Houquan Monkey Fist

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Monkey Kung Fu (猴拳) is a Chinese martial art where the movements imitate monkeys or apes in fighting. One of the more acrobatic kung fu styles, movements often include falling, lunging, grabbing, light art jumping, and tumbling.

The staff features prominently in its weapons training, with practitioners using it for attack, defense, and even climbing it like a pole to gain height in combat. The flamboyant movements and sometimes comic actions of the monkey style has made it a popular subject in Hong Kong martial arts movies.

Wang Lang, who had already forged the Praying Mantis system, found yet another breakthrough while walking in the forests in the mountains. He saw monkeys picking fruits from a tree. As quietly as possible, he approached the tree, yet before he could reach it the monkeys saw him, and instantaneously jumped away.

Without thinking, Wang Lang raced after them using his well-trained “nimbleness technique”. Amongst the trees, the monkeys rolled, trotted and jumped, and he was soon left far behind. Panting, Wang Lang wiped off his sweat and laughed. Thinking back to what he had just seen, he imitated and analyzed the monkey’s leg movements. They were exactly what he had been searching for!

Houquan Monkey

The way the monkeys advanced, retreated, dashed, jumped and turned, proved to be more alive than all the big steps and broad stances used in all the other martial arts of that time. From these observations, he designed the “Monkey steps” which are characterized by narrow paces and quick legs.

This would enable better speed and spirit in moving. The “Eight Basic Stances” were combined with the well known “Thirteen Arm and Hand Techniques”. Thus the skill of the Praying Mantis and the liveliness of the monkeys was joined. For the practical use of Praying Mantis forms and techniques, Wang Lang included a number of axioms to highlight key points of his new style:

  • Hands are doors; legs reach out.
  • Hands be brisk as shooting stars, eyes keen as lightning.
  • Body goes like dragon and legs like arrows.

These axioms mean that in this Martial Art, most of the upper body techniques are mainly to block, protect, or undo the attacks of the opponent. The major task of counter-attack lies in the legs. That is, the hands and upper body are used to safeguard oneself and occupy your opponents attention, while exerting attacks chiefly with the legs. To do this, you must skillfully match hand and leg movements, making most use of the right timing, distance and position.

Wang Lang also set down some somewhat chivalrous rules in fighting for his students to follow long before the Marquis of Queensbury. These rules described parts of the body that you could or should not hit, for morality’s sake. He wanted his followers to value high morals as well as excellent fighting techniques, so as to develop a supreme Martial Art.

Origins:

Hou Quan: Hou Quan (猴拳), literally ‘Monkey’s Fist’ or ‘Monkey Boxing’, is recorded in part as early as the Han Dynasty(206 BC–AD 220) where it was performed as a part of the Mi Hou Wu dance in the Emperor’s court. Contrary to popular beliefs, there are actually a number of independently developed systems of monkey kung fu. Examples includes Xingzhemen (行者門) named after the protagonist Sun Wukong of the popular Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, Nanhouquan (南猴拳) or Southern Monkey Fist originating from the Southern Shaolin Temple as well as the more well known Tai Sheng Pek Kwar Moon (大聖劈掛門) style of Hong Kong.

The houquan style from the Emei region, taught by the famous “Monkey King” Xiao Yingpeng and others, was also used as the basis for the modern wushu variant of monkey style (and monkey staff) that is often seen in demonstrations and competitions today. Each independent style has its own unique approach to the expression of how to incorporate a monkey’s movements into fighting.

Hou Quan may have contributed to other styles as well. For example, Wang Lang, the 17th century founder of Northern Praying Mantis Boxing (tanglang quan), was said to have borrowed the footwork of the Monkey style to complement the extremely fast handwork of Praying Mantis Kung Fu.

Tai Sheng Men: Tai Sheng Men, or “Great Saint” Kung Fu, was developed near the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911)by a fighter named Kau Sze from a small village in Northern China. Legend states that while serving a sentence in prison, he observed a group of monkeys from his cell. As he studied their movements and mannerisms, he found that they combined well with his own Tei Tong style. While exact circumstances of Kau Sze’s inspiration remain legend, upon his release he developed his new style of fighting and dubbed it ‘Tai Sheng Men’ (Great Saint Style) in honor of the Monkey King Sun Wukong in the Buddhist tale Journey to the West.

Pek Kwar: Pek Kwar Kung Fu dates back to the Ming Dynasty some time around 1500.It was widely taught in the army because it is practical, direct and powerful. Pek Kwar concentrates on upper body, forearm, fist, low stance training and total body co-ordination. “Pek” means “chopping or downward arm or fist attack” and “Kwar” means “swinging or upward arm or fist attack,” in Chinese. Loosely translated it means “axe fist”. (Pek Kwar Kuen is the Cantonese pronunciation for Piguaquan.)

