Even if you have only studied Tai Chi Chuan for less than a month, I still don’t think that it’s possible for you to have escaped hearing about the legendary creation myth where the filthy, mystical, Daoist priest Zhang Sanfeng invents the art of Tai Chi Chuan after witnessing a bird protecting its nest form a snake.
In the legend, “Dirty Zhang” watched the bird and the snake attacking and evading each other, so none hurt the other. And this was from where he got the “idea” to create Tai Chi Chuan. This is obviously just a story and a fairytale. In that myth, the bird was originally a small bird, but somehow, in Tai Chi Chuan, the picture of a crane has taken over its place. Together with the snake, they now both represent the Art of Tai Chi Chuan.
But still, even if it’s just a myth, the symbols of the snake and the crane have more meaning than just being sort of totems for the art. They represent the spirit iof the art, the vigour, the grace and the liveliness of the martial art, as well as the focus on evading and counter-attacking. But how to fully use the Crane and Snake practically in Tai Chi and adapt the essence of the animals in combat is something almost lost, or at least very seldom taught.
I have been lucky to have a couple of teachers speaking about these things and teaching it. I have also heard about others who teach things quite similar to what I myself have been taught. But I have never seen this written down in any book or on any Tai Chi webpage. So I have not looked at any other source before writing this post. Instead I have tried to verbalise myself what I was taught and tried to sum down the important points to be able to share them with you.
I believe that the very most of you will feel that these things represent something that is a bit different from what you have been taught, and some of it might seem strange. But I still hope that you will find these theories and my way of explaining the art of Tai Chi in this way, both useful and helpful. What is described here is foremost from a Yang Style Tai Chi perspective, but I believe that the methods could be adapted to most of the traditional tai chi styles and schools.
What is the Snake and the Crane in Tai Chi Chuan?
In Tai Chi, a few form movements are named after the Snake and Crane as “Crane shows its wing” and “snake creeps down.” Both the Crane’s Beak hand formation and Snake style palms can be seen in Tai Chi forms. This is the simplest version story, but it does not convey any of the real depth that is found in the snake-crane theory.
However, some teachers say that every movement in Tai Chi Chuan is represented by either the Snake or the Crane. In fighting, the Snake represents small, coiling movements – or small frame movements. And the Crane represents large, generous, sweeping, round movements – or Large frame movements.
The Snake and Crane together represent a Yin-Yang pair with two opposites that balance and complement each other. The snake is the Yin animal in Tai Chi. It is so fast that you cannot even see the start of its attack. And when you react, it’s already too late. The Tai Chi snake uses coiling movements to wrap its body around the opponent’s arms, and it attacks from every possible angle and from close range. The power is short, crisp and very hard to counter.
The Crane, on the other hand, is a proud, elegant bird and is the Yang animal in Tai Chi. It stands tall and it has a great power in its large wide wings. It is said that if cranes when they fly comes too close to houses, they can even strike through tiles on roofs and break apart bricks from chimneys. In Tai Chi, such methods as powerful striking and throws using large, bold movements, can resemble the use of the crane’s wings. However, the Crane has a second weapon as it can also use its beak to strike with.
Balancing snake and crane – By using them together
Two of my teachers taught that both small and large movements should be used together when you fight. Or in other words, you should use the Snake and Crane together when you fight, which is explicitly what one of them taught. In practical combat methods, this means that you can either defend with a snake or crane type of movement and then counter-attack with the other.
The snake and crane should work together seamless in action. When the movement from the snake and crane blend together, the opponent cannot tell where one stops and the other starts. Together, they form a whole. One starts and transforms into the other.
But there is also another aspect of the use: It is never you who decide what animal that should be used. You cannot compare the use of these animals in Tai Chi with a Hong Kong movie where a fighter test first one animal against his opponent and than another one if the first doesn’t work. And you can not approach any real Tai Chi fighting method with figuring out intellectually what technique or attack that should be used or what could work.
