There is precious little written material available about the snake kung fu styles, although they are foundation sets in traditional Shaolin, family styles, and are incorporated in a host of peripheral schools such as Ba Gua Zhang and Tai Chi Chuan. It is possibly because of the near-universal inclusion of Snake Kung Fu techniques in Chinese and other styles that little specific attention has been paid to the style. In the Shaolin kung fu system, the Snake Kung Fu position between other styles (above Crane and Tiger and just below Mantis and Dragon) illustrates its intermediary nature. It is distinguished from the styles below it by the introduction of circular movement in its parries and attacks. This introduction of circles characterizes the transition to a higher style. The circles themselves can be compared to the dynamic of yang and yin in Taoism. Circular attacks (viewed as yin) are countered by direct attacks (yang). Similarly, straight techniques are countered by circular ones.
Snakes are conspicuous predators that have intrigued human beings for a long time. The snake’s biological diversity is also reflected in the style itself. Large snakes may constrict prey, preventing the rib cage from expanding to allow inhaling, causing death by asphyxiation (true, constrictors such as pythons may “crush” their prey, but only if the prey animal is strong enough to break its own bones while trying to inhale). Many small and colorful snakes have lethal venom, and to early human beings the mysterious death caused after a small bite was probably seen as nothing short of magic. Vipers inject venom into the bloodstream in order to kill prey. Cobras, on the other hand, use poison that affects the nervous system. Such creatures, then, combined elements worth including in a Snake Kung Fu style.
Snake kung fu styles probably developed among the first codified martial arts creations. The emphasis on hitting weak points along the chi meridians suggests that such meridians and primal acupuncture had already been worked out. (It has been suggested by some practitioners of acupuncture that the meridian routes were mapped based on preferred sites for mosquito bites; many bites induce discomfort in distant parts of the body. The modern snake kung fu style is actually an amalgamation of older styles which have now died out. The range of Snake Kung Fu techniques, however, reflects the influence of each of these three styles. Viper consisted of intimidating strikes that could inflict heavy psychological damage by drawing lots of blood without causing life-threatening damage. Its trademark was the tongue strike–two fingers aiming often at arteries and veins. Cobra, in contrast, did not emphasize highly recognizable or showy techniques but rather very serious strikes to nerves and pressure points. Its characteristic hand technique was an open hand with the thumb curled underneath in order to maintain dynamic tension. Python, in addition, relied on the leopard fist for its pinpoint strikes and included grappling. The two universal aspects of snake techniques are pin-point open-hand strikes and twisting arm postures to disguise one’s line of attack. Such movements are often seen in Wing Chun kung fu forms, as in the third, or Bil Jee, set, in which most of the hand techniques are snake-derived.
Most snake kung fu practitioners use an upright, mobile stance and rely less on horse-stance than most other styles. The mobile stance allows for rapid advances and sidestepping footwork. Additionally, Snake Kung Fu stylists don’t trade blows, or “tough-out” attacks. Using fast, alternating hand jabs, the practitioner drills at an opponent, sidesteps counterattacks, and drives home his attack. There are some stylistic variations, such as one Fujian-based Snake Kung Fu style that employs low sweeps (and is thus an exception to the general rule of sweeps being confined to Northern styles).
It is this adherence to unassuming stances and rapid attack that make snake such a deceptively simple-looking Snake Kung Fu style. Snake Kung Fu stylists are taught to spring from rest posture to full attack; there are no preparatory stances or “threatening” gestures. If attacked, the snake stylist bobs and weaves, looking much like anyone else, until an opening presents itself. The strikes then fly quickly, in succession, hitting the same opening over and over. Should the attacker block one of these snake-strikes, the snake changes targets and continues its barrage. Kicks are low, snappy, and aimed at the shins, knee, or top of foot.
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