Northern Shaolin Kung Fu tends to emphasize speed, agility, stamina and flexibility, with much more dynamic footwork than found in its Southern counterparts. From arts primarily focused on self-defense to those now more commonly associated with inner peace, here is a quick guide to a few popular Northern Chinese martial arts styles and where you can see them in action (at least their Hong Kong movie versions).
1. Praying Mantis
What it is: Praying Mantis is a style of kung fu inspired by the speed and aggressiveness of the insect that gave it its name. The style’s creation is credited to a Taoist priest named Wang Lang, who legend says was one of 18 martial arts masters invited to the Shaolin Temple in the latter part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to help improve its monks’ combat skills (though most schools say Wang Lang lived in the 1600s). Known for its fast strikes, kicks, locks, takedowns and potent arsenal of traditional weaponry, there are numerous styles of mantis kung fu, the most popular being the Seven Star school.
Where to see it: Shaolin Mantis (1978) starring David Chiang.
2. Eagle Claw
What it is: According to popular legend, ill-fated Song Dynasty General Yue Fei learned martial arts from a Shaolin Monk named Zhou Tong, then created Eagle Claw to help his troops combat barbarian conquerors. Eagle Claw is a style of martial arts known for its gripping techniques that mimic an eagle’s talons, pressure point strikes, takedowns and system of joint locks (Chinese grappling techniques known as Chin Na). It is one of the systems traditionally taught at the famous Chin Woo Association, the Shanghai-based kung fu school depicted in Bruce Lee’s Chinese Connection.
Where to see it: Eagle’s Claw (1978) starring Wong Tao (Dave Wong).
3. Long Fist
What it is: Long Fist (Chang Quan) is a fighting system said to have been developed in the 10th century by Zhao Kuangyin, the first emperor of the Song Dynasty (960–1279) — though historical texts first mentioning the style have been dated to only the 19th century. Characterized by long-range tactics, including large, sweeping hand techniques and explosive footwork, Long Fist is best known for its array of kicking techniques that include everything from simple quick front snap kicks and sweeps to broad arching tornado kicks.
Where to see it: Deadly Shaolin Longfist (1983) starring Elton Chung and Siu Tin Yuen.
4. Tai Chi
What is is: Taijiquan, or Tai Chi (taiji) for short, is an internal Chinese martial art that has in recent decades become a worldwide phenomenon as a holistic health practice. With five traditional styles including Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu Hao and Sun, most tai chi practitioners trace their lineage back to Chen Village in Henan Province. Despite its slow, graceful movements and proven health and fitness benefits (from reduced blood pressure and better balance), tai chi has its roots as an honest-to-goodness combat art, which is evidenced by the martial applications in its forms, “push hands” training and use of swords and other kung fu weapons.
Where to see it: Tai-Chi Master (1993) starring Jet Li.
5. Pa Kua
What it is: A Chinese internal system of kung fu with ties to the now-famous Wu Tang monastery, Pa Ku (also Romanized as Baguazhang) is translated in English as “eight trigram palm,” referring to the symbols in the ancient Taoist text called the I Ching that represent the qualities of nature. Believed by many to have been created by martial artist Dong Haichuan in the 19th century (others say it has a much longer history), Pa Kua is known for using a practice called circle walking as stance and movement training, as well as for its 8 Palm Changes, throws and use of a large variety of weapons — ranging from the staff to the sword to the scholar’s pen, a pair of crescent-shaped knives unique to the system.
Where to see it: In The Grandmaster (2013), Zhang Ziyi’s character, Gong Er, used a kung fu style called the 64 Hands, which employed the circle walking and elaborate hand techniques of Pa Kua.
About the Author
Shannon is a widely published veteran freelance writer and editor who has studied Chinese history, cultural and martial arts for decades. He began practicing Chinese kung-fu, chi kung, Taoism and health and healing arts in 1980 and spent 1987 and 1988 studying in China as the initiated apprentice of a Taoist priest, kung-fu master and traditional Chinese doctor. A former magazine correspondent and popular newspaper columnist, as a freelancer his news shorts have appeared in Inside Kung-fu and Black Belt while his articles have been published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Alternative Medicine (now Natural Solutions magazine) and the defunct New Age Journal, among others. He also wrote a regular column for the now-ceased “The Okinawan” magazine exploring various aspects of Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures—from martial arts and traditional art forms to history, philosophy, etiquette and travel.