Tai Shing Pek Kwar: Tai Shing Pek Kwar Kung Fu (大聖劈掛門) was developed by Kau Sze’s student Kan Tak Hoi, who started learning Pek Kwar kung fu from his father Kan Wing Kwai from as early as 8 years of age. Kan Wing Kwai was a master of Pek Kwar kung fu and after his death, Kau Sze decided to train Kan Tak Hoi in Tai Shing Kung Fu. After mastering Tai Shing Kung Fu and combining it with Pek Kwar Kung Fu, out of respect for Kau Sze’s friendship, in naming the new technique Kan Tak Hoi placed Tai Shing at the beginning followed by Pek Kwar hence the name Tai Shing Pek Kwar Kung Fu.

Techniques:

Hou Quan: Traditional hou quan as taught in Mainland China includes running on all fours (i.e. the hands and feet), various difficult acrobatic movements such as flipping sideways in the air, front flips, back flips, hand stands, walking on the hands, forward lunges/dives, backward lunges, spinning on the butt, spinning on the back and many kicks and strikes. Most of the attacks are aimed at the knees, groin area or eyes of the opponent and strikes are normally either open handed slaps or clawing with a semi-closed fist called the monkey claw.

Besides, a wide array of facial monkey expressions are also practiced, inclusive of happiness, anger, fear, fright, confusion and bewilderment etc. Except for very brief periods, most movements inclusive of running are executed from either a squatting or semi-squatting position and are normally accompanied by very swift and ‘jerky’ head movements as the practitioner nervously looks around.

The monkey staff, or hou gun (猴棍), is one of this style’s specialty weapons. Monkey boxing is an imitative technique and so execution of the movements and facial expressions must be so convincing that it looks exactly like a monkey and not like a human imitating a monkey hence the very high degree of difficulty associated with this technique.

Tai Sheng Pek Kwar: There are six variations of monkey kung fu developed as part of the Tai Sheng Men system, and still utilized in the later Tai Sheng Pek Kwar system (although the Crafty monkey variation described below may have been absorbed into the Lost monkey curriculum in Tai Shing Pek Kwar and Bak Si Lum among others, hence there are only five variations listed, in these systems):

  1. Drunken Monkey uses a lot of throat, eye and groin strikes as well as tumbling and falling techniques. It incorporates a lot of false steps to give the appearance it is defenseless and uses a lot of off balance strikes. The practitioner waddles, takes very faltering steps and sometimes fall to the ground and lies prone while waiting the opponent to approach at which time a devastating attack is launched at the knees or groin areas of the opponent. In drunken monkey you use more internal energy than any other. It is one of the most difficult of the monkey styles to master and also the most powerful.
  2. Stone Monkey is a “physical” style. The practitioner trains up his body to exchange blows with the opponent – Stone Monkey uses a kind of Iron body method. It will leave an area exposed on its body for an opponent to attack, so it can attack a more vital spot on the body.
  3. Lost Monkey feigns a lot. He gives the appearance of being lost and confused to deceive the opponent into underestimating his abilities, and he retaliates when least expected. The hands and footwork change and flow from each other at will. All monkeys are sociable animals and so they live in troops or family groups. They are also very territorial by nature and so when they wander into the territory of another troop there is normally a fight possibly resulting in death to the trespassers. This technique incorporates the fear, nervousness and mischief of a monkey who has wandered into a neighboring territory, in that it attempts to pick and eat as many fruits and insects as quickly as is possible while nervously looking around before scurrying back to its own home range.
  4. Standing Monkey or Tall Monkey is a relatively conventional monkey that likes to keep an upright position and avoid tumbling around. This style is more suited for tall people. Tall monkey likes to climb body limbs to make attacks at pressure points. It is a long range style.
  5. Crafty monkey is very deceptive, it uses different faked emotions to lure opponents into attacking. By pretending to be scared for example it lulls the opponent into a false sense of security and waits for the opponents guard to be down, then suddenly attacks when not expected. This variation is not listed in the Tai Shing Pek Kwar system, instead it appears to have been absorbed into the Lost Monkey curriculum.
  6. Wooden Monkey mimics a serious, angry monkey that attacks and defends with ferocity. The attitude of this monkey is more serious, and its movements are noticeably less light than the other monkeys. Wood monkey likes to grapple and bring its opponent to the ground.

At Tournaments: Monkey boxers usually wear very bright yellow colored uniforms most often with red trimmings or appliqués. The favorite weapon for Monkey Boxing is the staff or stick and standing beside it, the upper end of the staff is normally ‘eye-height’ for the practitioner.

