Last updated: 12-11-2021
Look up the terms “monkey” or “ape” in the dictionary and you’ll find that they serve as verbs meaning to mimic the movements or actions of another. This is because monkeys and apes have a propensity for observation and mimicry. Being primates ourselves, humans are no different. But interestingly this mimicry sometimes mirrors our primate cousins. Chinese martial arts, for example, has developed several primate-based fighting arts, including White Ape Connected Arms boxing (Baiyuan tongbei quan, 白猿通背拳) and several flavors of Monkey boxing (Houquan, 猴拳), and other styles have even adopted primate techniques, such as the monkey footwork of Praying Mantis boxing (Tanglang quan, 螳螂拳). Humans have long marveled at the physical prowess and acrobatic mastery of apes and monkeys. So it’s only natural that boxers would want to incorporate the powerful arm movements and awe-inspiring leaps and flips of primates into various fighting arts. But how long have our cousins been associated with martial arts in Chinese culture, and when and how did primate-based martial arts develop?
Two approaches can be used in an attempt to answer both questions. The first method involves charting similarities in techniques shared between modern regional primate-based Chinese martial arts styles and relying on folk lineages, ethnographic data, and (when possible) historical manuals to discover the earliest vestiges of primate boxing in China. A second method is to search for references to primate-based martial arts in the historical record. A benefit of the first approach would be pinpointing the areas in China where these styles likely first emerged in recent history. The downside is that martial arts are passed from teacher to student via embodied practices (e.g. fist and weapons forms and sparring), often without the material being recorded in a manual. This means such styles can’t be reliably traced beyond a certain time period. A benefit of the second approach is that it provides a deeper view of history, giving the researcher license to record not only the odd mention of historical boxing styles but also associations between primates and weapons and other forms of physical exercise in ancient folklore, literature, medicine, and religion. Obviously, the best approach would be a combination of the two. However, I lack the necessary encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese martial arts techniques. Such a grand project will have to wait for a more qualified researcher. I have instead decided to adopt the second approach.
This article is divided into five sections. The first presents a folk history for Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern form of Monkey boxing, to serve as an example of how such styles can be created. The second provides three references to premodern Monkey boxing appearing in military and travel writings of the 16th-century during late Ming (1368-1644), pointing to the commonplace nature of the style. Here I suggest the lack of evidence for pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing points to the style emerging during this time. This section also gives examples of armed techniques associated with apes in military literature of the 16th and 17th-century. The third discusses the story of the noted literary monkey hero Sun Wukong (孫悟空), his portrayal as a master of armed and unarmed fighting, and how he bridges the gap between the aforementioned lack of pre-Ming boxing references and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. The fourth presents ancient stories pitting a magic white ape against the martial skills of legendary Chinese heroes, including the archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) and the swordswoman the Maiden of Yue (Yuenu, 越女, 5th-c. BCE). And the fifth discusses ancient animal mimicry and suggests primate-based boxing is tied to war-like shamanic totemic dances and yoga-like daoyin calisthenics (8th-c. to 2nd-c. BCE). 
I. Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey boxing
There are three main styles of monkey boxing:
- Shaolin Monkey – This combative style is said to have developed among various animal styles at the famed Shaolin Monastery (Shaolin si, 少林寺) in Henan province, China. Matsuda (2013) claims this particular style to be thousands of years old (p. 50); however, this has no basis in history, as will be explained below.
- Wushu Monkey – This modern, non-combative style focuses on gymnastic leaps and flips for entertainment purposes. It is used in both Chinese opera and the floor routines of form competitions (video 1) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 54-56).
- Tai Shing Pek Kwar Monkey – This is the Cantonese variant of the Mandarin Dasheng Pigua men (大聖劈掛門), or the “Great Sage Ax School” of boxing. This combative style is said to be quite young, being a little over 100 years old (Matsuda, 2013, p. 56).
To this I add one more:
- Emei Monkey – This combative style is associated with the martial arts of Emei Mountain (Emei quan, 峨嵋拳) in Sichuan, China.
Video 1 – The first half of this video shows a youth performing Wushu Monkey for a form competition.
Tai Shing Pek Kwar is a combination of two different styles. The first, which I will only describe briefly, is Pek Kwar kyun (Pigua quan, 劈掛拳), a style that mimics the swinging of an ax, relying on the lively arm movements to generate power much like the Choy Li Fut style of southern China. It is said to have been created over two hundred years ago in Shandong (northern China) by a woodcutter named Ma Chi Ho (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 64-68). The weapons practiced by this style include the double-edged sword (jian, 劍), the single-edged saber (dao, 刀), and the staff (gun, 棍) (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 70-75).
The Tai Shing kyun (Dasheng quan, 大聖拳) style is said to have been founded in northern China around the year 1911 (the end of the Qing dynasty) by a prisoner named Kou Si (寇四).  After being sent to jail for murder, Kou discovered his cell faced a forest where he could observe the day-to-day lives of a troupe of monkeys. He noted five distinct behaviors among them that, when combined with his knowledge of Great Earth boxing (Di tang quan, 地趟拳), a type of ground combat, could be adapted for fighting.
