One of the outstanding features of the traditional Chinese martial arts is imitating animal movements. This is because, Chinese martial artists believed in the past — and still do today — that we humans have lost or have never developed certain natural instincts, senses and fighting abilities that other animals possess in order to survive in the wild.
By imitating animal movements, martial arts practitioners intend to regain or develop certain animal fighting techniques and spirit to fight against other men.
The first set of animal-imitating exercises came into being about 2,000 years ago. It was called Wu Qin Xi or Five-Animal Frolics, created by Hua Tuo (circa 140-208 AD) as a form of therapeutic qigong or chi kung.
Hua was a famous physician in the later years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD). He is widely known as the first doctor in the traditional Chinese medicine to invent some anesthetic herbal formulas and the first surgeon to conduct abdominal operations.
Hua Tuo was born in today’s Bo County in eastern China’s Anhui Province. His father died when Hua was only seven. Then, he lived with his mother in abject poverty. In order to survive and enable her son to have a career, the mother sent young Hua to study medicine from a local folk doctor.
The master first assigned the boy to learn filling the prescriptions with other elder apprentices. But, the boy was frequently bullied by his fellow apprentices because of his young age. He was even denied the use of Chinese scales, thus making his job almost mission impossible.
However, through diligent practice, the boy later learned to accurately measure the weight of herbals and other pharmaceutical ingredients just using his hands.
The master was impressed by the boy’s diligence and ingenuity, so he decided to teach him all the skills he knew. Soon, Hua became an expert in fields such as acupuncture, physiotherapy, gynecology, pediatrics and surgery.
Later, Hua also created the Five-Animal Frolics qigong exercises to help people improve their physical and mental health.
Some historians have pointed out that animal-imitating exercises in the country could date back to around 300 BC when Chuang-tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and key representative of Taoism wrote in his book that “walking like a bear and stretching their neck like a bird to achieve longevity.”
However, they all agree that it was Hua Tuo who developed the first complete set of animal-imitating qigong exercises in China.
One of Hua’s outstanding disciples, Wu Pu, practiced the Five-Animal Frolics every day and lived for more than 100 years. In his book, entitled “The Five-Animal Classic,” Wu quoted his teacher as saying that human body needs exercise, but it should never be done to the point of exhaustion.
“Now, I have created the art called the Frolics of the Five Animals, imitating the movements of tiger, deer, bear, monkey and bird.
“It eliminates sickness, benefits the legs, and is also a form of Tao Yin (body exercise of bending and stretching).
“If you feel out of sorts, just practice one of my Frolics. A gentle sweat will exude, the complexion will become rosy; the body will feel relaxed and you will begin to build up an appetite.”
Later, many other forms of qigong and martial arts introduced the animal movement imitation concept.
For example, many martial artists believe that Xingyiquan or Shape-Will Boxing, the oldest of thee Wudang internal martial arts, was created in imitation of the fighting techniques and spirit of 12 animals, including the five animals of Hua’s Frolics.
Because of its health preserving benefits and easy-to-do, fun-to-practice routines, Five-Animal Frolics is still practiced today by a great number of people, not only in China, but also in many other places of the world as well.
In 2011, the Chinese government included this ancient Hua’s Frolics into the country’s protection list of national cultural heritages.