Shaolin Tiger-Crane Kung Fu - the elegant and elusive movements of the crane as once observed by the ancient Chinese were imitated and combined with the Tiger's fierce attack in combat. The name Shaolin has become synonymous with Kung Fu though the source of Chinese martial arts can be traced back centuries before Shaolin styles emerged.
Situated on Sung Mountain in the Honen Province is one of China's most famous monasteries. Built in 495 AD this huge monastery, which at one time housed up 2000 monks, created a natural atmosphere conducive to the contemplation of and devotion to the Buddha, by those who forsook society and sought spiritual solace. Nevertheless it was no typical Buddhist monastery, for within its walls, along with the profound silence of monks sitting cross legged absorbed in meditation and the hypnotic drone of others chanting holy sutras was mingled the piercing battle cries of warrior monks engaged in combat.
Their refuge, the fabled Shaolin monastery, was a center for men dedicated not only to salvation but also to a secret discipline which was a curious blend of physical toughness and spiritual purity. The genesis of Shaolin Kung Fu, which because of oral tradition, has become an interweaving of legend and history begins with the appearance of the enigmatic and awesome monk, Tamo. To Buddhists he is revered as the founder of Zen. To martial artists he is considered the father of Shaolin Kung Fu. In the 6th century AD he departed from his home in India trekking eastward to Canton, up to Nan-king, then further north where upon reaching the Shaolin Monastery he stopped and thereby began to teach spiritual insight through Zen meditation.
Tamo created certain exercises after discovering that monks who, not being able to stand the rigorous Zen discipline required for gaining enlightenment, fell asleep during meditation. To nourish their health and supplement their passive seated meditation he devised three sets of psychological and physical yoga-like exercises called: 18 monks boxing, the sinew changing classic and the marrow washing classic. These active meditational exercises allegedly formed the embryo from which Shaolin Kung Fu evolved.
The martial arts were born out of practical necessity. During holy pilgrimages monks were frequently robbed of religious treasures by marauding bandits. By adapting Tamo's postures into fighting movements they developed sophisticated fighting methods whereby they could protect themselves. With the influence of Zen, what would have been merely a deadly science of combat was elevated into a martial art. A physical and mental discipline created not only for self-defense, but also as a vehicle for spiritual cultivation, this art so flourished over the centuries that the valor and skills of the Shaolin monks became legendary. In 1736 the fallen Manchu's battle troops attacked the monastery.
Vastly outnumbered the warrior monks were annihilated. The Shaolin monastery was burnt to the ground. A handful of survivors fled and openly spread their art to the populace. Today the Shaolin Monastery has been rebuilt and is remembered as the origin of a profusion of Kung Fu styles over the centuries. One such style is Hung, created and named after Hung Hei Guen, a Cantonese master known as one of the Ten Tigers from Shaolin. He was a disciple of the famous Shaolin abbot, Gee Sin, who after escaping the burning of Shaolin became the major figure responsible for spreading Shaolin Kung Fu throughout Southern China.
Combining the fighting movements of the Tiger with the Crane is in accord with the Chinese belief in the necessity of balancing opposite extremes to create a harmonious totality. In Kung Fu this concept is referred to as hardness and softness, the hard, represented by the tiger and the soft, by the crane. Therefore, the elegant Crane's speed and elusiveness in combat compliment the fierce Tiger's tremendous power and directness in attack. In Hung Hei Guen's Tiger and Crane form the hard elements of combat are subtly wedded with the soft elements in order to create a complete fighting method. Despite the seeming hardness there is a certain absence of rigidity or stiffness, which is replaced by a fluidity or softness in the execution of each move.
This form exemplifies the concepts of the unification of hardness and softness, in that applied muscular tension is subtly balanced with relaxation. The total intensity demonstrates the total concentration of physical and mental energy, which is the key to performing the form correctly. Usually a form seems like a dance. Yet despite the dance-like qualities a form is not a dance. Every movement is pregnant with hidden meaning. Behind those elegant and intricate hand and fist patterns are deadly techniques that can injure, maim, blind, emasculate or even kill. And behind the ever-flowing graceful motion is a power, which if unleashed can be destructive. A form is a series of prearranged offensive and defensive techniques, which simulate conflict against a group of imaginary opponents.
Contained in the many choreographed movements are the blocks, punches, kicks and various techniques exclusive to that particular style. To say form is the heart of Kung Fu is not to exaggerate its traditional importance. Everything is in the form for it is the primary method of both instructing and training in the art. A way of transmitting a system of knowledge from master to disciple, an encyclopedia of fighting techniques, application to those techniques, the principles of body dynamics and combat strategy. At the same time, as a formal exercise of Kung Fu, it is an effective way of developing power, speed, footwork and fighting combinations.
All that is necessary to pack authority behind movements if they are to be effective in combat. Simply as an exercise, form conditions the entire body for strength, flexibility, endurance and coordination. Still, on the purely artistic level, a form's beauty and grace of motion is a visual poem or a musical composition, which allows the individual, through his body, a profound means of self-expression. When executed with precision and virtuosity a form epitomizes the esthetics of power.
Kung Fu is power concealed in elegance. The art of Kung Fu actually transcends the necessity of combat. Once the mind has been emptied of all concern for self-defense, physical and psychological energies may be rechanneled into spiritual development. For ultimately as the Shaolin monks well understood, Kung Fu begins with the conquering of the opponent and ends with the conquering of the self.