- Lost Monkey (Mi Hou, 迷猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a frightened monkey, comprising periods of attack and retreat, with lots of rolling, low kicks, and quick, frantic running low to the ground (video 2).
- Stone Monkey (Shi Hou, 石猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an enraged alpha male, comprising slower but drastically more powerful fist, elbow, and knee strikes, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
- Tall Monkey (Qi Hou, 企猴) – This form mimics the behavior of a tall monkey, comprising longer, quicker swinging arm strikes and higher-level kicks.
- Drunken Monkey (Zui Hou, 醉猴) – This form mimics the behavior of intoxicated monkeys, comprising falls, swaying motions with broken footwork, and circular punches, all of which are delivered from a low stance.
- Wooden Monkey (Mu Hou, 木猴) – This form mimics the behavior of an intelligent, deceptive monkey, comprising quick, low attacks and rolls similar to the Lost Monkey, but feigning retreat only to turn and unleash strikes upon the pursuing opponent.
After perfecting the style, Kou Si is said to have named it “Great Sage boxing” in honor of the monkey hero Sun Wukong (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-116). This is a reference to the title taken by the character during his rebellion against heaven (see section III below). The weapons practiced by this style include the staff and the metal ring (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 118-131).
Video 2 – The Lost Monkey form.
II. Primates and martial arts during the Ming
Textural evidence for Monkey boxing actually predates Kou Si’s lineage, appearing in late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) records. The first reference appears in the eighteen volume edition of famed general Qi Jiguang‘s (戚繼光, 1528-1588) (fig. 1) New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shiba juan ben, 紀效新書十八卷本), a military training manual completed in 1561 or 1562. The fourteenth chapter, titled “Chapter on the Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness” (Quanjing Jieyao Pian, 拳經捷要篇), reads:
Among the past and present fist specialists, the Song Great Founder had the Long Fist system with thirty-two positions. Moreover there are six pace and fist techniques, the Monkey Fist, and the Feinting Fist. The famous positions each have their own names, but in reality they are quite similar and scarcely differ from one another (Gyves, 1993, p. 34).
While Qi believed boxing had no place in armed conflict, he thought such training was useful as it strengthened soldiers’ bodies, coordinated their limbs, improved their weapons skills, and bolstered their courage (Gyves, 1993, pp. 33-37). Qi gathered what he considered the most efficient techniques to achieve this goal, meaning he consulted with many martial artists in the process. The fact that he mentions Monkey boxing suggests it was a common style among fighters of this time.
Fig. 1 – A modern statue of General Qi Jiguang (larger version). Originally found on Wikipedia.
The second reference appears in Zheng Ruozeng’s (郑若曾, 1505-1580) Strategic Situation in Jiangnan (Jiangnan jinglue, 江南經略, 1564), which was written in response to the ever-present threat of the Woukou (倭寇), a conglomeration of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sea bandits, invading China’s coastline. In the eighth volume, Zheng provides a long list of armed and unarmed martial arts, including the “thirty-six roads (forms) of Monkey boxing” (Houquan sanshiliu lu, 猴拳三十六路) (Zheng, 1564). Again, this suggests Monkey boxing was quite common.
The third appears in scholar Wang Shixing’s (王士性, 1547-1598) A Journey to Mt. Song (Song you ji, 嵩遊記), a travel log of the mountain on which the famed Shaolin monastery is located:
Martial monks again each came to present skills. With fists and staves contending, they struck as if flying. Their teacher with folded hands looked on. Among them was a monkey striker, spinning and leaping, just like a monkey… (Wells & Chang, 2004, p. 23).
This shows a single Shaolin warrior monk practiced Monkey boxing. But does this mean the style was part of the monastery’s official curriculum at this time? The answer is no. According to Shahar (2008), textual evidence suggests Shaolin officially took up boxing in the proceeding 17th-century, and the first styles practiced were Drunken Eight Immortals boxing (Zui baxian quan, 醉八仙拳) and Lost Track boxing (Mizong quan, 迷蹤拳), possibly followed by Plum Flower boxing (Meihua quan, 梅花拳) in the 18th-century. The monks adopted pugilism as a form of calisthenic exercise, later combining it with Daoyin (導引) calisthenics and spirituality to create a new form of self-cultivation.  Prior to this, the Shaolin monks were only known for their proficiency with the staff. Therefore, given the seeming commonplace nature of Monkey boxing during the late Ming, the monk could have learned the style from an outside source.
Modern folklore associated with one primate-based style, White Ape Connected Arms Boxing (Baiyuan tongbei / bi quan, 白猿通背 / 臂拳), traces its origins to religious and military figures of the Song dynasty (960-1279), centuries prior to the Ming (Lu, 2006, pp. 103-105, for example). However, it should be said that having a Song-era foundation is a reoccurring theme in many martial arts legends. For instance, the famed Song general Yue Fei (岳飛, 1103-1142) is commonly attributed Eagle Claw boxing (Yingzhao quan, 鷹爪拳) and Form-Intent boxing (Xingyi quan, 形意拳) (Liang & Yang, 2002, pp. 15-16, for example). But textual evidence for these styles don’t appear until the Ming and Qing, respectively.  Most importantly, the oldest source associated with White Ape Connected Arms Boxing, titled the Connected Arms Boxing Manual (Tongbi quan pu, 通臂拳谱), was written during the late Ming and finally published in 1665 during the early Qing (List of surviving Ming period martial arts, 2017). Likewise, concrete references to primate-based boxing do not predate the Ming. This might suggest such styles arose during this time when there was an explosion in the popularity of pugilism. But this tells us nothing about how primate-based boxing may have developed. The history of animal mimicry in Chinese martial arts can be traced to much older concepts based in medicine and religion. This is discussed in section V below.
