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The Legend of the Five Animals

In the Chinese martial arts, imagery of the Five Animals (Chinese: pinyin: wǔ xíng; literally "Five Forms")—Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Snake, and Dragon—appears predominantly in Southern styles, especially those associated with Guangdong and Fujian Provinces.

The Five Animal martial arts supposedly originated from the Henan Shaolin Temple, which is north of the Yangtze River, even though imagery of these particular five animals as a distinct set (i.e. in the absence of other animals such as the horse or the monkey as in T'ai Chi Ch'üan or Xíngyìquán) is either rare in Northern Shaolin martial arts—and Northern Chinese martial arts in general—or recent (cf. wǔxíngbāfǎquán; "Five Form Eight Method Fist").

Shaolin first became famous because the Tang Dynasty (618–907) saw fit to favor the monastery with its patronage as thanks for the role its monks played in the Battle of Hulao. The sudden renown of the Shaolin martial arts attracted pilgrims who came specifically to study its fighting methods. However, the more people that sought training at the temple, the smaller the proportion of them that had the time or the inclination to truly dedicate themselves.

Some regarded the Shaolin imprimatur as a kind of talisman that rendered years of training unnecessary. Others only wanted to fight well and cared little for esoterica like qìgōng, erasing over centuries the difference between the Shaolin martial arts and those crude methods on which it was supposed to improve.

Another was Jueyuan, who in the 13th century started from first principles with the 18 Luohan Hands, the original 18 techniques of the Shaolin martial arts. Like those before him, Jueyuan used the original 18 Luohan Hands as a foundation, expanding its 18 techniques into 72. Still, he felt the need to seek knowledge from outside the confines of the temple.

In Gansu Province in the west of China, in the city of Lanzhou, he met Li Sou, a master of "Red Fist" Hóngquán. Li Sou accompanied Jueyuan back to Henan, to Luoyang to introduce Jueyuan to Bai Yufeng, master of an internal method.

They returned to Shaolin with Bai Yufeng and expanded Jueyuan's 72 techniques to approximately 170. Moreover, using their combined knowledge, they restored internal aspects to Shaolin boxing.

They organized these techniques into Five Animals: the Tiger, the Crane, the Leopard, the Snake, and the Dragon.


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Choi Lei Fut training

As a Southern Shaolin style with Five Animal techniques, Hung Kuen is a close relative of Choi Lei Fut and is said by some Choi Lei Fut branches to be the style that Chan Yuen-Wu taught founder Chan Heung.

The stances of Choi Lei Fut are as wide as those of Hung Kuen, but higher - though not as high as those of Wing Chun - trading off some of the stability and root of Hung Kuen stances to allow more mobile footwork. In order to generate the characteristic whipping power of Choi Lei Fut, the hips and shoulders must be decoupled. Though Hung Kuen also features whipping power, particularly in its crane techniques, the hips and the shoulders are more frequently locked in the same plane, resulting in a "harder" form of power. Hung Ga and Wing Chun both hold the torso perpendicular to an opponent, to allow for the full use of both arms. By contrast, Choi Lei Fut holds the torso at an angle to the opponent to reduce the target area exposed to him.

Choi Lei Fut is a characterized as a "soft-hard", "external" style. The curriculum was designed so that anti-Qing rebels could quickly gain practical proficiency and also incorporates a wide range of weapons. Several common movements have specific sounds (kiai) associated with them—for example, "sik" when throwing punches, "yik" when punching from horse riding stance, "wah" was used when using a Tiger Claw and "dik" when kicking—supposedly so that friendly forces could recognize each other in battle and to force the practitioner to coordinate his breathing patterns with his movements.

Like many martial arts, Choi Lei Fut has diverged into several lineages that differ not only in terms of training and emphasis but also on what they see as the true history of the style.

The style has not gained popularity in mainland China and by some it is still seen as merely an amalgamation of southern and northern techniques and is not really seen as a separate style. Due to the nature of the style, it is said to be preferred by traveling merchants who could easily exchange techniques with others while traveling.

The popularity of Choi Lei Fut is strong in Hong Kong, Canada, the United States, and growing elsewhere, and in the late 20th century, the style was popularized in the Canada and the United States. It is also one of the fighting styles used by the Outworld ninja Ermac in the Mortal Kombat video game series.

Choi Lei Fut, together with Hung Gar and Wing Chun, are given the name "The Three Great Martial Art Schools of the South" because of their origin and popularity in Southern China.

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