting any unnecessary movement. (Bruce Lee would later strive to perfect this concept by creating Jeet Kune Do.)

Southern styles became very external, or hard, styles. Hands replaced weapons so that each strike had to do as much damage as possible. Kicks were mostly restricted to striking below the waist. Nanquan and Wing Chun are examples of southern styles.

The Northern Shaolin Temple in the northern province of Honan.

The Northern Shaolin Temple in the northern province of Honan.

A brief history of the Shaolin Temples, starting in the North.

Like the styles of kung fu, Shaolin styles of kung fu also developed differently depending on the region. The northern temple in Honan Province was first built in 495 A.D. at the base of the Song Mountain. Their fighting tradition began when an Indian Buddhist named Ta Mo arrived at the temple and decided that the monks here were physically weak. Ta Mo taught them a variety of exercises to develop them physically so they would be able to defend the temple if necessary.

During the civil wars of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 906 A.D.) the monks developed these exercises along with local martial arts into what was known as the Lo Han style, or Long Fist. Around 960 A.D. Song Tai Zu, the first emperor of the Song Dynasty, developed the Northern Long Fist style further into Tai Zhu Chang Chuan, "Emperor's Long Fist," and the monks were impressed.

In 1540 Master Zhue Yuen thought the style was too hard and so traveled China to find more masters. He brought back Li Sou and Bai Yu Feng, and they helped develop the Five Animal Form (Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake, Crane- more on these later.) General Yu Dayou also recruited three monks to the temple to strengthen their kung fu, and it is in such a manner that kung fu developed here over the centuries. (This is a brief overview. If I were to include a list of every new addition to the temple it would run very long indeed.)

Chiang Kai-Shek, Generalissimo of China. (October 31, 1887 - April 5, 1975)

Chiang Kai-Shek, Generalissimo of China. (October 31, 1887 - April 5, 1975)

With the Ming Dynasty being overthrown by the Qing the northern styles were able to train very much as they have. And so it is in this tradition that northern styles further developed their long range attacks, wide stances, flourishing motions, and impressive kicks and leaps.

The temple was attacked several times throughout its history by various Emperors fearing the strength of the monks. The most recent of which was Chiang Kai-Shek, Generalissimo of the Republic of China. Chiang Kai-Shek was troubled by the news of warlords in Honan. In 1927 in order to strengthen his claim over China he sent his General Fen Yu-Xiang to quell them. During the fighting the northern temple was burned to the ground, and centuries of artifacts and history were burned with it.

Mural depicting the fighting at the Temple.

Mural depicting the fighting at the Temple.

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Siu Lam, the Southern Temple.

The southern Shaolin Monastery was built during the Ming Dynasty by imperial decree in order to help strengthen the emperor's grip in the south. Southern styles would later develop here after the Ming Dynasty was overthrown and the first Qing emperor, Yong Zheng, destroyed the temple in 1768. Yong Zheng infiltrated the temple as a monk in order to learn kung fu. Yong Zheng was worried about the monks' resistance to the new Qing Dynasty and feared rebellious activities and an insurgency. With the aid of Lama monks from Tibet and the Qing army he returned to the temple and razed it to the ground.

The few Shaolin masters who survived then fled to Guangdong and began to train in secret. As mentioned earlier, this is where the style began to take on its characteristics.

There was much debate over the existence of a southern temple. It was originally believed that it was the northern temple which was burned to the ground, but now it is believed that this was in fact the southern temple. Some of the monks from the northern temple came to the southern temple during Qing oppression and these were the ones who were killed during the destruction.

The ruins were not discovered until the early 1990s. Today, the temple has been rebuilt. A stone tablet marks the site of the original temple and commemorates the 115 or so Shaolin masters who lost their lives in the destruction.

The reconstructed southern Shaolin Temple

The reconstructed southern Shaolin Temple


Addressing the myths and explaining the facts of animal styles.

Everyone who's seen a kung fu movie knows about the animal styles. Kung fu masters can mimic a variety of animals ranging from a praying mantis to a tiger and, using each animals' innate abilities, take down any opponent. While there is a lot of truth to this, there is also a lot of myth. For the most part, animal styles were developed to enhance certain physical and mental attributes in one's combat. In the heat of combat a kung fu master will fight and act entirely human, but his training has involved the learning of animal forms in order to aid in his development.

Animal forms have been present in Chinese martial arts for thousands of years. The noted physician Hua Tuo wrote "Five Animals Play" around 220 B.C. describing tiger, deer, monkey, bear, and bird styles. The Shaolin monks developed styles based on the praying mantis, or the use of eagle claw. But what is most typical nowadays is the Five Animal Form- Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake, and Crane. Below is a very brief description of each to illustrate how animal forms are used in kung fu training.


