According to the Chinese Zodiac cycle, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey, and that’s good news for both tricksters and martial artists who study specific forms of kung fu. That’s right, monkey-style kung fu is getting a new wave of attention in honor of this auspicious Lunar New Year.
Martial arts and animal forms
Kung fu artists have studied the offensive and defensive movements of animals, and then translated their observations into fighting styles. Different schools each maintain their own list of animal traditions, but in general, the forms include dragon, bear, tiger, leopard, crane, snake, monkey, mantis and eagle. The animal styles were developed at different times, in various regions in China and by different masters, which contributes to the range of forms available.
While monkey-style kung fu has been mentioned in manuscripts dating as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), according to the Shaolin Kun Fu Institute, the form practiced today is actually relatively young. In the late 1800s, kung fu master Kou Sze was sentenced to solitary confinement for eight years after being accused of committing murder. Sze was fortunate in his imprisonment, as he was able to observe nature from his cell window. In fact, he watched monkeys interact with each other, and eventually incorporated his observations into his martial art.
Monkey style is incredibly demanding, which is why the art has such a short lineage at seven generations. Michael Matsuda is the sixth-generation master of monkey-style kung fu, and he was inducted into the Martial Arts History Museum Hall of Fame in 2004. His command of the challenging and elusive martial art has made him a veritable star, and he’s penned books and articles on the subject.
Much like the monkeys that inspired the form, this martial-arts style includes brutal attacks. The artist may at first seem calm but then burst into action on a moment’s notice. Additionally, the form requires practitioners to squat low to the ground and use acrobatic movements.