Praying Mantis Gung Fu (T'ang L'ang Ch'uan) is a comparatively recent innovation by martial arts time standards, having developed in the north of China during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty. Because of the newness of the northern schools, the history and diversification can be readily traced. The southern branch of praying mantis gung fu is not so easily studied; it was developed by a different group of practitioners at a different time and for different reasons than the northern counterparts. Consequently, the two main schools show very little in common, yet both share the origin from studying a moderate-sized predatory insect. In this section, the origins, and the important motivations for their development, will be examined, and comments about stylistic and practitioner's differences discussed.
HISTORY OF NORTHERN PRAYING MANTIS
It is generally conceded that the founder ofT'ang L'ang Ch'uan 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 Shantung province to improve his kung fu at the Honan 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 style.
The diversification from Wang's original style 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 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 stars praying mantis, and so on. The subtle distinctions may be described as follows: Seven Stars: 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: 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 (Six Harmony): Combines three Yin and three Yang principles to evade or absorb an attack softly and attack in a hard manner.
Spotless (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 (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: 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: 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: "Detecting legs" aims to check opponent's move into a favorable attack position. Kicks are uncharacteristically low and fast, delivered with snap, and rarely above the knees. Practitioners of this branch are taught the use of feet over and above handwork.
T'ai Chi (also known asYinlYang 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 styles is the use ofthe mantis hook, the hand being held to resemble a mantid's talon, and is used for striking, blocking and parrying. Advanced practitioners 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.
Mantis 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, 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 T'ang L'ang is in part enhanced by the multi-faceted training undertaken by expert boxers. It has always been rare for a Chinese gung 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 training. Personal bias of the individual founder was often as important as practicality in making such distinctions.
In the purest form, northern mantis as taught in the Shaolin Monastery at Honan was to include all of the material that would eventually be fragmented into the non-temple "family" styles, and include a ch'i 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 mantis 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 Honan 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 T'ang L'ang Ch'uan. Remember that true internal sets and ch'i 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 Mantis 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 mantis 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.
1. Bouncing step
2. Four way running, hitting step
3. Avoiding Hardness
4. 18 Ancestors
5. Punch and Jab
6. Lo Han skill
7. Small circular fist
8. White gibbon comes out of cave
9. White gibbon steals peach
10. Plum blossom fist
11. Plum blossom falling fist
12. Plum blossom hand
13. Very important fist
14. Six harmonies fist
15. Seven stars fist
16. (Interception form)
On this list, forms 1 through 5 are basic, and anyone 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.