Fig. 2 – A compilation of images of the sword-fighting apes from the Collection of Military Works (c. 1621) (larger version). By the author. Fig. 3 – A compilation of the original stick figures and Japanese calligraphy from the fourteen volume edition of the New Treatise on Military Efficiency (1584) (larger version). From Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. Note the similarities in stance and the position of the blades.
As for the association between primates and armed combat during the Ming, the animals are occasionally referenced in the named fighting techniques of military literature. For example, the tenth volume of Qi Jiguang’s aforementioned manual includes a feinting lance technique titled “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance” (Baiyuan tuo dao shi, 白猿拖刀勢) (Yang & Xie, 1995, p. 336). The 35th volume of the Collection of Military Works (Wubei zhi, 武備志, c. 1621), a Ming treatise on military armaments and fighting techniques compiled by Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀, 1594-1640), includes “White ape exits cave” (Baiyuan chudong shi, 白猿出洞勢), a stance appearing in the sequence for an overhead sword guard.  (Incidentally, this is also the name of a fist set practiced in some lineages of Praying Mantis boxing). Additionally, the same volume includes a two-section sword manual, the first section of which portrays fanciful images of apes practicing with the “Sprout saber” (miaodao, 苗刀) (Mao, 1621), a long, two-handed blade similar to the Japanese Katana (fig. 2). These strange images differ from the human-based figures in the rest of the source. It’s important to note that the original sword manual, called Saber Techniques of the Xinyou-era (i.e. 1561) (Xinyou daofa, 辛酉刀法), is taken directly from the fourth volume of the revised fourteen volume edition of Qi’s New Treatise on Military Efficiency (Jixiao Xinshu shisi juan ben, 紀效新書十四卷本, 1584). The first of the aforementioned two sections reproduces a series of sword-wielding stick figures taken from a Shadow School (Kage-ryu, 影流 / 陰流) manual of Japanese sword fighting. The section is prefaced by lively Japanese calligraphy, and the few words recognizable to readers of Chinese include “ape flying” (yuanfei, 猿飛) and “ape returning” (yuanhui, 猿回) (fig. 3), both of which are Kenjutsu techniques still practiced today (video 3).  This then might explain why the stick figures were changed to apes when the material was reproduced in the Collection of Military Works decades later. But I would also like to suggest that the change (as well as the allusion to the sword-wielding white ape from the lance technique mentioned earlier) was influenced by a famous first-century Chinese story about a talented swordswoman who has her skills tested by a magic white ape. This is discussed in section IV below.
Video 3 – A modern demonstration of the “ape-flying” technique.
III. Sun Wukong the Monkey King
By far, the most famous weapon-bearing primate of the late Ming-period is Sun Wukong (a.k.a. “Monkey”), the simian protagonist of the highly popular Chinese novel Journey to the West (Xiyouji, 西遊記, 1592). According to the tale, the stone-born monkey rules a mountain utopia before learning magic, martial arts, and the secret of immortality under a Buddho-Daoist sage. He soon thereafter acquires a magic, size-changing iron staff, which he uses to wage war against the celestial realm (fig. 4), proclaiming himself the “Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖, hence the name for Kou Si’s Monkey boxing). But his rebellion is eventually quelled by the Buddha, who imprisons the indestructible monkey demon beneath a mountain for his crimes. Five hundred years later, the repentant immortal is called upon to use his great strength, martial arts, and powers of transformation to protect the monk Tripitaka on a journey to procure scriptures from India.
Fig. 4 – A woodblock print of Sun Wukong fighting the heavenly army with his magic staff (larger version). From Mr. Li Zhouwu’s Literary Criticism of Journey to the West, late 16th-century.
The narrative portrays Sun as a well-rounded martial artist proficient in both weapons and boxing. For example, during his rebellion with heaven, he trains his monkey children as soldiers, teaching them troop movement and weapons, including swords, spears, axes, and bows and arrows. But he is best known for his skill with the staff (fig. 5). One episode sees Monkey give a display of his martial prowess while he and his master travel through a spooky mountain. His skill is so great that the story likens it to the strategy taught in two of the Seven Military Classics of China:
“Going through this tall mountain and rugged cliff must have made master [Tripitaka] rather apprehensive, that’s all. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Let old Monkey put on a show for you with my rod to calm your fears somewhat.” Dear Pilgrim! Whipping out his rod, he began to go through a sequence of maneuvers with his rod as he walked before the horse: up and down, left and right, the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the Six Secret Teachings and Three Strategies [Liu Tao San Lue, 六韜三略)].  What the elder saw from the horse was a sight incomparable anywhere in the world (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).
