The five animal forms

Sometimes in Taiji we hear talk of the Five Animal Forms and the Eight Animal Appearances. What does this mean?

The animal appearances are attempts to mimic aspects of an animal’s movement, for example, the rounded back of a bear. An old example of this is the 五禽戲 Wu Qin Xi or Five Animal Frolics, said to have been created by Hua Tuo during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). This qi-gong sequence is still popular today.

Mr Moy brought with him a later system which spoke of eight animal appearances and five animal forms. What are the forms? These are attempts not to mimic the movement of an animal, but to embody one of its qualities, such as balance. Talk of the Five Animals in Chinese martial arts is not confined to Taiji or the Taoist arts. The place one most often hears them mentioned is in Shaolin Kung-fu. But Kung-fu and Taiji both work with the same five animals: the tiger, the leopard, the crane, the dragon and the snake. The term used in Chinese is wǔ xíng 五 形 which means five forms.

The first animal is the tiger . Tiger stands for the strength of the bones, and in this regard we should remember that healthy bones are flexible. In Taiji the tiger particularly references the pelvis, and the opening of the pelvic bowl.

The second animal is the leopard bào. The leopard pounces on its prey, sometimes springing from trees. This requires springiness in the tendons: the leopard stands for the elasticity of the tendons. The tendons rest on the bones – the first animal.

The third animal is the crane . The crane has balance and stillness. It conserves energy. Its long limbs, like those of the gibbon, enable it to “gather” more qi, because long limbs lead to a greater separation of ying and yang.

The fourth animal is the dragon lóng. The dragon embodies presence and clarity; its movements are majestic. It stands for the lengthening of the spine. It is vertical. In taiji, it references the don-yu, which is sometimes called the dragon squat, and the circulation of energy along the mid-line.

The fifth animal is the snake shé. The snake stands for flow. It especially manifests in the snaking of the spine.

The order of the animals is significant. In taoism the animals are trained from yang to yin. The tiger is the most yang, and is trained first; the snake is the most yin and the most difficult, and is trained last [1].

Eliot Kravitz MD, who worked for many years alongside Mr Moy, points out that all animals are present simultaneously. In Chinese culture, this is implicit in the term wǔ xíng, which has two different meanings. Here it is 五 形, the five (animal) forms, but it could also be 五 行, often translated in the West as the Five Elements (because it reminded us of the Four Western Elements). In Chinese it’s often hard to tell if a character represents a noun (a state) or a verb (an action). Translations which emphasise the latter are the Five Agents or the Five Processes; a compromise translation is the Five Phases.

[1] 5 animals, 5 appearances on
[2] images: Shaolin Wahnam Institute, Vienna