What are the 12 branches of Shaolin?

Updated: 12/21/2022
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The 12 branches of Kung Fu are the twelve styles, mostly based on movements of particular animals, that developed out of the original Shaolin Temple Boxing techniques developed by the Shaolin monks. As the centuries went by, the original styles of the Shaolin Temple evolved, as masters changed existing styles to create new ones (as in the case of Leopard and Monkey,) or simply created 'new' systems of fighting based on their observations of the natural movements of animals; either adapting existing techniques or devising their own.

As these newer styles increased in number, they were taught to larger amounts of people. Due to this, literally thousands of variations of kung fu can be found throughout China. As there were other systems of Martial Arts in China prior to the development of Shaolin Kung Fu, not all can be said to have derived in some way from Shaolin styles. However, many of the family styles which were passed down through the generations have their origins or at the very least contain elements from one or more of the Shaolin styles.

The 12 branches of Kung Fu are those styles which are believed to have come directly from the monks and masters of the Shaolin Temple. However, because it was not complelety unheard of for practitioners to eventually leave the temple, or to be exiled from it, some of the variations of these styles may have been developed outside of the temple itself, before either being reabsorbed at a later date or being disseminated outside of the temple. White Tiger and White Eyebrow are two examples of this.

That said, the 12 branches are thought to be: Tiger - "Tiger" style is more accurately an entire family of related styles, which even include other styles which are still technically their own branches, such as Leopard, Eagle, and Monkey. In general, Tiger emphasizes meeting force with force, relying on strength of body, bones, and muscle.

White tiger is perhaps the most advanced of the tiger styles, generally studied only by those who have mastered the styles of tiger below it. White Eyebrow is a considered to be a highly efficient variant of tiger which incorporates the ch'i development of Dragon as well as its' economy of movement. Both the founder of White Tiger and the founder of White Eyebrow were sent into exile from the temple. Although they are both Shaolin in origin, they are no longer taught at the temple, whereas many other Tiger variants are. Black Tiger - A form of tiger which incorporates elements of other Shaolin styles such as crane, eagle, and dragon. It was associated with the Emperor and was designed to be taught to his guards as well as government agents. It has more focus on footwork than other forms of tiger. It is useful, amongst other things, for weapon disarms. Crane - Tibetan in origin and one of the oldest of what became the Shaolin styles. It's focus in on balance and evasion. The crane is a passive animal, and uses an opponent's force against them. Crane will deflect an attack rather than block it in a traditional sense, often allowing an opponent's incoming movement to deliver much of the force in the crane's counterattack. Leopard - Related to tiger, it has significantly faster movements than almost all tiger styles. Whereas tigers attack directly, head-on, leopards utilize angular movements that force their opponent to reset before being able to counterattack. Leopard has much more of a focus on footwork than does Tiger. Dragon - Along with Crane and Snake, what eventually became known as Dragon is one of the oldest Shaolin styles. Dragon focuses heavily on fluid movements, which it uses to disguise its' attacks. Dragon shares many elements of the other styles; like Crane it focuses on evasion, like Leopard it attacks from angles, like Tiger it attacks with heavy and forceful strikes, like Snake it attacks quickly and at vital points from a variety of stances. However, Dragon is a style all its' own, as it does none of these things in exactly the same way as the other styles. As dragons are considered wisest of creatures, a dragon always knows where its' opponent is, and does not have to see its' opponent to hit its' target. Snake - Along with Crane, one of the oldest styles of Chinese martial arts. Snake focuses on delivering quick, debilitating strikes to vital points, as well as on fast, constrictive movements. Monkey - Monkey is an enigmatic style. Monkey practitioners are notoriously difficult to hit, as monkey emphasizes extremely fast movement and attack speeds. Monkey movement is fluid and acrobatic, and employs 'unusual' leaps and rolls in its' style. Eagle - Eagle is known for its' fast, aggressive seizing techniques. Eagle claw and eagle talon hand strikes are used with great effectiveness to seize, poke, and claw at soft tissue targets such as the throat and eyes. Eagle is also known for its' highly efficient blocks. Northern Mantis - A popular art based on the movements of the insect, many elements of which have spread to other styles. Some of its' techniques are still taught at the modern temple. There is also a Southern Mantis style, but it is thought to be a style which did not develop in the temple, and thus is considered by some to not be a Shaolin style. It is certainly more secretive than its' Northern counterpart, and was even more so in the past. Thus it is difficult to definitively state Southern Mantis' origins.

Wing Chun - Wing Chun has an emphasis on practical movements with very little added showiness. Simplicity is a key aspect of Wing Chun. Movements are quick, and at higher levels of skill practitioners can check, Dodge, and counterattack in what is basically one motion. It is a relatively famous Shaolin style made very popular by Bruce and James Lee during the 1960s. For many years, this was the style that Americans asscociated with Kung Fu as a whole, due to its' prominence in the popular martial arts films of the day. Chin Na - Chin Na is a Shaolin system of seizing and locking. This highly effective martial art focuses on the manipulation of an opponent's joints and tendons in such a way that they cannot move, which in turn neutralizes their ability to fight. Some of the techniques in Chin Na are duplicated or altered slightly in several of the other Shaolin styles, especially those in which there is an emphasis on seizing ones' opponent or in joint control, such as Eagle, Snake, and Mantis. Qi Gong - The Shaolin system of Qi or Ch'i development. In its' most basic, literal translation, Ch'i means 'breath'. This system is an explicitly internal art which focuses on the development of Ch'i through breathing excercises and meditation. Ch'i is an essentially universal concept in both martial arts as well as in Eastern medicine as a whole. Ch'i is known as Ki in Japan and Prana in India. Manipulation of Ch'i is the foundation of acupuncture, acupressure, as well as all pressure point manipulation-intensive styles of martial arts, including Dim Mak, and Dragon and Snake Kung Fu. As alluded to by these descriptions and even more apparant in observational comparisons of several of these styles, many of them share a number of common elements and techniques, due to their being developed in the same place. However, each of them is unique for a variety of reasons, which is why they are all credited as being different branches.

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Q: What are the 12 branches of Shaolin?
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