The 5 Kung Fu Animal Styles of the Chinese Martial Arts

To longtime readers of Black Belt, Steve DeMasco needs no introduction. A student of the martial arts since 1968, he's been a fixture in the magazine since his debut in the February 1998 issue. Over the ensuing years, he's espoused his views on the physical and philosophical sides of the Shaolin fighting arts—specifically, Shaolin kempo. At the end of 1998, he was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame as Instructor of the Year. In the following article, the New Hampshire-based master, who serves as Shaolin Temple's cultural ambassador to the United States, continues the topic he started in his March 2007 Shaolin Path column by describing and demonstrating the self-defense techniques of the five animals of the Chinese arts.


Kung Fu Animal Style #1: Tiger

Popularity: high (for tiger), rare (for black tiger)

Shaolin saying: "Tiger strengthens the bones."

Characteristics: strength, agility; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology

Strategy: tends to charge the opponent and attack directly with brute force, uses circular arm movements to overwhelm the enemy, relies on the arms but occasionally uses low kicks

Targets: any part of the body, especially those that react to tearing techniques

Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, speed, solid build, ability to adopt a strong stance and quickly change to another stance

Training: push-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics, sparring, chi-development exercises

Trademark: tiger claw, an open-hand grabbing and striking weapon formed by spreading the thumb and fingers, then bending them slightly

In legend: "It offers the power to shake the earth and to be the authoritative king of its lair," kung fu master Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #2: Leopard

Popularity: high

Shaolin saying: "Bend fingers hard, like iron."

Characteristics: strong, efficient, fast, technical, defined by accuracy, capable of stealth attacks

Strategy: strikes quickly to inflict pain, then follows up for the kill

Targets: soft-tissue regions and other vital areas, including the ears, neck, armpits, temples and groin

Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, supple strength, ability to quickly retract the arms and legs after a strike

Training: striking drills that develop accuracy and precision

Trademark: leopard paw, a half-fist that strikes with the second knuckles of the four fingers. It's a rigid weapon that makes contact with a small, penetrating surface.

In legend: "It's nature's master of precision and prowess—sharp, efficient and lightning fast," Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #3: Crane

Popularity: medium

Shaolin saying: "The spirit of the crane resides within the stillness."

Characteristics: evasive, rarely offense-oriented, subtle, graceful

Strategy: keeps the opponent at a distance and capitalizes on the length of the arms and legs, tends to strike with the very end of the natural weapons, attempts to overwhelm the enemy with rapid hand strikes, evades using circular movements

Targets: soft areas such as the eyes, throat, ears and heart; sides of the head; ribs

Physical requirements: tall, long reach, ability to remain still for extended periods, good balance, concentration, minimal strength

Training: mobility-enhancing drills to develop the ability to maintain distance between oneself and the opponent, speed training, quick retraction of natural weapons, chi-development exercises

Trademark: crane beak, formed by bunching the thumb, index finger and middle finger together to strike with the fingertips

In legend: "It dances with accuracy and control, and offers weightlessness to rise above crises," Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #4: Snake

Popularity: medium

Shaolin saying: "Hard like steel and soft like a rope of silk."

Characteristics: deceptive, agile, fast, accurate

Strategy: relies on awareness, employs coiling motions and hisses to intimidate, uses whipping toe kicks to the lower half of the opponent's body, utilizes simultaneous striking and locking techniques, avoids using the traditional fist

Targets: vital parts of the body, especially the eyes, face and throat

Physical requirements: thin build, quick muscles

Training: drills to increase explosiveness, which enables one to take the opponent by surprise; exercises that enhance balance and accuracy

Trademark: snake hand, which uses one or two fingers—or, in the case of the spearhand, all of them—to attack and defend

In legend: "It has extreme chi power, which helps activate profound sensitivity and enables all the muscles to work as one," Rob Moses says.

Kung Fu Animal Style #5: Dragon

Popularity: rare

Shaolin saying: "Dragon fist trains the spirit."

Characteristics: strong, smart, deceptive, unpredictable; includes traits of the other four Shaolin animals; considered one of the two most powerful animals in Chinese astrology and the sign of the emperor

Strategy: uses quick, snapping kicks that hit with the blade of the foot; uses the full fist and the forearms to strike; may combine physical techniques of the other Shaolin animals

Targets: any body part that can be grabbed; the head, which is simultaneously grabbed and struck

Physical requirements: relaxed muscles, ability to switch from soft movements to hard movements

Training: drills to build explosive power

Trademark: dragon-tail kick, which is used to hit or sweep; dragon claw, which positions the digits in a flatter orientation than does the tiger claw

In legend: "It protects treasure, defends against famine and floods, and is filled with ancient wisdom and folklore," Rob Moses says.


Black Belt Magazine has a storied history that dates back all the way to 1961, making 2021 the 60th Anniversary of the world's leading magazine of martial arts. To celebrate six decades of legendary martial arts coverage, take a trip down memory lane by scrolling through some of the most influential covers ever published. From the creators of martial art styles, to karate tournament heroes, to superstars on the silver screen, and everything in between, the iconic covers of Black Belt Magazine act as a time capsule for so many important moments and figures in martial arts history. Keep reading to view the full list of these classic issues.

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