Fig. 5 – A modern action figure of Sun Wukong with his magic staff (larger version).
Furthermore, Monkey displays a mastery of unarmed fighting (fig. 6) in two episodes. A poem in chapter 51, for example, is important because it describes a battle between Sun and a rhinoceros demon in which they use real boxing techniques, many of which are still known and practiced to this day:
Hitching up his clothes and walking forward, the fiend assumed a boxing posture; his two fists upraised looked truly like two iron sledge hammers. Our Great Sage also loosened his legs at once and moved his body to attack; right before the cave entrance, he began to box with the demon king. This was quite a fight! Aha!
Opening wide the “Four Levels Posture”;
The double-kicking feet fly up.
They pound the ribs and chests;
They stab at galls and hearts.
“The Immortal pointing the Way”;
“Lao Zi Riding the Crane”;
“A Hungry Tiger Pouncing on the Prey” is most hurtful;
“A Dragon Playing with Water” is quite vicious.
The demon king uses a “Serpent Turning Around”;
The Great Sage employs a “Deer Letting Loose its Horns.”
The dragon plunges to Earth with heels upturned;
The wrist twists around to seize Heaven’s bag.
A green lion’s open-mouthed lunge;
A carp’s snapped-back flip.
Sprinkling flowers over the head;
Tying a rope around the waist;
A fan moving with the wind;
The rain driving down the flowers.
The monster-spirit then uses the “Guanyin Palm,”
And pilgrim counters with the “Arhat Feet.”
The “Long-Range Fist,” stretching, is more slack, of course.
How could it compare with the “Close-Range Fist’s” sharp jabs?
The two of them fought for many rounds—
None was the stronger, for they are evenly matched (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 3, pp. 12-13).
While the techniques are not Monkey boxing, the narrative certainly helped solidify the connection between primates and martial arts during the late Ming when references to the style were recorded.
Fig. 6 – Sun teaching a young human apprentice martial arts. Drawing by Celsohenrique on deviantart (larger version).
Sun Wukong’s image as a master of armed and unarmed combat led to his veneration among northern Chinese martial artists at the end of the Qing. As noted in this article, fighters of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) were known to channel the spirit of the Monkey King (among other deities) in order to gain his martial prowess. A German catholic missionary active in Shandong in the late-19th and early-20th-century recorded how four boxer youths were chosen as possible vessels, and after a ritual enticed the deity to earth, the “possessed” individual performed a frightening saber dance, indicating the Great Sage had taken control. Additionally, Dudbridge (1970) cites one 17th-century source that describes Sun’s veneration in the southern Chinese province of Fujian for “appear[ing] in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates” (p. 158). This refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by the aforementioned Wokou pirates. Interestingly, Sun Wukong fighting pirates puts him in the same company as the Shaolin warrior monks, who used their martial arts skills to rout the same bandits during the 1550s (Shahar, 2008, pp. 68-70).
Fig. 7 – The Monkey Pilgrim stone relief carving, 1237, from the Kaiyuan Temple Western Pagoda, Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China (larger version).
Monkey is important to this study because he bridges the gap between the lack of pre-Ming references to primate-based boxing and older material associating apes and monkeys with armed combat. Sun first appears as the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou xingzhe, 猴行者) in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (Da Tang Sanzang qujing shihua, 大唐三藏取經詩話), a seventeen chapter storytelling prompt dated to the late 13th-century. The narrative presents our hero wielding two staves, one a golden-ringed monk’s staff and the other an iron staff, in defense of his Buddhist master. These two staves would later be combined by storytellers to create his signature weapon.
Older still, the Kaiyuan Temple (Kaiyuan si, 開元寺) of Fujian is home to a nearly life-sized carving of the hero (fig. 7), who is presented as a saber-wielding guardian deity. He appears alongside other such wrathful gods, as well as bodhisattvas, arhats, patriarchs, and eminent monks, on a stone pagoda that was erected in the year 1237. So Monkey was associated with various weapons as far back as the 13th-century.
Fig. 8 – A Han-era stone tomb rubbing showing a sword-wielding hero striking at a fleeing white ape (center). A woman can be seen held captive in a teardrop-shaped cave (left). The hero is followed by an assistant beating a gong (right) (larger version). From Wu, 1987, p. 88.
Apart from possible Indian influences, Sun Wukong’s origins can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty tales in which a magical white ape or gibbon (baiyuan, 白猿) kidnaps human woman and spoils their innocence (fig. 8). For example, the unnamed primate antagonist of “A Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (Bu Jiang Zong baiyuan zhuang, 補江總白猿傳, c. late 7th-c.) is described as a 1,000-year-old hermit who lives in a mountain utopia, practices Daoist longevity arts, wields the power to fly and change his shape, and has supernatural strength and an iron-hard, nigh-invulnerable body immune to most efforts to harm him. Most importantly, he is depicted as a master of armed combat, one displaying a fondness for sword dancing. His blade is said to “circl[e] his body as fast as lightning and as round as a full moon”.  As noted above, this is not the first story involving a magic white ape who is fond of swordplay.