Instead, you need to respond spontaneously to the opponent. The snake or the crane, what will come out to respond will do so by itself not depending of what you “think”, but depending on what your opponent does. This also means that you will have to learn your snake and crane well before really knowing how they want to respond. But more about this later.
Snake and Crane in Tai Chi solo practice
For very good reasons, it is said that you should learn Large Frame first and Small frame later and I have explained my own view here. However, you don’t really have to learn both large and small movements methods very well before you approach the movements from a snake and crane perspective. In fact, playing with the animals can be a good way to attain a certain distance from the common style orthodoxy, and achieve more freedom to your own body method or Tai Chi shenfa.
My own Yang Tai Chi forms, how I perform them, are neither Large Frame nor Small frame. Instead, they are both at the same time. They have both large frame movements and small frame movements. And also, the repetitions of movements and sequences in the form, are performed in different ways when the same movements show up again later. Some of them are at first done in a large manner, in the spirit of the crane. But when they show up again as repetitions, they are done small and coiling with the essence of the snake.
In this way, when the long forms combine both large and small movements, they become a better representation of how to use and flow between tai chi movements in a real fight. The different Large and Small frame formats can and should be taught separately at first. But in my own humble opinion, and in my own experience, Large and Small frame movements should eventually be combined together in the same form. But again, this is only my own humble view, and your miles might vary.
Personalisation and creating attributes
One aspect that can make your own practice more fun and less abstract, is to personalise your animals. What type of snake is your favourite? What personality should your Crane have?
There are many types of snakes, smaller and larger. They also have different types of distinct “fighting strategies”. Some snakes bite their victims, some will hug their pray to death and yet others will swallow them alive. And there is the spitting cobra which spits its venom from distance. So the snake gives you the opportunity to try out larger and smaller coiling movements together with straight and angular attacks that penetrates the opponent’s guard. And then you use these different ways to use your snake to test out different fighting strategies that suites both your own and your snakes different personalities.
If you google up different types of cranes, you will find that there are several species of different sizes and appearances. You might also sense that there are some different kinds of personalities as well amongst different groups and species. If the snake is aggressive and direct, the crane might be arrogant and nonchalant. It could have a mental distance to the opponent or not really acknowledge that the opponent is there. But when it attacks, it attacks with very heavy, relaxed natural power that is very hard for the opponent to block.
So what kind of snake and crane do you favour? Think about it and try to find out. You are free to experiment how much you want with your animals while practicing and explore the possibilities. Go ahead and have fun.
You should try to invent two distinct characters and personalities. Give them as much traits and be as specific as you can. Hopefully, even their personalities can compliment each other and overall have clear, distinct yin-yang characteristics. And then, when you are clear about your animals and who they are, you can bring them to life into your form and drills practice. And try to bring it all into your free push hands play as well to see how it feels.
The real value of Snake and Crane practice
You might think that this is just a game, maybe a play that has no real value. For more traditional or standard type of long-time practitioners and teachers, this type of mind-set and practice might seem too far away from their common daily practice. But if it feels too far off, then you should understand that you are not forced to embrace the crane and snake in any way. Or if you experiment with these ideas, you might practice this way with your animals in mind for a while, for a shorter or longer period, and leave them later.
The real benefit or value with this type of loose ideas, and creative personalised practice, is that it will help you to approach the art from another angle than you are used to. Tai Chi Chuan is very much about experimenting and personalisation. Many teachers and writers of Tai Chi literature say that you need to make your art your own. But still, most students don’t know how to do this. They keep on repeating and doing the same movements as their teachers, often with little idea about that they could do things different and they don’t understand how.
But here, this type of Snake and Crane ideas will offer you a way to explore Tai Chi by your own, in your own way, and in a way that you teacher can not control or interfere with. How you do it, or how much you play with it is all up to you yourself. And what you do with this and how you develop it further, comes from your own personality.
