The way of the animal

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The way of the animal

Each of the animals embodies certain characteristics that must be explored in combat. These qualities must be incorporated:

  1. Bear
    - gravity, indifference, casual

  2. Bird
    - open & close, unite upper & lower

  3. Monkey
    - withdraw, yielding, softness, distraction

  4. Snake
    - reeling silk, speed striking, wave, penetration

  5. Tiger
    - advance, wu nien

Merely to train 5 animals in form is to practice the shape, but not the essence of the animal.


The differing natures of the 5 animals means that they serve to balance one another out. They offer strategic and attitudinal alternatives to each other.
Bird is nervous and flighty, preferring to hold back and not commit. By contrast, tiger is tenacious and will stride forward without a care.


If your strikes are with the arm rather than the body, or you are failing to get in close enough, work snake. Snake is one of the hardest animals to understand and use. It is extremely versatile.

Hard to learn

Skill with snake will give you both whole-body striking power and yielding/chin na skill. People seldom favour snake because of the skill involved. Embrace that challenge. Do not shy away from it.


Students are prone towards using way too much force. Training monkey can help with this. Monkey is exceptionally diverse but is also extremely yin.
You cannot embody monkey if you are clumsy and brutal.


Monkey is sly and sneaky, cautious and imaginative. There is no scope for force. Practice feeling the playful softness of monkey.


If you are prone to poor commitment, work tiger until you have remedied this. If you are large and rely upon your size/body weight, commit time to bird and monkey in order to balance this tendency.
If you have poor balance, work on bear.


Bear is lazy and relies upon throwing its weight around. There are not a large number of bear movements in the form.
Tai chi assumes the defender to be smaller and agile, rather than large and lumbering. Bear is good for training gravity use and 'bump' variations. It favours central equilibrium and advance.


Most of the bird applications involve withdrawing as the attacker commits. Split is the most common jing used. Kicks, knees and balancing stances are favoured.
There are not too many bird applications in the form. Tai chi avoids using the legs to kick unless absolutely necessary/prudent. Sifu Waller encourages the use of the 3-legged kick.


Bird is particularly useful against a knife-wielding attacker. Be careful to control wrist when splitting. Be aware of blade relative to body. Consider follow-ups. Look to the form for example ideas.


Most of the monkey applications involve evasive, sneaky withdrawing movements. Although many of the snake and monkey movements are interchangeable, many are not.
Monkey is weaker and less powerful than snake.


Monkey is particularly useful when grappling, throwing or applying chin na. Small opportunities offer tremendous scope for monkey. It favours see the right, see the left and withdraw.


Most of the snake applications involve circling and twisting movements. Although many of the snake and monkey movements are interchangeable, many are not.
Snake is stronger and more powerful than monkey. This animal is particularly useful when grappling, throwing or applying chin na.

Reeling silk

Snake spirals, coils, finds openings and strikes with a whole-body ripple. Eventually, this animal leads to reeling silk. Snake favours see the right, see the left and advance.


Tiger typically moves the attacking arm out of the way with one hand whilst striking with the other in a strong forward motion. There are not a large number of tiger movements in the form.
Tai chi appears defensive in nature. Tiger is somewhat aggressive in character. This animal is all about intent and initiative. Tiger favours advance.


Versatility with the 5 animals reduces the predictability of your form. You cease to move in an obvious way. One moment you are bear, the next you are snake.
This serves to put your attacker off-balance and makes them cautious.

Playing favourites

If you are favouring one animal (either deliberately or unconsciously) then you need to stop.

Dragon power

In Chinese culture the dragon is a chimera: a blending of all 5 animals. Shen is the embodiment of the dragon; a surging, driving energy. Strong, powerful, uncompromising:

Let him keep the deep drives in his own guts from going into action.
Let him keep still, not looking, not hearing.
Let him sit still like a corpse,
with the dragon power alive all around him.
In complete silence,
his voice will be like thunder.
His movements will be invisible,
like those of a spirit,
but the power of heaven will go with them.

(Chuang Tzu)

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023