The traditional approach to learning the Chinese martial arts uses a lot of linguistic/cultural metaphors related to birds and animals and this is certainly true in their internal systems. A similar motivation can be found in the Western traditions in Aesop's Fables which is a collection of parables credited to a slave and storyteller by that name who is said to have lived in ancient Greece in the Sixth Century BCE. The stories associated with his name in which animals and birds act out short lessons with ethical morals have come down to modern times. In Europe, manuscripts in Latin and Greek were important avenues of transmission; and, on the arrival of printing, collections of Aesop's fables were among the earliest books printed in a variety of languages. Initially the fables were aimed at adults and covered ethical, religious, social and political themes. However, from the Renaissance onwards they were particularly used for the education of children.
Similarly the metaphors about animal body dynamics used in Chinese martial arts, depending on the preferences of the style or teacher, were sometimes to be taken literally and sometimes a metaphor for how the practitioner would use his body while training or fighting. Baguazhang is often said to have eight or ten animals whereas Xingiquan has ten or twelve depending on the style. Each animal or bird have particular tactics and solo and two-person training associated with them which have to be mastered once a practitioner is no longer considered a beginner.
However, there are also four key animal “qualities” that are said to be the root of posture and movement in all aspects of baguazhang [similar lists are used in describing Xingyiquan]. In this way, a traditionally-minded Baguazhang teacher might remind his or her students of the necessity to develop a Chicken Foot, a Dragon Waist, Bear Shoulders and a Tiger Neck.
Chicken Foot [sometimes “Leg”] serves as a reminder to keep the weight on the back leg though it is also a styistic approach to advancing one leg after another so that the experienced practitioner does seem to be walking somewhat with the characteristic bobbing/strut of a barnyard fowl. A chicken can run very quickly and stop suddenly, keeping its weight on one leg, ready to peck. By mastering this style of movement, you can advance, retreat and turn very quickly because the weight of the body is “perched” on one leg. For example, my bagua teacher used to say that you never move quickly by accelerating mindlessly as that leaves you prone to falling forward if your target disappears at the last moment.
Dragon Waist serves as a reminder to use the true rotation of the waist to motivate the movement of the legs and feet and to power the arms for striking more effeciently. This mythic beast is common in Chinese fables and folklore and could fly high, swim and burrow underground while twisting it's body like a giant snake with four clawed feet. In human terms, Different styles of bagua interpret how you do this with your body differently, depending on the skill and experience of each instructor; for example, move the hips but don’t twist the waist or twist the waist as much as possible to create an elastic force or combine the two with one method predominating. In recent years, I fall into the category that recommends focusing on the hips as the ‘driving force” for movement as this prevents aching at the lower back as it is easy to over-twist the area between the bottom of the rib cage and the actual hips themselves. However, some twisting of the fleshy area can add a “springy” quality to the martial expression of force but it is also easy to overdo.
Bear Shoulders serve as a reminder to keep a flexible strength through the scapular region of the back to supplement the driving power of the legs. Bears are large animals that can generate a great deal of power by lifting then dropping their shoulders as well as using their chest. In other words, the power manifested by the limbs doesn't come from the strength of the arms alone, but from the whole body. If that sounds “mysterious”. well it is in the sense that you can’t learn it except by following the example and instructions of someone who can do it and not just theorize about it.
Finally Tiger Neck serves as a reminder to keep the chin gently tucked in while straightening the neck as if extending up through the crown point at the top of the back of the skull. This slightly tractions the neck from above. The tiger is a very powerful beast with a very regal carriage when in repose even though superficially it seems supernatually fast and boneless when pouncing on its prey. I suppose I could also add that the neck itself is often seen as the ideal target for self-defense in Chinese martial arts and certainly the tiger often seeks to break the neck or suffocate it’s prey by attacking that part of its victims.
These four metaphorical postural alignments from traditional baguazhang seek to, with time and effort to adjust the practitioner’s body in relation to the “three external harmonies” (wai san he): coordination of wrist/ankle, elbow/knee, and shoulder/hip. This is a fancy way of saying that you have to be co-ordinated from head to toe in specific manners to be able to move well, much less fight off attackers!
So watch the animals, learn from them, but don’t imagine that making funny noises while crudely mimicing an animal physically is the point of all this. There’s a difference between going through the motions of copying how an animal moves and trying to find the essence of their quality of posture and body mechanics. Oh, and while discussing vocalizing like your favourite animal, remember the old kung fu adage that “the fiercest watch dog bites without warning!”
Finally, I won’t touch on the issue of the shamanistic concept of being possessed by the animal you copy in terms of its ferocity as it is outside the key issues of the four metaphorical qualities discussed. “Spirit Possession” and “Becoming an Animal” are certainly legitimate aspects of some old approachs to martial training but this isn’t the appropriate medium to discuss a topic that was linked to the use of drugs and/or alcohol and trance-inducing rituals to reach certain types of altered states for real combat with empty hands and archaic weapons.
Copyright Michael A. Babin, ©2019
43+ Years of Experience Training in the Chinese martial arts; 33+ years experience teaching taijiquan and 24+ years experience teaching baguazhang