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Big Cats of Kung Fu

Updated: Jun 4

big cats of kung fu
Black Belt Plus

The Tiger, Black Tiger, Leopard and SnowLeopard are the Real Kings of the Jungle!

Anyone who’s had to fend off an angry animal — even one as small as a house cat — knows the fury they can bring to a fight. It’s apparent to us now, and it was apparent to Chinese martial artists a thousand years ago. No doubt those astute observers were enthralled by the speed, power, evasive ability and often total abandon that certain denizens of the wild kingdom brought to their battles. 

Chinese warriors — and Shaolin monks, in particular — analyzed the offensive and defensive moves of any creature they deemed capable in a fight. “There are a lot of Shaolin animals — including lesser-known ones like the dog, the scorpion and the elephant,” says Steve DeMasco, a Black Belt Hall of Famer who’s spent his career assimilating the Chinese interpretation of critter combat.

“However, it’s the animals that make up the Shaolin ‘five fists’ system that are the best-known,” he continues. “They are the tiger, crane, leopard, snake and dragon.”

The tiger offers the power to shake the earth and to be the authoritative king of  its lair. The leopard is nature’s master of precision — sharp, efficient and lightning  fast. The crane dances with accuracy and control, and offers weightlessness to rise above crises.

The extreme chi power generated by the snake helps activate profound sensitivity and enables all the muscles to work as one. The dragon protects treasures, defends against famine and floods, and is filled with ancient wisdom and folklore.

— Rob Moses, kung fu instructor

What’s not so apparent to modern practitioners who don’t indulge in the Chinese arts is that with self-defense proficiency comes fortified health.

Tranquilize the mind to attain awareness, and exercise the body to become healthy and agile. Without tranquility, you cannot attain enlightenment. With- out good health, there will not be good circulation throughout the body. Adequate exercise makes the body strong and the mind healthy. Without it, you will always suffer from pain and poor health.

— Bodhidharma, on the goal of five-animals training

Because of that binary benefit, much has been written about the big five. Here, we will focus on two of those animals that hail from the feline family, along with a pair of similarly supersized kittens that are much more obscure: the black tiger and the snow leopard. Together, they comprise what you might call the big cats of kung fu.


Inspiration: “The tiger is the strongest animal,” says DeMasco, who has served as Shaolin Temple’s martial arts ambassador to the United States since 1999. “When it goes after its prey, a tiger doesn’t care what part of the body it attacks. It just hits with its paws, sometimes clawing the flesh before securing a grip. It will bite any part of the body of its prey that it can reach.”

Interpretation: “In kung fu, we have the tiger tech- nique, which uses the open hand to strike and then grab — the hit becomes a trap,” DeMasco says. “When you hit, your hand is mostly open and your fingers curled. On impact, the hand is going to close. That’s when you use the fingers to grasp and rip.

“Some people think the claws should dig in, but that’s incorrect. They’re for grabbing and then ripping.”

Implementation: “It took me a long time to learn the tiger,” DeMasco admits. “Here’s something that’s inter- esting: You see this muscle in my forearm? See how I can put pressure on you and it doesn’t tighten at all? It took me years to be able to do an entire tiger form and squeeze hard without using this muscle and the biceps — and still have power.”

“Now, I could rip a part of an attacker’s body and my biceps won’t move,” he continues. “That’s special tiger training. Think about how they figured this out! Let’s say there’s a big, strong guy with huge muscles. You’d think he could do a tiger move and rip your chest off, but the more he tightens his biceps, the less power he has in his grip. When he tightens the biceps, it loosens his grip. How they figured that out I don’t know.

“As a result, all the training for tiger is centered on the elbow. You don’t even think about the forearm. You only think about the fingers.”

The tiger claw is formed by curling your fingers and bending back your wrist. You should feel a contraction of the extensor carpi muscles in your forearm and a tiredness after holding the position for a few minutes. In application, the heel of the palm is used with a thrusting or slashing motion, and that is often followed by a clawing and grabbing action using the fingers.

— Stefan Verstappen

Stance is also important for this feline. “It has to be a fighting stance,” DeMasco notes. “It’s not a wide stance, it’s not a Shaolin form. They used this tiger stance to fight.”

Strong stances that create stable, grounded positioning contribute to the effectiveness of tiger strikes. Circular arm motions with the tiger claws executed while chang- ing from one stance to another result in maximum torque and power for deflecting an incoming blow — or for taking someone to the ground. It’s effective at tearing up muscles in the arms, legs and body of your opponent, or it can be used to press, push and drive him away.