The Dragon form is the first one learned by students. The purpose of this is to develop muscle strength. The use of the dragon claw, unlike the tiger claw described below, is primarily for grabbing and seizing one's opponent. The dragon form incorporates many grappling techniques. A lot of the movement is complimentary to the opponent. When an opponent advances, you retreat. When an opponent retreats, you advance. This is combined with grabbing techniques to form a powerful style that is useful in the development of basic fighting forms.



The Tiger form is a very aggressive fighting style. It builds on the principles taught in the development of the Dragon form. The stances are primarily low, and stress forward momentum. The tiger claw, as opposed to the dragon claw, is not used for grappling techniques but is a strike. The tiger claw strike generally consists of a hard palm strike, followed by the digging in of one's fingers. The fingers are then raked across the opponent's flesh in a ripping motion, which was capable of tearing flesh. Like the Dragon form, Tiger form is also a very muscular style.


Sometimes called Panther, Leopard style seeks to develop a martial artist's skills away from strictly muscular use. Leopard form is taught in order to develop cunning and deceptive techniques. Speed is the key component here, and there is less emphasis on applying brute force. One's abilities have already been honed to sufficiently rely on technique over power. A leopard fist, for instance, is capable of shooting past most blocks by an opponent.


The Snake form is very advanced. It is a highly offensive and aggressive style, and yet it is not external or hard. Snake form relies on the use of pressure points and striking certain areas of the body in order to inflict intense pain, much like the strike of a venomous snake injects poison into its prey. Like Leopard, it is a sly and deceptive style. It is said masters can penetrate almost any defense by winding around blocks in order to deliver a blow. The stances are low, and the body is coiled and ready as if one were a snake ready to strike.



Crane is the most advanced animal form in the Five Animal series that a martial artist will learn. After both muscular and deceptive techniques have been mastered the emphasis is now placed on balance and patience. In nature, a crane under threat holds its ground and spins on its legs in order to face a threat. The same principle is applied here. Stances are loose and upright, and often on one leg. Unnecessary movements are eliminated, and one patiently awaits an opponent's strike. Rather than dodging or blocking the strike is met head-on and redirected. Strikes are often done with the fingers coming to a point, as if striking with a beak, or the back of the hand, as if striking with a wing. Since the objective is to remain calm and hold one's ground, this is the most advanced form taught once all others have been mastered.

And many more...

This is only one example of animal forms in kung fu. As mentioned earlier, animal forms were used primarily to instill different physical attributes as well as mental and philosophical teachings in one's training. Over the centuries other forms have even developed from these, such as White Crane and Black Dragon. Kung fu is a living, breathing martial art. Minute differences in technique passed on from master to master will further define various styles as kung fu evolves into the future.

Excellent resources on kung fu and Shaolin traditions.

Disclaimer, modern Shaolin, kung fu goes to the movies.

As a disclaimer to the information provided above, I would like to emphasize that Chinese history is notoriously difficult to track. Various records and accounts have been written, and when concerning kung fu it is especially difficult. Kung fu is oftentimes an oral tradition, so it is impossible in these cases to ensure accuracy. The destruction of the Shaolin temples on numerous occasions has also destroyed many important documents not only concerning kung fu, but the histories of the temples as well. I have tried to remain as truthful and accurate in my portrayals of the dates, events, and people involved as I could. If at all you find differing accounts (as well as different spellings of names and places) somewhere else, and you will, understand that it is due to these circumstances that a complete and accurate history of kung fu and the Shaolin traditions is not likely to occur in a single source.

Modern Shaolin is based on the centuries of Shaolin training. You've probably seen Shaolin masters balancing on spears, walking on swords, and performing other amazing feats. While this is not entirely representative of traditional Shaolin kung fu, it is naturally part of the evolution of the art.


Kung fu in the movies is unique. Like any fiction it is based on reality, yet some liberties are taken. Wire fu, as it is called, is a style of kung fu used in many movies in which the martial artists are attached to harnesses and wires and pulled through the air. This creates the dramatic fighting we see with intense leaps, high kicks, and flying we all know and love from some of our favorite kung fu movies. Much like superheroes and legends in the West, the legendary warriors in Eastern mythology were capable of performing such amazing feats. The development of wire fu can be called a unique style in and of itself, and it is quite fascinating. It is also incredible to think that what was once a combat art could develop so much over thousands of years that it literally becomes performance art.

