It’s Kung Fu Week on The Quantum Biologist! Chinese martial arts have been imitating the hunting and defense styles of animals for thousands of years. What can we learn about the animals from the fighting styles? Shaolin Kung Fu has five major animal styles: Tiger, Panther, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. But there are many subcategories from other regions, including Horse, Mantis, Monkey, Frog, and even Duck. We’ll examine three this week.
Winter in New Mexico is a time for cranes. Sandhill cranes from Canada and Idaho fly south to the shores of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque and the Bosque del Apache refuge. I’ve been watching these elegant birds lately at the local wildlife preserve, strolling the mown meadows hunting for frogs, mice, snails and insects, purring their Spanish “rr”s with a sing-song trill. Occasionally, they leap above the tall grass. Occasionally, they fight. And when they fight, I cannot help but think of kung fu.
Shaolin White Crane Boxing is one of the few martial arts credited to a woman, a farmer named Fang Quiniang living in the Fujian province in the mid-1800s. Legend has it that Quiniang was tending her family’s rice field when a crane landed next to her. She tried hitting it with a stick, but with each thrust, the crane would jump and parry, blocking the stick with its feet and jabbing it with its beak. She studied the crane’s natural technique, imitating the movements of the wings and neck with her arms, and eventually founded one of the most graceful forms of Shaolin Kung Fu, a path which emphasizes physical balance, evasion over attack, and only the most efficient violence. But is Crane Style really much like the cranes’ style?
There are 15 species of cranes spread out all over the world, except for South America and, of course, Antarctica. These range from the spectacularly punk-rock Grey Crowned Crane of Sub-Saharan Africa
to the Siberian Crane,
the Australian Crane, or Brolga,
and the critically endangered Whooping Crane of North America, which at one point numbered only 21 individuals.
Why is the crane so tall? It may have evolved long legs in order to sleep in the safety of shallow water, and the neck followed. Or it may be that the neck evolved to be longer in order to make the distinctive honks and trills that make up its call — after all, its trachea is located deep in its sternum, making its songs very loud — and the legs followed. In other words, sexual selection may have played a part. (Of course, many herons also have long necks, and some of the worst singing voices in the avian world. Like a frog in a vacuum cleaner, really.) Or it may not be a case of the neck following the legs, or legs following the neck, but rather that the crane grew tall simply in order to survey more of the ground around it for prey, or see over the tall grasses around its marshland home.
In any case, they differ significantly from storks, herons, and egrets. For one thing, while they do sleep in shallow water, they prefer to hunt on dry land. They migrate long distances: Whooping Cranes have been known to fly 500 miles in a single day, and Eurasian Cranes will cross the Himalayas at an altitude of almost 33,000 feet. They are so large that they have few predators as adults, but in North America, bobcats and lynxes have been known to take down sleeping cranes. But you get a sense of how they might fight a predator during their beautiful and elaborate mating dances:
Unable to take off from a standing position, the crane will use its wings to float. From above, it can use both its beak and its feet to strike, while its wing act like a cape to intimidate. Floating above the ground and stabbing with its beak, it appears to move like a swordfighter on the moon.
How does Crane Style compare? In all its forms, such as Flying Crane and Feeding Crane, the style emphasizes exactly what a woman warrior like Fang Quiniang would need to defeat stronger, taller male opponents: sharp jabs to pressure points with the fingers, and the evasion of straightforward attacks. The Fujian style, unlike the fighting style of actual cranes, favors close hand-to-hand combat and decidedly less hopping, but the “spear hand” technique closely resembles the quick pecking of a beak at the eyes of a predator.
By evading what is strong and attacking what is weak, the crane and practitioners of the Crane Style dance as much as they fight. They move with their opponent when appropriate and strike when the opportunity presents itself, creating a physical conversation more interesting than the buffalo’s head-butting or the snarling whirlwind of dogs. With its long neck and legs and expansive wings, the crane uses empty air and negative space in its attack, creating a trap in which its enemy can fall. In Nature, when fights so often come to either a quick-draw or a wrestling match, the crane wins the battle by staying above it.