Like many of you, when I got into minimalist running I went a little nuts. I read all the books and articles I could. I did (what felt at the time like) strange exercises to increase my foot strength. I tried all manner of shoes. And of course I proselytized to anyone who would listen. I mellowed out on that last point once I remembered that everyone is different and that was the whole reason I’d been experimenting with shoes and form to begin with. On the other points, though, I’ve barely slowed. Most especially I’m on a constant mission to find minimalist shoes that sit at or near some vague-but-perfect spot on the spectrum between low price and high quality. I’m certain that I’m not the only one who sees those two characteristics as a tightly corresponding sliding scale and is disappointed by such. Sticker shock is a common occurrence in shoe shopping, but it can often feel more extreme when it comes to minimalist shoes. After all, why should so little cost so much? Feiyue Tiger Claw Martial Arts shoes are one of the styles that piqued my interest as a potential occupant of that sweet spot on the spectrum. How’d they fare once I put them through the ringer?

Some background

This is probably an inaccurate impression to at least some degree, but I can’t help but think of Feiyue shoes as China’s Converse All-Stars. But between the canvas upper, gummy-like rubber sole, and simple construction, there is just too much similarity between the two to deny. They’re also both relatively old brands, the two companies starting production on their namesake shoes early in the 20th century. But while All-Stars have gotten away from their original purpose as basketball shoes in favor of becoming retro-chic, Feiyue is an established martial arts shoe that has held quite strongly to its original purpose. After more than a century, Feiyue still has a strong presence in the martial arts and maintains a devoted following. The recent history and manufacture of the shoes is a bit muddy. As I originally understood it, a French company licensed the Feiyue brand (relatively) recently for production of more stylish/casual shoes while a Shanghai company continued to produce the cheaper, basic black and white martial arts versions with the understanding that neither would tread (ha!) on each others’ styles/territories. But some sources I’ve stumbled upon indicate that the French company had no contact with the original manufacturer and began their own production independently. Add to that the complexities of the Chinese market — especially in regards to counterfeit goods — and discussing the brand becomes a bit of a minefield before we’ve even put the shoes on. Perhaps my favorite tidbit I discovered during my brief research is that Chinese authorities apparently aren’t allowing the French Feiyue brand into China due to the intellectual property concerns. But in the meantime, knockoffs of the French brand have appeared there. Which means somebody, somewhere is potentially making knockoffs of a knockoff. And people are buying them! I’m not taking a side here. I have no opinion because I don’t have all the facts (nor does it seem easy to find them in this case). Suffice to say that the shoes I bought and am reviewing are the cheap, basic Chinese ones that you can buy through many martial arts gear suppliers.

What you get and notes on sizing

With the Feiyue Tiger Claw, you get a pair of simple, classic canvas shoes for a mere $15. You can snag a pair on Amazon for yourself here. They’re available in black or white, low top or high top — and that’s all that’s available in the classics. Specifications are hard to come by for these. Or rather, consistent specs are. And since I lack the appropriate tools to spec these out myself, we’ll have to make do with comparisons. Size-wise these are a little snugger than Inov-8s of similar size. Specifically, I’m comparing them to Inov-8 BareX 200s. (Review forthcoming!) They’re slightly heavier than those Inov-8s, as well. Going back to the comparison to Converse All-Stars, I’d say these feel lighter on the foot than low-top All-Stars. Comparing to FiveFingers, I’d say order two sizes up from your FiveFingers size. That should adequately account for socks as well as the additional snugness. (Assuming that you sized your FiveFingers correctly, that is.) If you tend to wear your FiveFingers too loose and/or size them to account for toe socks, then you’d want to go with only one size larger in Feiyues. I wear a 45 in FiveFingers and found that a 47 in Feiyues fit with a similar snugness. BUT! Since toes don’t spread quite as easily in Feiyues (more on that in a moment), it’s possible that you may have to go as much as three sizes up.