IV. Magic apes and ancient Chinese heroes
The Chinese classic the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400) describes the literary heroes Hou Jian (侯健), Lin Chong (林沖), and Zhang Qing (張清) (fig. 9) each having ape-like arms, denoting their great strength and agility. This same nickname was applied to powerful archers of the past. Ma (2010) writes:
[I]t is said that the Xiongnu warrior Liu Chong ‘had arms like an ape, was skilled at archery (yuanbei shanshe 猿臂善射), and could pull a bow of three hundred jin’ 斤(Book of Wei《魏書》). Similarly, History of Ming describes General Chang Yuchun 常遇春 as ‘distinguished looking, with peerless courage and strength, had arms like those of an ape and was skilled at archery’; and in the same vein, Tang poet Cui Daorong 崔道融 wrote that ‘the ape-armed general runs as if on wings, sparing no one with his bow from a hundred paces’ (General Li’s Biography [Ti Li jianjun zhuan 題李將軍傳]) (p. 24).
Fig. 9 – A woodblock print of the hero Zhang Qing by Kuniyoshi produced between 1827 and 1830 (larger version). It is part of the artist’s “One of the 108 Heroes of the Popular Water Margin” series (Tsuzoku Suikoden goketsu hyakuhachinin no hitori, 通俗水滸傳濠傑百八人一個). Original image found here. Look closely and you’ll notice that the tattoo on Zhang’s back portrays Sun Wukong producing magical clones of himself from his mouth.
Oddly enough, the earliest tales mentioning archers and magic white apes do not liken one to the other. In fact, they are diametrically opposed. For example, a third-century BCE tale about the famed archer Yang Youji (養由基, 7th-c. BCE) portrays the creature as an elusive target for his arrow:
Once in the palace of Jing 荊 there was a supernatural white ape. Even the skillful archers of Jing could not hit it. Then the king of Jing asked … Yang Youji to shoot it. Yang straightened his bow and went to the palace with arrows in his hands. Before shooting he aimed at a place where the [moving] ape had not yet arrived. When he let the arrow fly, the ape fell immediately. Thus Yang Youji could be called the archer who could hit a target before it was there (Wu, 1987, p. 103; see also Gulik, 1967, p. 41).
A similar version of the tale states the ape recognizes Yang’s supernatural skill, anticipating the arrow and crying out in pain moments before actually being struck (Wu, 1987, p. 103; Gulik, 1967, p. 41).
Perhaps the most famous story associating the magic white ape with martial arts is the “Maiden of Yue” (Yuenu, 越女, 1st-c. BCE), named after its protagonist, a peerless swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE. The story describes how she participates in a sparring match with the shape-changing ape:
The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king [Goujian of Yue]. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was “Old Mr. Yuan” [Yuan Gong, 袁公].
He said to the young woman, “I hear you fight well with a [sword]. I’d like to see a demonstration.”
She replied, “I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.”
So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but [she] parried straight back, thrust three times, and finally raised her end of bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan [fig. 10]. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape [baiyuan, 白猿, hence the surname]. Then each went their own way, and she went on to meet with the king. 
Upon meeting the king, the Maiden reveals the secret to her fighting ability is the application of yin and yang energy, which are metaphorically described as the opening and closing of large and small swinging doors. This is “[t]he earliest extant published exposition of [the] theory applied directly to the martial arts” (Henning, 2001, p. 746), predating the artificial categorization of Chinese boxing into “internal” (neijia, 内家) and “external” (waijia, 外家) styles during the 17th-century (Henning, 2007, p. 26). Therefore, the importance of the story in the annals of Chinese martial arts history can’t be overstated. Nor can the inclusion of the white ape. His supernatural challenge and subsequent defeat respectively tests and confirms the effectiveness of the theory.
This tale likely influenced the association between white apes and swordplay in later sources, such as the sword-dancing antagonist of the Tang-era “Supplement to Jiang Zong’s Biography of a White Ape” (section III) and the sword-wielding primates of military literature (section II). For example, “White Ape Trailing Sword Stance”, the aforementioned feinting lance technique from New Treatise on Military Efficiency (c. 1561/1562), may refer to Old Mr. Yuan’s defeat.
Fig. 10 – A modern drawing of the Maiden of Yue fighting Old Mr. Yuan by martial historian Stan Henning (larger version). From Henning, 2007, p. 24.
Our heroes’ respective stories make no reference to animal mimicry, the cornerstone of primate-based boxing. In fact, it’s the reverse in the second narrative: an ape mimics man.  The tales instead promote the idea of trained human skill conquering the raw, often magical, power of nature. In the case of the Maiden of Yue, her mastery of yin and yang energy enabled her to best the magic white ape. Yang Youji is more of a mythic figure capable of miraculous feats, such as sinking an arrow into a boulder simply because he mistook it for a rhino (i.e. mind over matter) (Selby, 2000, p. 131). But he succeeded in falling a white ape when many archers failed. These tales are therefore the antithesis of primate-based boxing, representing what might have been considered more “civilized” or “noble” forms of martial arts, namely the armed disciplines of archery and swordplay.