— Eric Lee

“The fighting aspect was one of the things I was at- tracted to when I learned about the system,” DeMasco says. “When I first saw a video of it, I thought, Oh my God. I love this. This is me!”

The tiger form basically develops the muscles and the ability to relax and explode in one movement.

— Hector Echavarria

“The video I watched had one of the master’s students doing techniques that looked like our kempo techniques only they were much closer and more fluid,” he explains. “I have never seen Chinese movements that looked al- most like kempo — except in the tiger system.”

Tigers use their incredible strength to overcome their prey. Then they use their claws to rip its flesh, attacking with a viciousness that inevitably leads to death. When pitted against an opponent who prefers to punch and kick, the [tiger] stylist uses his fingertips as claws to grab his opponent’s pressure points. That will cause the cho- sen spots on the opponent’s body to go numb and lose their ability to function normally. [He] may then use his fingers to strike vital areas and use his vicious strength and technique to break any part of the body he targets.

— Sin Kwang The, via Christina Grant

When two tigers fight, one will die, but the other will be crippled.

— Chinese saying 


Inspiration: “It’s a different type of training than you receive in the tiger system,” DeMasco notes. “The black tiger is much less common. It’s a variation — like what you get with praying mantis kung fu, which includes northern mantis, southern mantis and seven-star mantis.”

Fu-jow pai, originally called the black-tiger system, was purportedly developed in Shaolin Temple, where it was preciously kept among the monks until a century ago. Then a monk whose name is unknown left the temple for the Hung Temple and took with him knowledge of the black-tiger system. Later, he was to train a man named Wong Bil Hung in the secret ways. It was Wong who renamed the system “tiger claw.” ... One of the few to learn the style was Wai Hong. 

— Anne Darling

“I know the fu-jow pai black-tiger form from Wai Hong and a tiger form from Shaolin,” DeMasco says. “As I said, they’re very different. Shaolin forms are fluid, but the black tiger is much more fluid. It’s continuous motion.”

Interpretation: “A tremendous amount of power ex- ists in the black tiger,” he says. “It’s a lot of upper-body strength, which plays a vital role in the power movements. It’s also low to the ground. The ability to develop both of those requirements takes time.”

Most [students] are very disappointed because they don’t become superhumans in a month or two. About 10 percent of the people last.

— Wai Hong 

“The Shaolin black-tiger form is very different in terms of fluidity and movement than is the Shaolin tiger form,” DeMasco says. “For tiger, it’s the strike with the palm and then grip or claw. Black Tiger is the same. The difference is the strikes. In the black- tiger system, there are training meth- ods that not only hit with the palm and claw but also rip muscle from your body. So hit, claw, grab and pull.”

The black-tiger style is character- ized by its extensive footwork, acrobatic kicks, low, wide stances, and unique fist position (where the thumb is curled in the same man- ner as the other fingers rather than wrapped around them). According to the Shaolin grandmasters, the style is the single most external style in the Shaolin canon; the lon- ger the stylist practices, however, the more he or she comes to rely solely on internal power.

— Wikipedia

Implementation: “You can really see the difference between tiger and black tiger in the forms,” DeMasco says. “In regular tiger, you just come in with the palm to hit and claw. In black ti- ger, you hit with the tiger palm, then rip and pull. It’s a distinct difference.”

The essence of fu-jow pai is to simulate the speed and grace of the fighting tiger.

— Anne Darling

Health Benefits of the Cats

Because of the internal nature of train- ing in the tiger, black-tiger, leopard and snow-leopard styles, practitioners can expect their organs to be strengthened, Steve DeMasco says. “Breath- You learn to sink the air into your lower abdomen. When you learn how to control your breath and force it down, pushing air into that space. It strength- ens the organs so that when you can coordinate your movement with your breathing, everything becomes much more powerful.”


Inspiration: “People are surprised when I tell them that the leopard is stronger than the tiger pound for pound but that because of its lack of size, the leopard has to rely on speed,” DeMasco explains.

“The Chinese wanted to know why things like this are the case and learn how they could take advantage of them. That’s why they studied the movements of the animals — to understand why they attack, how they attack and when they attack and then mimic them. All this supports the methodology of striking with the leopard paw or leopard fist.”

Strikes to the armpits, neck, spine and temples are easily done with the leopard fist, as are pressure- point techniques aimed at the legs or between the ribs. The strike usually begins from a relaxed position, then goes out and back quickly to make contact with the knuckles. You can also whip it out like a backfist.