A young monkey boxer performing a "Lost Monkey" Staff Form

A young monkey boxer performing a "Lost Monkey" Staff Form

There are also other weapons favored by Monkey Boxers e.g. the broadsword, straight-sword and the spear as well as the iron ring. Monkey forms are not normally performed fast paced from start to finish as in other techniques, instead the practitioner will execute a very swift series of movements then stop to ‘play’ (which means to fidget or scratch and it usually involves nervously looking around, picking imaginary fruits or insects from off the legs, arms, ears or head and even the groin area then very quickly eating them or scooping water from an imaginary pond or stream then drinking it).

In the lost monkey technique, there is a lot of running, nervously looking around, rolling, kicking and punching to the groin area of the opponent. Please note that the running is done in a semi-squatting position and also that a clenched fist is not used in monkey boxing, instead the fingers are loosely held like a semi-closed fist sometimes referred to as the monkey claw. With the exception of the Tall Monkey technique, all monkey forms tend to be executed from the squatting and stooping positions. When well executed, monkey forms are very comical and generally very entertaining and so tend to attract the most attention at martial arts tournaments.

Movies: The following films showcase Monkey Kung Fu either throughout the film or in major scenes:

  • Hou quan kou si, English title Monkey’s Fist, (1974) features real-life Monkey Kung Fu specialist Chan Sau Chung.
  • Tie ma liu, English title Iron Monkey, (1977) starring Chen Kuan Tai.
  • In the movie Knockabout, (1979) the lead protagonist Yipao used monkey-fist technique (which he learned from a cop pretending to be a beggar) against The Fox, which happens to be his former master and the one who killed his friend Taipao.
  • Feng hou, English title Mad Monkey Kung-Fu, (1979), although the technique displayed in this movie is really the ‘monkey’ variation of the Lau Family Hung Gar system and not genuine Tai Shing Pak Kwar Kung Fu.
  • Chu long ma liu, English title Monkey’s Fist Floating Snake, (1979)
  • Zui hou nu, English title Lady Iron Monkey, (1979) starring Fung Ling Kam.
  • Liu he qian shou, English title Return of the Scorpion, (1979) features 7 Kung Fu masters, one (i.e. Chan Sau Chung) is a practitioner of Monkey Kung Fu. In the first fight scene, Chan Sau Chung does a few movements of the Drunken Monkey technique in that he take a few faltering steps (i.e. Monkey Staggering Steps) then he lies prone and waits for his opponent to approach at which time he does a massive wheel kick and immediately launches an attack at his opponents groin (i.e. angry monkey steals the peaches).
  • In the film Bloodsport, and it’s sequel Bloodsport II: The Next Kumite, there are fighters who use different variants of Monkey style.
  • Jackie Chan‘s Drunken Master II (1994) (AKA Legend of Drunken Master (2000) (U.S.)) features drunken monkey-type styles in one fight scene. Wong Fei Hung takes a form he calls “monkey drinks master’s wine” which bears resemblances and has a similar name to the Drunken Monkey forms “The Monkey King Stealing Wine”, “The Monkey King Drinking Wine” and “The Monkey King Becoming Drunk.”
  • Chui ma lau, English title Drunken Monkey, uses the Monkey fist variant Drunken Monkey, (2002) although the technique displayed in this movie is really the ‘monkey’ variation of the Lau Family Hung Gar system and not genuine Tai Shing Pak Kwar Kung Fu.

Pop Culture references:

  • In Escape from Monkey Island, the art of Monkey Combat is practiced by some of the monkeys on Monkey Island. One of the stances is called Drunken Monkey.
  • In Sega’s video game, Virtua Fighter 5, the character Eileen uses houquan as her fighting style. It is clear, however, that her style is fast-paced and comical. She even scratches her ear like a monkey and jumps like one as well.
  • In Scary Movie 2, the character of Cindy Campbell says she is using the drunken monkey technique to defeat a possessed caretaker.
  • In a Kung Fu competition on MTV2’s the Final Fu, Jonathan Phan, a prominent member of the EMC Monkeys, is seen using a different form of Monkey Kung Fu while sparring against another competitor.
  • In the video game series Mortal Kombat, the character Noob Saibot uses Monkey Kung Fu as his primary fighting style.
  • In an episode of the animated series king of the Hill the character Dale Gribble once threatens to use what he describes as “the deadliest fighting technique in the world, monkey style.” He then procedes to give a brief demonstration accompanied by monkey sounds.
  • Monkey Fist, villian on the Disney Cartoon Kim Possible, is the master of Monkey Kung Fu, but Ron Stoppable, only knows a few moves because of the mystical monkey power