If you grew up on a daily diet of Tom and Jerry cartoons, you’d be surprised to know the forerunners of the clumsy, outwitted Tom to have actually provided an inspiration for ancient Vietnamese to create a form of martial art called vo meo (the cat kung fu).
Cat kung fu is a style of fighting adapted from the cat’s postures and movements and as such, it elevates the status of the cat to that of other awe-inspiring animals, such as the tiger, dragon and eagle after which animals many world-famous styles of martial arts have been named.
A cat’s strengths lie in its flexibility and agility, allowing it to move swiftly and noiselessly and launch quick attacks with its sharp claws and lightning-speed slaps. Observing its swift movements and formidable postures in fighting other animals and hunting mice has led some ancient Vietnamese martial art experts to invent the cat-like style of fighting, which survives and is still practiced in the country today.
A leaf from the book of life
The existence of cat kung fu is well-known to many in the world of professional martial arts but researchers need more than just anecdotal evidence to confirm its existence.
As an expert on the traditional Vietnamese martial arts, I have researched documents and exhibits in museums and libraries, and examined martial art postures related to the cat in many different schools of martial arts in Vietnam. I have discovered that the cat kung fu appeared very early in our country.
Ancient Vietnamese were good at self-protection because they had to fight against savage animals, thieves, robbers, and other enemies. In the beginning, their kung fu was based mostly on everyday activities such as hunting animals, climbing trees, plowing land, and rowing boats. At the same time, they observed how certain animals hunted their prey and then imitated their postures and movements. Not surprisingly, they did not neglect the cat, a skilled hunter and a familiar household animal to them.
To the ancient people, cats were an extremely smart and faithful animal that were loved and treated as a friend in the family. Their effective hunting skills and special fighting style gave ancient Vietnamese an idea about developing a style of fighting that captures the cat’s strengths -- quick attack, quiet retreat, sharp observation, high jumping, fast running, effortless movements and extremely nimble postures.
The cat-like fighting style, existing in a preliminary form next to other animal-based forms of kung fu, such as the tigers, monkeys, snakes, became a vital instrument for ancient Vietnamese to deal with dangers and challenges. Over time, the postures and movements of the cat were systematized and developed into a full-fledged form of martial arts.
In fact, the cat kung fu helped to diversify the many Vietnamese schools of fighting and enrich the national treasure of traditional martial arts.
Degeneration and loss due to oral teaching
The majority of martial art exercises adapted from animals were mainly taught orally and many of them have been lost after thousands of years not being collected and preserved. As the masters of the cat kung fu passed away over time, this form of martial art gradually became lost or degenerated into many inaccurate versions.
Today, drilling techniques in the art of cat fighting are rare and little known to the public. According to experts, “Mieu tay dien” (the cat washing its face) is perhaps among the earliest cat kung fu exercise that survives in Vietnam.
In 1965, I studied the cat kung fu with two martial art masters Huyen An and Nghia Hiep, and later watched Quach Cang, Ta Canh Tham and some other martial art teachers in Binh Dinh Province perform “Mieu tay dien.” This exercise consists of 32 acts, requiring great coordination between the arms and legs.
Techniques of moving, attacking, retreating, evading or neutralizing the opponent’s offense almost make no noise, approaching the movement of a falling leaf in midair. They marshal a person’s both internal and external strengths and are crystallized in the “soft but not weak, hard but not broken” principle.
The formal feline exercises in fighting not only serve the practitioners well in all situations, both in offense and defense, but also contribute to improving their strength and health.
Although the cat’s martial art enjoys less popularity today, its drilling techniques and exercises are still collected and preserved at many martial art centers. The martial art centers of Ha Trong Ngu and Ha Trong Khanh in Ho Chi Minh City’s Go Vap District perpetuate and teach students some typical lessons in the cat-style of kung fu such as “Linh mieu doc chien” (Sacred cat fighting alone) and “Bach mieu quyen” (White cat’s fists).