Primate Power! The Curious Kung Fu of the Monkey

Animal mimicry has traditionally played a significant role in many kung fu styles. The tiger, crane, mantis and eagle have given the inspiration to fighting theory for centuries. And few styles are as unusual as Tai Sing Mun — Monkey style kung fu. Read on for more insight into the ferocious and unorthodox fighting methods of the monkey!

The Making of the Monkey

The history of today’s monkey style kung fu has its roots in the Northern provinces of China during the 16th century. Popular legend says that the founder of monkey style was a man named Kou Sze, a good fighter with a hot temper. Kou Sze was the head of an armed escort service. During the execution of his services, he helped three young men escape army conscription, injuring several guards in the process. He was immediately arrested and imprisoned for eight years. Supposedly, the prison that held Kou Sze had two sets of gates. The first was guarded by a group of domesticated monkeys. The second gate by human prison guards working for the state. To successfully escape from the prison, one would have to make it past the monkeys first — then the official prison guards. But the guards led an uneventful professional life, as the vicious monkeys would often maim the potential runaways quite badly. Kou Sze would observe the actions of these unusual guards with great interest, observing both their combative interactions with each other — as well as the monkey’s vicious attacks on would-be prison escapees. When Kou Sze had paid his debt to society, he began developing a kung fu style patterned after the ways of the monkey. And so began the study of Tai Sing kung fu.

There are a few different variations of the monkey style being taught today, some very open — others quite closed to outsiders. The original monkey style is Tai Sing Mun. Also accessible in the United States is the monkey style of Tai Sing Pek War and several other subsystems. Tai Sing Pek War is comprised of the Chinese arts of Tai Sing Mun (the art of the great sage) and Pek War (the axe fist). Both are fully developed kung fu styles in their own right. As with many systems, the lineages of many subsets can be hazy.

Fighting Theory of the Monkey

Complex and unpredictable footwork, confusing tumbling and evading maneuvers, and precision pressure-point attacks make this fighting style a dangerous and pragmatic one. This style isn’t for everyone. Its acrobatic and deceptive movements require wit, strength, endurance and an almost obscene level of flexibility. The monkey’s advantage lies in its ability to outmaneuver and deceive his opponents — luring them into a series of rapid, incrementally damaging attacks. The fighter’s complex patterns of advancing, retreating, rising, falling and playful fainting are meant to deliver their opponent to a brief state of confusion upon which the monkey can capitalize.

The monkey fighter assumes not only the monkey’s fighting methods, but also his personality. Kou Sze’s most profound realization regarding the combat methods of the monkey was that monkeys are very individualized in their fighting style. Unlike other animals that attack their adversaries in a relatively homogeneous manner, each monkey’s attack seems different. This makes anticipation and counterattack especially challenging. To a certain extent, this is true of all martial artists as well. When a fighter goes through a system’s curriculum, he generally takes away those techniques that are best suited to his personality and physicality (assuming it is a well-rounded fighting style). That is especially true of the monkey fighter.

When the monkey stylist engages in combat, his methods are active and thoughtful. In combat, the monkey style evades incoming attacks whenever possible and never meets force on force. The opponent’s centerline receives a lot of attention, being drilled and tested for an opportunity to strike. When an opponent raises an arm or hand in defense, the monkey fighter utilizes his core competency — limb destructions. Whatever unfortunate limb attempts to prevent the monkey’s attack (such as the defender using his arm to block the strike) is broken or damaged. Once the defender’s limbs are damaged, the monkey drives home crippling attacks to his opponent’s pressure points (such as the temple or groin area). Next, the monkey executes a takedown technique to immobilize the now damaged defender. And then comes the finishing blow — ending the confrontation.

The Monkey’s Five Methods

Kou Sze divided the monkey system into five separate categories: drunken, stone, lost, wooden, and standing monkeys. Each monkey style imparts different fighting skills. The drunken monkey tricks his opponent into a false sense of security. To those fighting the drunken monkey, what seems like random falling and staggering motions are actually very specific footwork and fighting patterns. Extremely difficult to master, the drunken monkey is most dangerous. The stone monkey is best suited to physically strong fighters. Its movements capitalize on the fighter’s physicality and ability to take a direct hit well. The lost monkey uses tricky footwork and frequent, light movements to confuse and attack. The wooden monkey constantly attacks, pummeling his opponent with strike after strike. Stern and murderous, the wooden monkey is on a mission to destroy. Well-suited for tall practitioners, the standing monkey is less athletic and evasive. The standing monkey can execute his techniques without the low stances and ground techniques of the other monkey forms.

Tricky Training of the Monkey

As with many kung fu styles, monkey kung fu requires a supple, flexible and very strong body. The perfect monkey stylist is strong, but not bulky. Many students of traditional Tai Sing begin their training with the practice of falling, rolling and tumbling techniques. As the student’s training progresses, a great emphasis is placed on the acquisition and perfection of the monkey’s complex footwork patterns. Striking techniques, fighting drilling and advanced combat applications eventually work their way into the practitioner’s training schedule. Most importantly, the practitioner must learn to weave the various elements of the system he has learned into a working mental framework — allowing the rapid flow of effective and creative techniques for attack and defense.

Weapons of the Monkey

Practitioners of the monkey style do not differentiate themselves with a unique assortment of deadly weapons. But they do make effective use of the one weapon you would expect a monkey stylist to use (no, not a banana) a stick! The long staff is the only weapon utilized by the monkey stylist. But don’t think less of him because his arsenal of weaponry is small — the monkey’s stick fighting is as athletic and ferocious as are his empty-hand combat efforts. The monkey’s staff techniques include jumping, tumbling and rolling techniques — but don’t discount them on the basis of their flair. The monkey staff is handled with pragmatism and effectiveness.

Consider Yourself Grounded!

The fighting curriculum of monkey style kung fu includes a healthy amount of ground fighting. Now trendy and popular among contemporary martial artists, the monkey stylist has been refining the techniques and tactics of ground fighting for centuries.

It’s a Jungle Out There

Monkey style kung fu is a unique martial art. Tai Sing and its subsystems not only make victory in hand-to-hand combat possible; they also make it fun to watch for bystanders! Its unconventional methods are as confusing as they are dangerous. This isn’t a martial art for the weekend hobbyist. Qualified instructors are almost impossible to find. It is an engaging discipline for those interested in traditional and challenging martial arts. I can honestly say that traditional Tai Sing stylists don’t… monkey around.