It is generally conceded that the founder of Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu was the boxer Wang Lang, who developed the method of combat around 1600 A.D. Wang was most probably a Ming patriot who left his native Shandong province to improve his kung fu at the Henan Shaolin Temple. It was during this stay that Wang was disappointed with his level of skill, and by chance came upon a praying mantis in battle with a much larger cicada. The mantis overcame the adversary, and Wang took the insect back to the temple to study its movements. These he systematized with his previous knowledge, incorporated the erratic footwork of the monkey style, and thus created the basic northern praying mantis kung fu style.
The diversification from Wang’s original Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fustyle becomes more complex as each splinter group claims a more direct lineage than the next. The story widely believed is that three students were chosen by the founder, and each told to collect a mantis and name his Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu variation of the master’s teachings on the basis of a character unique to his insect. One student had a mantis with seven spots on the thorax, and his school became the seven star praying mantis kung fu, and so on. The subtle distinctions may be described as follows:
Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu: Footwork follows a pattern resembling the seven classical stars in Chinese astrology, i.e., being intricate in nature. While all branches stress emitting power from the waist, this school is largely soft-style, evading direct power confrontations.
Plum Blossom Kung Fu:Stresses plum-flower fist strategies, such as three or five staccato punches in sequence; using a fist in preference to open hands; and generally being considered an introductory style, not going on to truly advanced techniques.
Six Combinations Kung Fu (Six Harmony): Combines three Yin and three Yang principles to evade or absorb an attack softly and attack in a hard manner.
Spotless Kung Fu (unmarked, bare, plain):The branch northern stylists refer to as “southern”, the wrists are kept bent and hands open in order to generate a whipping power over short distances. Relies more upon hand work than other northern styles.
Secret Door Kung Fu (closed door): The most prevalent family style of mantis, uses low stances and great use of elbow strikes. Transitions are far more complex than other styles, used as feints to get into the preferred close-range striking position.
Jade Ring Kung Fu: Named for its peculiar footwork.
Dragging Hand: Uses grappling and grabbing techniques, not unlike Aikido. Back of wrist strikes are common, and the style prefers breaking to striking (mantis’ answer to Ch’in Na.)
Eight Step Kung Fu: Emphasis here is on sticking hands, and leading an opponent to a point of vulnerability. Little actual evasion is employed, as practitioners are taught the superiority of leading the assailants.
Tan Tui Kung Fu: “Detecting legs” aims to check opponent’s move into a favorable attack position. Kicks are uncharacteristically low and fast for Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu, delivered with snap, and rarely above the knees. Practitioners of this branch are taught the use of feet over and above handwork.
Tai Chi (also known saying/Yang or Tai Mantis): Delivers all strikes with great internal power, using a penetrating strike rather than sub-surface impact. Parries are favored to blocks, and power generates from the ground to the waist to technique.
Common to all Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu styles is the use of the mantis hook, the hand being held to resemble a mantis’s talon, and is used for striking, blocking and parrying. Advanced practitioners of Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu learn to lock onto the opponent to employ sticking or leading techniques, but never maintain a strong grip. In this way, the practitioner may take a “free ride” into a strike as the opponent withdraws, or the mantis hook may release the opponent and allow him to yank back and off-balance.
Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu further employs breaking of joints, particularly at the elbow. Ironically, most breaking techniques are themselves elbow strikes, but the star-of-the-palm is also utilized.
Stylistic variations of Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu, as noted above, are actually quite minor, and a practitioner from one branch will usually have very similar training from one to another. The hand motions, elbow strikes, and nimble footwork are common to each. As so often happens in creating “new” styles, one branch may use a heel adduction stance while delivering a particular punch while another may use a forward or cat stance instead; one may favor the closed fist, another the open hand. The forms themselves are quite uniform, following very closely a single pattern of movement and targets, though using variations in stances or type of strike employed.
The evolution of numerous schools stemming from the northern Tang Lang is in part enhanced by the multi-faceted training undertaken by expert boxers. It has always been rare for a Chinese Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu practitioner to study a single style. Normally, one is introduced to the popular style being taught by a relative or a town instructor, and with time the man may go on to study other styles from other teachers as they become available. Before settling into a given style, this exponent may have been involved in ten systems of combat, and was often involved in actual application, before mastering the chosen branch. Thus, one sect of mantis may use a solidly-planted front toe kick taken from the spring leg style in a form, while another master may teach his students to use a flying a crescent kick taken from his Northern Shaolin kung fu training. Personal bias of the individual founder was often as important as practicality in making such distinctions.
In the purest form, Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu as taught in the Shaolin Monastery at Henan was to include all of the material that would eventually be fragmented into the non-temple “family” styles, and include a chi set as well. Because the parent style was invented to overcome the conventional northern styles, it was the pinnacle taught to the most advanced adepts in the temple. This special place accorded mantis only served to increase respect for the radical new style, and for that reason mantis masters are in far greater demand than supply.
The existence of so many family sects of Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu must, then, be a cause of consternation, for how did the most revered combat method of the temple manage to escape to the populace at large? History tells use that during the period concerned, until the latter 17th century, the Henan temple became a center for insurgents against the newly established Manchu hierarchy. Patriotic boxers from all parts of China took “refuge” under the Shaolin roofs, more to learn to combat the new regime than to undertake the ways of the monks. Some priests, and other highly skilled boxers and military men, trained rebel forces to overthrow the Manchus, and in so doing disseminated many of the external styles, including Tang Lang Quan. Remember that true internal sets and chi development were carefully guarded secrets by the true priests, and besides, these methods required too much time and subtlety to be of use to insurgent soldiers. Once the soldiers had gone back into the world, those that survived kept their skills a closely guarded secret, passing on their knowledge only to a very close member of the family, usually the sons. The exact extent of such dilution can be seen if one compares the identical form being performed by a Shaolin Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu stylist and a family practitioner. There is no good or bad involved, because each had different uses; they are merely different.
The forms for Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu are fortunately finite in number, and may be listed in order of complexity as follows below. Bear in mind that complexity entails physical ability at one level, and use of inner power at another. A physically simple set may in fact be far more advanced than it appears.
· Bouncing step
· Four way running, hitting step
· Avoiding Hardness
· 18 Ancestors
· Punch and Jab
· Lo Han skill
· Small circular fist
· White gibbon comes out of cave
· White gibbon steals peach
· Plum blossom fist
· Plum blossom falling fist
· Plum blossom hand
· Very important fist
· Six harmonies fist
· Seven stars fist
· Interception form
On this list, from 1 through 5 are basic Northern Praying Mantis Kung Fu forms, and any one serves as a good introductory set. Number 6 is a ch’i set, and requires years to fully master, for which reason it is introduced early in training. Forms 6 through 10 are intermediate, 11 through 15 advanced, and 16 a recent composite used as a very basic introduction and physical conditioning exercise .