Chinese symbols of longevity, the red-crowned cranes commonly found in China (as well as Japan and Siberia, Russia) are large migratory birds that can live up to 80 years who make their home in wetlands, where they hunt for insects, worms, fish, shrimp, frogs, crabs, snakes and even rodents.

So, how did these majestic creatures depicted everywhere from Taoist art to ancient Chinese cultural sites give rise to the kung-fu style bearing their name?

According to legend, Southern White Crane Kung-fu was created by a young woman in China’s Fukien Province named Fang Chi Niang, the daughter of Fang Zhong Gong, a lay Shaolin disciple skilled in Monk Fist Boxing.

Accounts vary, but the basic trajectory of the style’s accepted origin is this: One day, the story goes, Chi Nang was doing chores outside her home (some say she was outdoors plotting revenge against a group of thugs in a neighboring village who severely beat her father) when she heard a commotion and went to investigate. She found two cranes fighting nearby and picked up a bamboo stick to shoo the birds away. Chi Niang made several attempts to swat the cranes, but much to her surprise, they were effortlessly able to fend off her blows and mount counterattacks with their sharp beaks, wings outstretched.

Impressed by the cranes’ fearlessness and physical prowess, she decided to study their movements and eventually created a fighting style patterned after them by combining her newfound techniques with the kung-fu her father previously taught her. Believed to be ideal for women, White Crane is a Chinese martial art that emphasizes speed, evasive maneuvers and the targeting of an opponent’s vulnerable areas, instead of relying on physical strength.

Chi Niang went on to develop a reputation as a fighter by defeating many practitioners of various kung-fu styles, including much larger and stronger men. She is said to have had four primary students, who developed four main branches of Fukian White Crane (eating, crying, sleeping and flying), from which many systems evolved. Eventually, the system’s popularity spread throughout China and found its way to the island of Taiwan, which is well-known for its feeding and shaking or dancing crane styles. Fujian White Crane is believed to have influenced the Sanchin kata that forms the foundation of various styles of Okinawan karate, including Goju-ryu, Chitō-ryū and Uechi-ryu.

Instantly recognizable by its beak-shaped hand formations, White Crane style has a fighting spirit rooted in reality. Bold and not easily intimidated, cranes have been known to face off against ferocious predators, especially to protect their young (there are YouTube videos showing cranes standing their ground in run-ins with alligators, bears and even a pair of tigers).

To learn more about this kung-fu style, read The Essence of Shaolin White Crane: Martial Power and Qigong by Yang Jwing-Ming (below). And to see the on-screen version of the kung-fu style in action, check out White Crane Fist by the Wu Tang Collection.

—Shannon Roxborough

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.