V. Animal mimicry in Chinese medicine and religion
I suggested above that primate-based styles may have arisen during the Ming. But how the styles developed is likely tied to the long history of animal mimicry in China. For example, around the year 60 BCE (during the Han), the courtier Tan Changqing (檀長卿) is said to have been reprimanded for violating ritual norms by performing the dance of the “dog and macaque combat” (wu wei mu hou yu gou dou, 舞為沐猴與狗鬭) while at a drunken party (Harper, 2001, p. 18). This dance may have some connection to a funerary motif appearing in Han-era stone tombs in which dogs are shown intimidating apes, the motif representing the conquering of evil influences.  Tan’s display can’t be assigned a martial role, however, because it was likely a comical pantomime.  But this shows mimicking primates served a variety of purposes in Chinese culture.
Primate-based movements figure in a number of ancient therapeutic exercises. For instance, the monkey appears in the Five Animals’ Frolic (Wuqin xi, 五禽戲), a 3rd-century system of daoyin calisthenics, which mimics the movements or behaviors of the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and bird (in that order), each animal set strengthening a particular area of the body (Kohn, 2008, pp. 163-169). Movements mimicking the bear, monkey, and bird actually predate this system, appearing among forty-four exercises listed in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (Daoyin tu, 導引圖, 168 BCE), the oldest known diagram of daoyin exercises, discovered in Mawangdui (馬王堆) (fig. 11 and 12). Primate-based exercises include the “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (muhou guan yinling zhong, 沐猴灌引靈中) (#35) and “Gibbon Shouting” (yuanhu, 猿謼) (#40) (fig. 13 and 14) (Harper, 1998, pp. 315 and 316). 
The Masters of Huainan (Huananzi, 淮南子, 139 BCE), a compendium of Daoist, Confucian, and Legalist thought, references another primate-based daoyin set in a section criticizing such exercises as inferior to spiritual cultivation:
If you huff and puff,
exhale and inhale,
blow out the old and pull in the new,
practice the Bear Hang [xiongjing, 熊經], the Bird Stretch [niaoshen, 鳥伸],
the Duck Splash [fuyu, 鳧浴], the Ape leap [yuanjue, 蝯躩],
the Owl Gaze [chishi, 鴟視], and the Tiger Stare [hugu, 虎顧]:
This is what is practiced by those who nurture the body. They are not the practices of those who polish the mind (Liu & Major, 2010, p. 236).
Fig 11 – (Top left) The Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling, 2nd-c. BCE, paint on silk, 142 x 70 cm (55.9 x 27.5 in) (larger version). Image originally found here. Fig. 12 – (Top right) A modern reconstruction (larger version). Image originally found on Wikipedia. Harper (1998) warns such reconstructions “should be regarded as conjectural in many details” since the original is in such poor condition (p. 191). Fig. 13 – (Bottom left) The reconstruction of “Monkey Bawling to Pull Internal Hotness” (larger version). Fig. 14 – (Bottom right) The reconstruction of “Gibbon Shouting” (larger version).
These therapeutic exercises likely find their origin in ancient Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences (Harper, 1985, pp. 487-488). One such dance was the seasonal Da Nuo (大儺 / 難; Jp: Tsuina, 追儺) ritual in which a bearskin-clad exorcist (Ch: fangxiangshi; Jp: hōsōshi, 方相氏) and his army of fur, feather, and horn-clad youths, representing twelve animal deities, expelled evil spirits from human dwellings. Evidence suggests it may have been performed as early as the Shang (17th to 11th-c. BCE), but the earliest concrete references come from the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE) (Poo, 2009, p. 286). What’s interesting for our purposes is that the exorcism has a martial aspect; not only does the exorcist bear a lance and shield for ritual combat (fig. 15), but also the group travels throughout the given location dancing and shouting, with the youths beating drums and commanding twelve spirits by name to devour or eviscerate anthropomorphic representations of malevolent influences (Poo, 2009, pp. 287-288). So by wearing animal products, the exorcist and his ritual army gained the strength of animal deities to combat dark forces.
Fig. 15 – A Japanese woodblock print portraying the Da Nuo exorcist expelling a “pestilence” spirit with his lance and shield (larger version). Originally found here. Note the four-eyed mask. This is based on the four golden-eyed bear skin worn by the exorcist in ancient Chinese records (Poo, 2009, p. 287).
It’s possible that the “twelve animals” of the Da Nuo exorcism refer to some precursor of the Chinese zodiacal animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig). If true, monkey fur could have been among the animal products worn by the ritual army. After all, monkeys have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia.  A modern example of exorcists who don monkey fur are the shamans of the Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan. The Qiang worship monkeys as the source and savior of their sacred knowledge, as well as the progenitor of their people, the latter being a myth cycle common among ethnic groups of Tibet and southwestern China.
Henning (2001) highlights the connection between animal totemism and animal boxing:
Another view is that at least some animal forms may hark back to a distant totemic past that still occupies a place in the Chinese psyche. This totemic influence is difficult if not impossible to trace in majority Han Chinese boxing styles; however, it can be seen in the combination of martial arts and dance practiced by some of China’s many national minorities. Cheng Dali, in his Chinese Martial Arts: History and Culture, points to Frog Boxing, practiced by the Zhuang Nationality of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as an example, the frog being considered their protector against both natural and man-made disasters (p. 16).
Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming could descend from totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices. The development could have gone something like this:
- Early shamanic dances drawing on the totemic power of primate deities (via their fur) to exorcise evil influences through ritual combat, including the bearing of weapons, drumming, dancing, and the shouting of spells.
- The animal fur and martial dancing give way to calisthenics drawing on primate mimicry to expel sickness and strengthen the body.
- These calisthenic movements are adapted for fighting.
It’s even possible that the war-like shamanic dancing gave way directly to boxing. Martiality (wu, 武) and dance (wu, 舞) have long been associated in Chinese history, for drums and gongs were used to direct the movements of both troops and dancers (Lorge, 2012, p. 26-27). Musical accompaniment remains a staple of folk martial arts performances. A modern example of totemic mimicry, dancing, and martial arts is the Lion Dance (wushi, 舞獅) popular in Asian communities throughout the world (video 4).
Video 4 – Five lion dancing teams performing before a crowd.
Apes and monkeys have been associated with armed and unarmed martial arts in Chinese culture for over two thousand years. Tai Shing Pek Kwar, a popular modern combat style of Monkey boxing created in the early 20th-century, is predated by even older instances of Monkey boxing alluded to in military and travel writings of the 16th-century, suggesting it was a common form of pugilism. Additionally, military literature of the 16th and 17th-century associates white apes with swordplay. The lack of historical references to primate-based boxing prior to the Ming (1368-1644) suggests such styles developed during the explosion in popularity of pugilism at this time. The image of the highly popular late Ming literary monkey hero Sun Wukong as a master of armed and unarmed martial arts, as well as his association with staff and sword fighting in 13th-century oral literature and Buddhist art, respectively, helps bridge this gap between the lack of historical boxing references and older material associating primates with armed combat. He can be traced to a body of Han (206 BCE-220 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasty stories about magic white apes who, due to their supernatural abilities, were portrayed as the ultimate test of a warrior’s martial skills. The most famous of these tells how the Maiden of Yue, a talented swordswoman of the 5th-century BCE, vets her yin-yang theory-based sword style by defeating a white ape-turned-old man in a sparring match. This story is important because it’s the first recorded association of yin-yang theory and martial arts in Chinese history. This tale and another involving the mythic archer Yang Youji are the antitheses of primate-based boxing because each touts the superiority of trained human skill over the raw, magical power of nature. Despite this, animal mimicry played a large role in early therapeutic yoga-like Daoyin calisthenics, such as the Five Animals Frolic (3rd-c. CE) and those appearing in the Illustrations of Guiding and Pulling (168 BCE), which copied the movements of monkeys and apes (among other animals) to strengthen given areas of the body. These exercises likely find their origin in ancient war-like Shamanic animal dances designed to drive away demonic illness and influences, one example being the seasonal Da Nuo exorcism of the Eastern Zhou (8th to 3rd-c. BCE). The Da Nuo exorcist and his ritual army wore animal products (fur, horns, feathers, etc.) to invoke the power of animal deities capable of driving away malevolent forces. Monkey fur may have been worn by members of the ritual army because the animal and its products have long been associated with curing illness and expelling evil in East Asia. Shamans among the modern Qiang ethnic group of Sichuan worship monkeys and draw on the power of their fur to perform exorcisms. Animal totemism plays a part in some animal-based martial arts, such as the Frog boxing of the Zhuang ethnic group. Therefore, the primate-based martial arts of the Ming may have been influenced by the ancient totemic mimicry of apes and monkeys in Chinese spiritual practices, those that formed the basis of later animal-based therapeutic exercises. This is where the historical study would benefit from modern ethnographic field research. A follow-up study might bridge the gap between the historical data and modern practice.
I’ve written an article about a white ape immortal associated with revealing heavenly knowledge. One source claims the primate transcendent taught boxing to a modern Chinese monk.
The White Ape Perfected Man: Sun Wukong’s Divine Double
1) A shorter paper with a similar focus is Ma (2010). The editor of the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies was gracious enough to provide me with a PDF copy of the article when I was nearing completion of this paper.
2) Regarding the name of the creator of Monkey boxing, Kou Si (寇四), kou (寇) means “bandit, foe, or enemy”. I find this especially interesting given he was imprisoned for murder, the reasons for which range from accidentally killing a villager in a fight to purposely killing a military official to avoid service (Matsuda, 2013, pp. 86-87). It’s possibly this name is simply a folk title given to an unknown creator, or one known to have been active in crime.
3) See chapters three and four.
4) The earliest mention of Eagle Claw appears in Qi Jiguang’s training manual. It refers to “Eagle Claw Wang’s grappling methods” (Yingzhao Wang zhi na, 鷹爪王之拿) (Gyves, 1993, p. 35). Qing-era manuals and family histories suggest Xingyi was created by a certain Ji Jike (姬際可, fl. 1650) (Shahar, 2008, pp. 134-135).
5) For an English translation of the sword technique mentioning the stance, see Chen, 2018, pp. 73-75.
6) Qi, 1584/2001, p. 83. I’m indebted to the operator of the Great Ming Military blog for explaining the connection between the ape images and the visible characters from the Japanese calligraphy, as well as providing me with a digital copy of the fourteen volume edition of Qi’s training manual.
