Articles » Methods and Techniques » On the five animals system of Vietnam Wing Chun
On the five animals system of Vietnam Wing Chun
By Si-fu Nguyen Ngoc Noi
Recently, there have been many people (including some students of our martial art school) asking me questions about the fighting technique system of WingChun and about things that were related to the past. As you know, differences in the techniques between lineages of the same martial art system are inevitable due to many subjective and objective reasons. There are also differences in history-related issues that we, the descendants, do not have enough inside information to judge what is right or wrong. It is important to base our judgment on the facts observed today. And the best we can do, based on these facts, is just to speculate about things in the past. In some articles, previously published in this site, I already addressed several things interested by readers. In this article, I’m going to present some aspects of the Five Animal system in our WingChun branch (the Internal Style Family WingChun). I hope it will partly answer some questions that readers asked about the Five Animal system and, at the same time, give initial basic concepts to those students who just begin to learn and practice the Five Animal system.
We, the martial art lovers, all know that in the ancient time, when developing martial art techniques, the ancestors adapted many fighting techniques of animals, such as tiger, leopard, crane, snake, dragon (a legendary animal), eagle, monkey, cock, praying mantis… Based on fighting techniques of some animals used in real combats, they created not only separate fist forms but, sometimes, even a whole martial art system.
I was taught that the founders of WingChun, through the study and real combats chose five animals whose techniques have a great affect on WingChun and can present the essence of WingChun. They are tiger, leopard, crane, snake, and dragon. All the fighting techniques of WingChun are related to the fighting techniques of these animals. Currently, for many reasons, there are differences in the order and in the techniques of these five forms between lineages. There are also differences in theories, in their essence and their relations… Since I don’t know much about other lineages, so in this article I’m going to present some basic aspects of the Five Animal System in our WingChun branch only (the Internal Style Family WingChun) with the desire to increase the knowledge about WingChun system in general and about each lineage of the system in particular.
The Five Animal System in our WingChun branch (The Internal Style Family WingChun) consists of 6 forms. There are 5 forms, in which each form corresponds to an Animal, and a combined (or synthesized) form. The combined form consists of representative movements of all 5 Animals. The Five Animal System is arranged in the following order: Tiger, Leopard, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. The essence of this arrangement is that the student will advance gradually from the external elements to the internal elements, and from the easier level to the more difficult level (in doing and performing the techniques). The essence of the performing and the training purposes of forms are:
  • The Tiger form is used to train muscles and the bones. The movements should expose a strong, brave and righteous spirit.
  • The Leopard form is used to train tendon and its force. The movements should be agile but sharp.
  • The Crane form is used to train the Jing. The movements should be fast but deliberate, as to reveal an open-minded, noble spirit.
  • The Snake form is used to train the Chi. The movements should be supple, flexible, twisty, and fast.
  • The Dragon form is used to train the Shen. The movements must show the essence of the 4 above forms and the subtlety. The Dragon form is very beautiful and it is the most difficult form. To be able to show the spirit and the essence of the Dragon form, students need to practice very well the 4 prior forms (Tiger, Leopard, Crane, and Snake).
We can see that:
  • The first 2 forms Tiger and Leopard belong to the External part. They train the body (muscle, bone, tendon, force), the basements of the martial art.
  • The other 3 forms Crane, Snake, and Dragon belong to the Internal part. They train the Jing, Chi, Shen (the Three precious assets of a person). They create the stability and profundity of the martial art.
Beside that, the Five Animal System in the Internal Style Family WingChun has other special characteristics, such as each form has its own hand formation. Except the combination form, each form use only one hand formation. The Tiger hand formation is the normal fist formation. In the Leopard hand formation, the 4 fingers from the index finger are bent tightly to the palm at the second joint. The Crane hand formation and the Snake hand formation are open hand formation. The Dragon hand formation is the claw hand formation, all the fingers are bent at the first and second joints, the hand looks like a dragon hand. In the combined form, the hand formation of each Animal is used accordingly in their part.
It is not easy for students to be able to perform the techniques and show the spirit of each Animal form, especially when they have not yet practiced it for a long time. For these reasons, like other training methods in The Internal Style Family WingChun, the Five Animal System is taught from lower level to higher level, from static forms to dynamic forms. Through that process, students will gradually conceive deep essences in fighting techniques of each Animal. Based on these, students can perform well techniques when doing the forms or when fighting.
Before the year 1959 (in the years 1955 - 1959), my si-fu only taught his disciples separate fighting techniques, not a whole form as a system.  All these fighting techniques were drawn from the Five Animal System. This followed the way that the founding father (Su-to) Nguyen Te Cong (Yuen Chai Wan) used to  teach disciples. By the mid 1959, my si-fu stopped teaching for 10 years. After coming back to the teaching work in 1969, my si-fu taught more systematically, he gradually taught us forms of WingChun system. This system of forms, as I introduced previously, consists of Thu-Dau-Quyen (the Little Idea form), the Chi Kung WingChun Kuen form, 108 movement forms, Five Animal forms, “sticky hand” training methods, 2 weapon forms (butterfly knives and pole) and some other training methods.  At that time, because of some restrictions, forbiddance on teaching martial art, my si-fu did not teach fighting techniques explicitly, he only taught these forms and training methods, and through which his disciples will develop their fighting skills.  For us, the skills we got through these forms and training methods are very essential and important.  Allow me to mention again one thing that I always think of in my mind, it is our luckiness. I was very lucky that my si-fu taught and explained in detail the most important principles in training the Five Animal system during his last few years.  Although not being considered to be high level forms, but Five Animal Forms play a very important role in Vinh Xuan Noi gia (The Internal Style Family WingChun). They help practitioners train fighting skills and healing skills in a comprehensive way (fighting and healing are considered to be of the same importance), both internally (training Jing, Chi, Shen) and externally (training muscle, bone, tendon, force).
In conclusion, I hope it will help you know a litle more about Vinh Xuan Noi gia (The Internal Style Family WingChun), especially the Five Animal System.
This surely cannot answer all your questions due my limited ability and restrictions, and I could  say only about our branch - Vinh Xuan Noi gia (The Internal Style Family WingChun).  I really appreciate your care for and your love of our WingChun system.
Thank you for reading this.
[Translated by Dang Tran Lien.  Ha Noi, 18 November 2006]