Creating characters is fine, but develop your own integrity first
My teacher, who took the Snake and Crane play far and to a whole different level, said that when you have created your own Snake and Crane, you need to understand the integrity of these personalities and keep their integrities intact. When you experiment with them in your practice, you need to bring the integrity of each animal into the play.
After my teacher had spoken about these things in a lecture, I asked him: “Must you not have your own integrity first, or build your own integrity, before you create the integrity of your own animals?”
And he replied: “Of course. Otherwise you’ll end up with nothing. Your own integrity is the most important thing of all.”
The consequence of all of this, is that you need to not only understand yourself well, but it would also be wise to develop a “Tai Chi integrity” before experimenting with the Snake and Crane, or at least have your own identity and integrity in mind when you develop your animals and their personalities. It is better to have practiced for some time so that you at least understand some basic Tai Chi body methods, or shenfa, before you start personalising your animals. I don’t want you to risk ending up with confusion or with a split personality (well, I am joking now, but as I know people with mental health issues who has tried Tai Chi practice, I still think it, in a few occasions, could be a fair warning).
What this means is, that even if you play around with this creative method I have proposed here, then in the beginning of your Tai Chi journey, you would probably not understand very well what you are doing. The simple reason is that because you haven’t built up your foundation yet. It will take a while, probably many years of practice, until you could get the benefit from the snake and crane in your own practice.
Of course, you can start experimenting whenever you wish, but again, if you don’t have built a good foundation in your art, the snake and crane method would probably make little sense. But it could still be a fun type of practice to switch to when you feel too bored just repeating your form all of the time.
Maybe this is why this snake and crane method is so seldom taught. Most practitioners will stop developing their Tai Chi at a rudimentary level, maybe mostly just because their teachers themselves haven’t learned any more advanced method. But when you think about it, how many have heard about such a thing as “small frame”, regardless if it’s about Yang, Wu or Chen style? Most people believe that Tai Chi is just a form, together with maybe a couple of Weapons forms, and some basic push hands drills. A good teacher who are willing to teach a more complete, larger Tai Chi system, is always hard to find.
But when you understand Tai Chi well, both in its large and small frame methods, this method of dividing and organising movements into snake and crane movements will become much more logical, and also make more sense from a practical point if view. It will become a way for you to attach different movements together, and from the Snake and Crane practice, it will be easier for you to learn how to flow seamless between movements when you apply your Tai Chi to free push hands, applications practice, or to more combat oriented methods.
So we could say that the Snake and Crane, regardless if you want to use this method in combat or in practical fighting practice, the study as proposed here will offer you a way to connect the dots between theory and fixed patterns of practice, to a more creative, personal way of dealing with the Art of Tai Chi Chuan. Also, if you have a lot of experience from free push hands and fighting in different ranges, you should be able to understand this type of practice faster and the benefits thereof better.
Summary of Snake and Crane qualities
So let us break down the snake and crane into qualities, methods and techniques, and compare them. This is not an exact science and what will fit in where also depends on your own personal interpretation of the Snake and Crane. And this is a fascinating and fun part with this game. You need to make up the rules by yourself and see how different methods fit your own personalised animals.
- Closing in
- Attacking from close distance
- Duanjin (Short jin)
- Cold jin
- Small coiling
- Small qinna
- Close-range takedowns
- Straight attacks
- Attacking the nearest door
- Attacking the front door
- Straight footwork
- Assuming distance
- Attacking from medium/long distance
- Changjin (Long jin)
- Shocking jin
- Large circles
- Joint breaking
- Circular attacks
- Attacking a distant door
- Attacking the side door
- Side stepping
Bonus video: Snake vs Hen – A hen defends herself and her chickens from a snake’s attacks:
Photos – Free stock photos:
Whooping Crane, standing: From Wikipedia
By Sasata – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11477259
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
© D Roth-Lindberg 2021