The sole

The Feiyue Tiger Claw sole is relatively minimal. To most wearers it’s going to feel significantly different than other minimalist shoes if only because it has an unusual sole. It’s slightly rounded on the bottom, making the outer edges thinner than the middle. This gives the impression of standing with your foot oriented longways on a thick ridge or bar. The tread is also a little unusual in its simplicity. It looks as if someone took a sharp carving knife and repeatedly cut deeply into the rubber at an angle. Combined with the softness of the rubber makes these quite grippy. Despite my comparing them to All-Stars, the Feiyue’s have a significantly thinner and more flexible sole — as you might expect from a martial arts shoe. Combined with the canvas upper, these roll up and store very well. The only part that doesn’t collapse or roll up completely is the reinforced heel cup. (Another All-Stars similarity.) It’s important to note that the Feiyue shoes are not actively promoted as “minimalist.” The French versions in particular aren’t even close to what most of you would think of as minimalist. But these original Chinese versions fit the bill.

What works

The price. Truly excellent. Minimalist shoe fan or not, I’d recommend these for anyone who wants a decent kick-around pair of shoes. For the price, I was very impressed by the quality. I’ve trained in these shoes under many varying conditions. They’re the pair I reach for whenever I’m about to participate in any activity that makes me think, “I really don’t want to screw up my brand new FiveFingers/sparkling white Inov-8s so soon.” I like them but I’m not afraid of losing them, ripping them, or nastying them up because I can grab another pair for just over the cost of dinner. The grippiness of the sole was also a pleasant surprise. I feel velcroed to the ground in these and never had a single slip in all my uses, even in the rain. I now understand why I kept seeing mentions of these shoes on various parkour forums. Feiyues are also light and flexible enough to be a good introductory shoe for green forefoot/midfoot runners while maintaining just enough thickness in the sole to feel familiar.

What doesn’t

Feiyues have no removable insole, so you lose the benefit of being able to size up or down to improve fit or add/remove cushioning as needed. You’re probably not going to want to run in these without socks. The fit is narrow enough that you’re going to get some rubbing and hot spots — sometimes even if you do wear socks. Then of course there’s the fact that the upper is canvas, which makes for some bad friction at times. Sizing up too much to eliminate the narrowness problem makes them too floppy length-wise. This isn’t a shoe that was built to be seamless, nor was it built specifically for running. Forefoot runners are going to enjoy these more than heel strikers (who probably shouldn’t use them for running at all), but even the barefoot inclined among us might be turned off by the slightly rounded sole. With most full-enclosure minimalist shoes I’ve found that even fairly narrow structures tend to be pretty forgiving owing to the fact that the overall material is minimal and so can accommodate a good toe spread. I’ve been particularly impressed with Inov-8 in this regard — their shoes always seem pretty narrow but somehow still spread easily. Not the case with the Feiyues, unfortunately. The front of the Feiyues have a fairly structured rubber toe cover (again not unlike All-Stars) and as a result the forefoot upper doesn’t flex or bend as well as it could. I’m assuming that this is for protective purposes because again, these are targeted more towards the martial arts crowd as opposed to runners. But I figured I should mention it in case you have a broad forefoot like I do. People with weak ankles or who are otherwise inclined towards stumbling and/or rolling their ankles might want to steer clear of the low-tops as they’re very low indeed. You may want to get yourself a pair of the high tops for additional stability if you have a history of ankle issues. (I know that there’s a lot of debate about high tops, low tops, ankle stability, etc. Not wading into that here — just sharing what I noticed from my own experience.)

For Crossfitters

The Feiyues held their own in the gym. They were light enough and flat enough to work excellently under most conditions. The only time I noticed them specifically were on Olympic lifts like clean and snatch, where the rounded bottom would occasionally make me feel slightly unsteady since less sole was in contact with the floor. Squats as well, since without weightlifting shoes the ankle tends to roll out some for lack of support. Add a rounded sole to that roll and you’ll notice it even more. But the grippy tread often made up for it. Still, I always made sure I wasn’t wearing these if squats were in the rotation. As a side note, I managed to run my fastest one-mile time ever in these shoes. It’s the only time I’ve ever dipped below seven minutes. Still haven’t been able to repeat that in other shoes, though admittedly single-mile racing doesn’t come up in my training very often.

Final thoughts

For $15, Feiyue shoes are phenomenal. They’re lightweight, durable, and simple. If I were to put together a Cheap Introduction to Barefoot Running Shoes Kit for people who aren’t ready to invest much, it would include a pair of Feiyues and maybe a pair of the thinnest, cheapest, most basic huaraches. Both of those would get any newcomer started off well. For more seasoned minimalists, I’d still say it’s worth picking up a pair. Even if you think they’re just so-so, keep them in your trunk for spontaneous training sessions or mud runs. If you want to try a pair, you can find them at Amazon.