Chinese Kenpo was developed through the five animal kung fu system in China. Kenpo means "Law of the Fist". This style of training is based on the southern fighting systems of China known as "Chuan Fa" or "Chinese Boxing".
The chinese martial arts are unique in the emphasis placed on the study of animal habits and fighting tactics. Throughout the centuries, the nature of birds, snakes, land animals and insects have been faithfully imitated to recreate the particular individual essence that makes each an efficient fighter. These creatures were studied not only for their fighting abilities, but also for any health benefits they could contribute to their human counterparts.
There was no single source of study of animal forms in China. As martial artists saw an opportunity to improve or change their kung fu systems, they quickly injected the techniques and spirit of the animal that inspired the change. Some styles were given the name of the animal after which they were patterned: Praying Mantis and White Crane, for instance. One animal study that had enormous impact on the chinese martial arts was the Shaolin five animals, an integral part of the Shaolin martial arts system, and a strong influence in the development of other kung fu styles.
Zen (Chan) Buddhism became established in China during the Nan Bei Chao (North-South dynasty) about 550 A.D. The Indian monk, Bodhidarma (known as Da Mo in Chinese), who was to become the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China, traveled until he reached Songshan mountain in Henan province, the site of the Shaolin temple. Da Mo spent the next nine years in meditation. Then at the advanced age of 76, he began teaching health arts to the monks of the Shaolin Temple. Da Mo was not the founder of either the Shaolin Temple or its martial arts system; he simply lived in the temple and taught the monks. During his years of residence at the Shaolin Temple, Da Mo noticed that the monks who practiced for many hours of meditation each day were in poor physical condition. They could not perform the physical labors necessary to maintain the monastery, and if attacked by bandits, could not even defend the Shaolin Temple. Therefore, he taught exercises designed to promote both health and strength, and gave the monks some basic self-defense techniques.
Other great men such as Hu'a To (190-265 A.D.), a brilliant doctor, and Yuen Fei, a popular general (who lived during the Sung dynasty 960-1279 A.D.) are considered to be the forefathers of modern-day Kenpo. Before Bodhidarma came to China, martial arts were militaristic in nature. Only noble and professional soldiers were allowed to openly study the fighting arts. Spears and swords were the most common weapons, and training in their use was reserved for the military. If the public was taught, it was on a limited scale.
The Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) was a warring period in China's history. Martial arts and the development of more personalized specialty weapons flourished during this era. Shaolin Temple monks, at the request of the Tang government, used their martial training to help fight threats to the Tang rulers. From that time, the rest of China knew that some Shaolin monks had been martial artists before joining the Shaolin Temple and their new duties were to protect its occupants and land. Martial art training within the Shaolin Temple had served to expand and polish their fighting backgrounds.
At the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A. D.), a practitioner-turned Shaolin monk named Zhue Yuen changed the course of Shaolin martial arts. Zhue Yuen had been an expert in empty hand fighting and sword techniques before he became a Buddhist monk. When he joined the Shaolin Temple, he realized Shaolin kung fu was too external and employed too much force against force. Zhue Yuen redesigned the Shaolin system to fit a more balanced structure of external and internal strengths. he traveled throughout China incorporating unusual, but still practiced, martial arts into his new Shaolin system.
Zhue Yuen and two other famous martial artists named Li Sou and Bai Yu Feng eventually returned to the Shaolin Temple and founded the five animal form. This completed the new Shaolin system. Each of the animals: tiger, crane, leopard, dragon and snake, have different outstanding and distinctive features.
According to Bai Yu Feng, all people must develop five aspects of their being to condition the entire body. They are: physical strength, bone development, libido, chi development, and internal spirit. The first two are external training and the last three are internal training. Bai Yu Feng also believed when all five are combined, the result is a far superior martial artist. The Shaolin five animal form was devised to assist in the development of all five categories.
Each of the five classical animals correspond to a particular aspect of training, and each embodies a strategy.