  • International Kung Fu Federation (IKF)
    This is the site for the International Kung Fu Federation. It is an international governing organization dedicated to the teaching of traditional kung fu worldwide. The IKF also monitors international competitions, including the Olympics.
  • Kung Fu Science
    This is a cool site. If you have Flash, it is a great interactive site. This site is all about the science and physics of some of kung fu's most devastating techniques. You gain a real appreciation for the abilities of some true kung fu masters.
  • Shaolin Gung Fu Institute
    This site is dedicated to the accuracy and reliability of information concerning Shaolin philosophy, traditions, martial arts styles, and training.
  • Order of Shaolin Ch'an
    The Order of the Shaolin Ch'an is a branch of Zen Buddhism dedicated to the place of humanity in nature and our world. An excellent resource for the commitment of one's spiritual development during the physical training of martial arts.
  • Wire-Fu at Wordspy
    A brief definition of wire fu.
  • Wire Fu in Hong Kong Cinema
    A link to some interesting articles related to Hong Kong's influence on kung fu in film, as well as its development into Western film (The Matrix, Kill Bill, etc.)
  • The Official Jeet Kune Do Page
    This is the home of the World Jeet Kune Do Federation, whose purpose is to remain faithful in bringing the teachings of Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do to the public. It is not the only Jeet Kune Do organization, but it is the largest international one.

Bruce Lee's famous work.


kungfukid from Los Angeles, California on February 13, 2015:

excellent hub, very well done.

Karoline on March 26, 2012:

Fantastic hub, looking forward to come back and see your new posts. Thank you.

My art gallery

Steve on February 24, 2011:

Great article, very informative. What about the monkey as an animal?

kungfukid on December 04, 2010:

excellent informative article, thanks for sharing.

DNKStore from Mississippi USA on November 15, 2008:

Thank you SO much for this wonderful Hub!  I see that you too have an interest in spreading information about Shaolin Kung Fu.

You are right about definitive information being hard to pin down. I believe this is largely due to the many different dynasties and regimes in Chinese history, each re-writing history to serve their own interests.

Archeological discoveries have brought a wealth of new information to light, bringing a little better understanding.

KF junkie on July 13, 2008:

Jef Naayers sold his schools to is senior students and moved to China a couple years ago. He has a live-in school there with his Chinese partner. It's called Shaolin Huiguang Institutes. You can find it in Columbus, Ohio as well. He has been going to China for many years and is now with Great Grandmaster Zhu Tianxi of the Original Shaolin Temple (non-Buddhist). He still has several clubs that are run by his students. He is one of the good guys who is always learning and promoting. Very gifted in many areas. If you want to know more just post saying so. He will be taking part in the Olympics in Beijing in some capacity, but not sure what. You know, he was the first guy/school I know of to bring Sanshou/Sanda to the USA, then later it became more known thanks to guys like Cung Le, Scott Sheeley, etc. Hope this helps.

SparklingJewel from upper midwest on April 19, 2008:

Great Hub !! I love those movies! My interest started with David Carradine back in the old Kung Fu TV series. Yes, Chinese history is mysterious!

My youngest son and I took some Korean forms of Kung Fu for a few years. My son earned 5 belts and I, 3, in those years. For a forty something women, I accomplished some pretty amazing feats! But they took their toll on my body at times. Other priorities took over in life...don't know if I will ever continue practice.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 15, 2008:

Great discussion, JarrodHaze!

You have supplied indeed good information about kunf fu and the animals and what they represent and can produce. Keep researching and please tell us more as you can when the time comes.

Have you heard of the Elephant style Kung Fu? Interestingly, a friend and I developed a whole cartoon world for kids called Tai Chi Elephant, and then I found one tiny web article about Elephant Kung Fu. I hope more is avaiable at this time.

I think I recall something about the flags you mention, so keep writing these good Hubs. Thumbs way up!


JarrodHaze (author) on April 15, 2008:

No, I haven't heard much of him more so than seeing his name on the bill at some seminars and that he's got his school in Ohio. But I will definitely "Google" more on him soon.

As far as I know in Chinese culture there was little to do with the classic sense of "totem" animals, as being guardians, or the spiritual kinship we see in other cultures such as Native Americans and Aboriginal. Some stuff dates back with bronzed and golden heads to about 5,000 B.C., and if I recall correctly flags with certain animals depicted different tribes around this time as well through until about 2,000 B.C. I'd have to research more on it, though... another thing to Google next!

As it relates to martial arts it could be interpreted as a loosely-based totem-like system, where one embodies the spirit of the animal during training in order to take on its physical and mental attributes to better oneself, which is much more what the traditional animal styles in kung fu were used for. Kung fu is a very spiritual and individual journey as well, so if this is what one gets out of it from certain styles then absolutely.

But mainly the totemic animal as is typically known is not exactly what is portrayed in the martial arts, since it's the perfection of all the animal styles from one to the next to the most advanced, rather than one selecting an animal as their particular totem and mastering that style. Hope that was helpful!

Again, with anywhere up to 800 different styles of kung fu, there could always be a scenario that goes against everything I just said! ;)

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 15, 2008:

Do you know Sifu Jef Naayers, who sponsored the first Shaolin Monks out of their homeland and into Indiana, then Ohio, where I had the pleasure of seeing them? He is an incredibly good and kind man.

Perhaps the animals style are based on totemic animals, perhaps not. What do you think?

susan on April 14, 2008:

thanks for all the info!!!!!! very interesting piece...

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