Praying Mantis kung fu is a very well known but little understood art. Contrary to popular belief it is not about mimicking the insect, and has very little direct relation to Shaolin Temple. There is a well known myth about a man called Wang Lang who, after losing a fight, witnessed a mantis catching a cicada and became inspired to create a new style. However, outside of this myth, there is almost no historical record of a man named Wang Lang actually existing.
In fact, what is more likely is that Praying Mantis is a collection of styles indigenous to the Shandong region, which has been a hotbed of conflict and strife throughout Chinese history. The oldest texts of Praying Mantis have a list of 18 styles, the last one being Praying Mantis, which it comments “absorbed and equalised the previous 17”. (Actually this list is the only mention of Wang Lang as far as I know).
At some unknown point, somebody condensed the fighting techniques of Praying Mantis into three form: Beng Bu 崩补, Luan Jie 乱接 and Ba Zhou 八肘. Beng Bu contains the basic techniques and steps, Luan Jie is made up of 36 mother techniques and Ba Zhou is 64 close range techniques. While Ba Zhou is generally translated as “eight elbows”, technically the Chinese word “zhou” refers to a joint of the body, so it is using the eight joints as weapons – fist, wrist, elbow, shoulder, head, hip, knee, foot.
A huge development came, when Liang Xue Xiang, during the 19th century, created the series of Zhai Yao 摘要. After a
lifetime of work in the armed escort agencies, escorting goods through bandit infested areas of Shandong and Hebei to Beijing, he created a series of 6 forms called “the essentials”, Zhai Yao. He took the basis from the Mi Shou 秘手 , or secret hands, combined with knowledge he had picked up on his travels and during his many fights to create these new forms.
Liang Xue Xiang’s most famous student was Jiang Hua Long. He is the figure responsible for popularising Praying Mantis. It was said he was fond of fighting, and challenged every school and master he met. While this made him a lot of enemies, it also brought him a lot of students, and he was often invited to stay in villages and teach the local people. Because of this, many new styles started to spring up, after people combined their own local village styles with the knowledge Jiang gave them. During his travels, Jiang met a man named Li Dan Bai, who was just as fond of fighting as him. In fact, Li was so fond of fighting, he was banned from entering any schools in Yantai. This left him teacherless, and his only option was to master the little he knew, which was a set of long range arm wheeling techniques called Fan Che 翻车. It seemed when the two met, they had finally met their match, and being so impressed with each other, exchanged their skills. After Fan Che was added into Praying Mantis, it more-or-less became the complete system we find today.
Praying Mantis kung fu is based around 12 keywords (which I will write about later). In a nutshell, these 12 keywords deal with methods of provoking, sticking, trapping, striking and taking down the opponent. The style also places emphasis on deception, in a similar way to a boxer with his feints. For example, feinting high then striking low, feinting with punches to open up for a kick, deliberately provoking the opponent to block and then using the contact as set up for a lock or throw. Emphasis is placed on a method of power known as Hulun Jin 囫囵劲, a local Yantai slang word meaning something like “whole” or “complete”; the analogy my teacher uses is after a mule rolls in the grass it will stand up and suddenly shake it’s whole body (basically like how a dog shakes itself dry after swimming in a river). The power bursts out from the body in a sudden, complete explosion concentrated into one point, be it the fist, elbow, shoulder or any other part.
This here is a brief introduction to the style of Praying Mantis, my understanding comes primarily from my own lineage of Taiji Mantis. Please check back regularly, as I will be writing more on the various aspects of our style, including the history, weapons and other training methods. You can find out more about Praying Mantis kung fu, and about me and my training at www.monkeystealspeach.co.uk.