Studying the monkey in Chinese martial arts

A visit to Monkey World gives me new insight into the name of one of the most famous Tai Chi sequences – Repulse Monkey.


Yesterday we had a family trip to a local ape rescue centre called Monkey World. All the larger apes were suitably majestic, and the little ones suitable cheeky. The ones that stole the show though, were the white cheeked Gibbons. In terms of dancing through the trees these guys have got it made – they look so totally effortless with their arm hanging and swinging. They have no tails, so they swing in the classic way that humans attempt when using the monkey bars, but it looks so utterly effortless for them, because their arms are extrodinarily long when compared to the length of their body and their shoulder and wrist joints are different to ours. They swing one hand at a time, like this:


Gibbon, swinging


That’s when it occurred to me that this must be where the famous Repulse Monkey sequence in Tai Chi forms gets its name.


Me, doing Repulse Monkey

The “repulse” bit I’ve always thought was kind of obvious, because you’re pushing (or striking) something away, but I could never understand what was monkey-ish about this sequence, since you are used large extended postures, rather than what I’d come to associate with monkey styles of kung fu, which are usually full of small crouching postures and darting and rolling about. However, if you look at Gibbons swinging from branch to branch, it makes sense.

Of course, Gibbons are native to south China and were even kept as pets:

“Interactions between humans and gibbons have a long history in China, as reflected in the Chinese literature and art. Especially in early China, gibbons made the objects of many literary and artistic compositions.

The popularity of captive gibbons being kept as pets appears to go as far back as written history, although a proverb by the philosopher Huai-nan-tzû (died 122 B.C.) stated: “If you put a gibbon inside a cage, you might as well keep a pig. It is not because the gibbon is then not clever or swift anymore, but because he has no opportunity for displaying his abilities” (van Gulik, 1967, p. 40).”

An example of Gibbons in historical Chinese painting:


Unknown artist from Southern Song Dynasty.


Moving away from Gibbons, one unique character I observed in all the apes was a kind of nonchalance. One Gibbon came to the edge of their enclosure, on the farthest out branch and hung there for a few minutes by one arm looking at the strange humans who had come to see her. They are really unhurried and unbothered by anything. The Chimpanzees on patrol walk the edge of their territory unconcerned with all the people watching. Apes don’t ever appear stressed or worried by thoughts – they just do. Perhaps they’re the ultimate masters of mindfulness.

XingYi, the great internal martial art from China, has Monkey (Hu) as one of its 12 animals. I often find myself doing this sequence in a hurried way, since the movements are inherantly quick and fast, but now I think I’m going to try and slow down a bit and add an element of nonchalance to the moves as well. I think to really get that monkey character right you need to appear unconcerned about the attacker – after all, a monkey can often retreat to the safety of the higher branches after engaging, a luxury other animals don’t have when hunting or defending themselves. I think this nonchalant feel is be a key element to being able to master the XingYi animal in the correct way.


2 thoughts on “Studying the monkey in Chinese martial arts

  1. I would like to put on record my gratitude to tai chi and qi gong, in the hope that it may help others.

    I had an extremely painful spot in the middle of my back and he doctor said trapped nerve and ibuprofen. I said I didn’t want to go down the drug route, so he said, unofficially of course, go visit this osteopath.

    I went, and he twisted and cracked my back good and proper, but the pain was still there.

    I then went to a masseur for 4 or 5 sessions. Helped a bit, but the pain was still there, relentlessly.

    Just about then, I spotted an ad for taichi classes nearby, and having long wanted to find out what it was all about, I went, and nearly gave the instructor the heebie jeebies, because I have no memory for movement sequences. We struggled on with grasp the sparrow’s tail, until he finally gave up and said ‘OK. Go home and practise what you can remember, and come back next week Tuesday night.’

    So I did practise regularly, and probably quite wrong, and the following Tuesday morning, I got out of bed, went to the toilet, and got back into bed and lay there thinking ‘Something’s missing’.

    It was the pain. It had gone completely and has never returned 11 years later.

    That’s my first debt.

    I went to a Bible School in Drakensburg, South Africa, and went to the toilet. I completely underestimated the power of the spring in the door closer, and left my hand behind, and the door slammed on my wrist.

    I could have screamed with the pain, but extricated the hand, went to the toilet in agonies, and came back out thinking ‘I can’t go to class with my wrist hurting like this.’

    So I pressed the acupressure points in my hand and my wrist, and nothing happened. Still agony. Then as I was doing this,something in my head said press the hollow in your elbow joint. So I did the right elbow joint. Nothing. I was just about to give up when I thought, you might as well do the left elbow as well, so, I did.

    Instantly, the pain vanished completely. So I stood there stupidly staring at my wrist. Unbelievingly. The pain had vanished, has never returned. There was no bruising, swelling or anything. So I got to my class very gratefully.

    That’s my second debt.

    The third came about because over a period of years, my left hip has been cramping up, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t walk more than 50 yards without having to stop because it stiffened up remorselessly.

    In addition, I have recently had to go on amlodipine (10 mg) and it thoroughly screwed up my muscles. It was agony to walk, to bend down to pick up the tennis ball. I felt as ancient as the Old Mariner and nothing was going to help.

    I bought Rick Kaselji’s hip flexor course, and to be fair, it did help somewhat, but the trouble was still there.

    I had bought Lam Kam Chuen’s Way of Energy, and Way of Power books – most expensively, I must say – had practised diligently for 3 months or so, and then stopped for whatever reasons.

    Then a few days ago, I picked up the Way of Energy again, and decided to practise again. I could do the Wu Chi stances easily, but I read and decided to try the one-legged stances as well.

    Two days afer I re-started I had to go to my chemist’s shop to pick up my medications. The shop was about 100 metres away from my usual parking spot. Up till then 50 metres was the maximum I could do without having to stop because of the cramp. This time, I got to the shop, and back to the car with absolutely no pain whatsoever.

    The pain has not returned, and I can pick up the tennis ball with no trouble. My opposition has commented on the ease of my movements.

    So that’s my third debt. I hope this hasn’t been too long, and that others may read this and try the exercises, and obtain pain relief.



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