— Eric Lee

“When you know the leopard, you’re hitting with the leopard paw,” DeMasco says. “You’re not hitting meaty parts of the opponent’s body. You’re going for the throat or nose, under the armpit, maybe the carotid artery or the ear. You go to vital parts of the body because the leopard is strong even though it doesn’t have that size [of the tiger].”

Interpretation: “When the leopard is approaching its prey, it crouches and watches, then moves slowly,” De- Masco continues. “Eventually, it will run after the prey, but that’s at a different point than for the tiger, which is slower. The leopard starts running from farther away. The tiger has to get a little closer because it doesn’t have the speed of the leopard. The leopard instinctively knows it can get its prey from a distance.”

Like a leopard, once a leopard stylist closes the distance, he often will use a leopard-paw strike, DeMasco says. “That might be a strike to the side of the rib cage, not the chest or the head. Leopard strikes use precision. He will hit you in the jaw where it’s weakest, whereas a tiger prac- titioner might hit you anywhere on the jaw and shatter it.”

Leopards are best-known for their persistence. They will relentlessly pursue their prey until they have captured it. Their power comes from their ability to remain loose, relaxed and whip-like. That enables them to generate great speed and power. When a stylist defends himself, he takes control of his adversary as soon as he senses an opening. Once he be- gins the counterattack, he uses mobility and speed to end the fight almost before it begins.

— Sin Kwang The, via Christina Grant

“When the leopard attacks, it bites vital parts of the body, usually the neck,” DeMasco says. “In contrast, the tiger doesn’t care what it bites and it doesn’t care what it claws because it’s big, it’s strong and it’s used to overpowering its adversary. The leopard has to use its speed and precision. It targets soft-tissue body parts. The goal is to deliver pain that opens the door for a follow-up.”

Whereas the tiger strike uses muscle strength, the leop- ard uses power, speed, balance and agile movements. Leopard attacks ... may follow a straight or circular path, but they almost always are short and precise. Even when retreating, you attack and surprise the opponent. It’s a different movement that other styles don’t use.

— Hector Echavarria


Inspiration: “If I had to guess where this animal form comes from, I’d say Tibet,” DeMasco says. “The snow leopard lives up in the mountains there. It’s not an ani- mal that China had historically.

“But the snow leopard is a phenomenal animal that at- tacks very differently from the other big cats. The snow leopard is relatively stocky and low to the ground. It has incredible forearms, and it gets those forearms from climb- ing on rocky cliffs and living in a mountainous environ- ment. When it attacks, it hits with its forearms. It’s not that big of an animal — certainly not like the tiger — but it hunts successfully by using its paws to hit and then to claw.

“In kung fu, snow-leopard techniques are all about fore- arm strikes. They’re very powerful, which is why I was at- tracted to the snow leopard and asked to learn it at Shaolin.”

Interpretation: “As I said, the snow leopard uses the forearms,” DeMasco says. “In terms of self-defense, it’s totally different from, say, the tiger and the leopard. The striking is different, and the striking areas are different.”

Those forearms can be offensive or defensive, he notes. “When you block, it’s a very hard block like the snow leopard would use in nature. Your hand doesn’t meet your opponent’s punch; your forearm does. You hit him with bone, and it hurts like hell.”

Implementation: “When you use the forearm to block, the harder your enemy punches you, the more it’s going to hurt him because the contact involves the force of you coming at him for the block and the force of his at- tack,” DeMasco says.


Such are the tiger, the black tiger, the leopard and the snow leopard. Each cat style is composed of physical techniques as well as philosophical elements. All four offer unique strategies and training methods that are certain to benefit virtually any martial artist. Virtually but not all.

“I think whether the big cats of kung fu appeal to you depends on your age,” DeMasco says. “Students who are interested in this type of training are usually adults. Why do adults take martial arts lessons? Very few times will they tell you they’re coming in to learn how to defend themselves. Instead, they want stress release. They want exercise. They want flexibility. They want better health.”

Exposure to media also can inspire a cat craze, he says. “It did for me. Thirty-five years ago when I was an instructor — this was before I ever went to Shaolin Temple — I would talk in class about the philosophies and principles of the cats. Back then, I studied with masters in Chinatown every weekend, and after class, I would go to the Chinese theater. There, I’d watch the leopard against the crane, and I learned that no one can beat the tiger master unless he learns the leopard and the crane. I wanted that, so I studied even harder and eventually went to Shaolin Temple to learn the animals. That’s when I found out that studying this fascinating part of the martial arts can keep you occupied for a lifetime.”

For more information about Steve DeMasco, visit


This article originally appeared in a 2020 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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