7) The original English translation omits the two named books from the Chinese version. It reads, “…the thrusts and parries were made in perfect accord with the manuals of martial arts” (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 2, p. 105).
8) Chen, 1998, p. 84. Some readers may have noticed the sword is a reoccurring theme in Sun Wukong’s history: 1) The Qing-era boxers are said to have performed a saber dance under his possession; 2) he is depicted with a saber on the Kaiyuan temple pagoda in Fujian; and 3) the magic white ape on whom he is likely based loves performing sword dances. In addition, two other sources mention Monkey’s association with the sword. First, a 15th-century Zaju play describes Guanyin giving Sun Wukong a Buddhist saber (jiedao, 戒刀) (apart from other magic items) to protect his master on the eve of their journey. Second, a 17th-century tale set in Fujian describes the Great Sage magically afflicting a merchant with painful leg sores using a “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).
I don’t think these have any unifying significance, however. For example, the saber requires less training and is cheaper than other implements of war. So it was often the go to weapon for soldiers and bodyguards. Monkey’s association with the saber on the pagoda is likely tied to this same concept. As a guardian deity, he is portrayed with the same weapon used by mortals to protect others in times of need. The magic white ape is portrayed as a Daoist gentleman, one in possession of a pair of treasure swords (baojian, 寶劍), the kind used in Daoist ritual. His fancy for the sword may be based on Old Mr. Yuan from the Maiden of Yue (see section IV). Another literary character with Buddhist sabers is Wu Song from the Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan, 水滸傳, c. 1400). I explain in this article (footnote #2) that his sabers are based on real world Buddhist knives issued to monks. The same concept is no doubt tied to Monkey’s weapon from the play. Having said that, I will admit, though, that the saber from the pagoda may have had some influence on that mentioned in the 17th-century story. After all, the pagoda example is portrayed with a lick of heavenly flame, just like one would expect from a celestial sword. Also, both the story and the pagoda take place/are located in Fujian, home to the Great Sage’s cult.
9) Selby, 2000, pp. 155-156. The famous Tang poet Li Bai (李白) referenced Mr. Yuan’s defeat in one of his poems. A line reads “The White Ape was ashamed of his fencing” (Ma, 2010, p. 24). This is fascinating as Li Bai was also known to have been a proficient swordsmen in his youth (Liu, 1967, pp. 46-47).
10) This is based on an old concept in which primates were thought to progress through a type of magical evolution, similar to modern day Pokémon. The Baopuzi (抱朴子, 2nd-c. CE) states a monkey will transform into a gibbon after 800 years of life. It will then change into several legendary apes over some 3,500 years, before evolving into an old man (Ball, 1927, p. 117). Gulik (1967) cites a tale in which the soothsayer Zhou Qun (周羣 / 周群) learns the secrets of divination from a gibbon-turned-old man (p. 50).
11) As noted in this article, Sun Wukong’s capture at the mouth of Lord Erlang’s hound is tied to the Han-era tomb motif of dogs intimidating apes.
12) Ma (2010) translates the historical passage, noting those at the party were “drinking wine and making merry, then Tan Changqing, the high official of Changxin Palace, starts to dance, to imitate a monkey fighting with a dog, bringing laughter to all present” (p. 25).
13) Harper (1998) suggests an alternate reading for “Gibbon shout” (yuanhu, 猿謼) is “Gibbon Jump” (yuanjue, 蝯躩) based on graphical similarities to an exercise from the Huainanzi. (淮南子, 139 BCE) (p. 316, n. 1).
14) This is tied to a Song-era (and likely older) superstition from Sichuan where people would place monkeys in stables to ward off equine sickness (Eberhard, 1969, p. 52). This is why heaven appoints Sun Wukong the Bimawen (弼馬溫, “Keeper of the (Heavenly) Horses”), which is a pun on Bimawen (避馬瘟, “Avoid the horse plague”). Due to his former exalted position, earthly horses are shown to fear the Monkey King throughout the narrative (Wu & Yu, 2012, vol. 1, p. 309, for example).
In Japan, monkeys were also associated with horses and healing via the warding of evil. Apart from monkeys being kept in stables like their Chinese counterparts, their fur was applied to the harnesses and quivers of Samurai because the warriors believed it gave them more control over their mounts. Furthermore, monkey body parts have been consumed for centuries as curative medicines, and their hides have even been stuffed to make protective amulets (kukurizaru) to ward off illness. Likewise, a genre of painting depicts divine monkeys (saru gami), messengers of the mountain deity, performing Da Nuo-like dances to ensure a good rice harvest (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1987, pp. 43-50)
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One thought on “Monkey Boxing: The Connection Between Primates and Martial Arts in Ancient China”
Fascinating, and right on time for the Koshin Machi on the twenty-second. Some really basic knowledge might be in order about the Chinese Zodiac — the monkey sign is the dominant metal sign, metal’s associated colour being white, hence the preference for the sword or metal staves. (This also associates with the lost monkey, see-no-evil, the lesser demon gate in the southwest, August, rules fall/autumn, . . .) White monkey/ape is an alternate translation of konoe saru/庚申.