Northern Praying Mantis

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Northern Praying Mantis (Chinese: 螳螂拳; literally “praying mantis fist”) is a style of Chinese martial arts, sometimes called Shandong Praying Mantis after its province of origin. It was created by Wang Lang (王朗) and was named after the praying mantis, an insect, the aggressiveness of which inspired the style.

One Mantis legend places the creation of the style in the Song Dynasty when Wang Lang was supposedly one of 18 masters gathered by the Abbot Fu Ju (福居), a legendary persona of the historical Abbot Fu Yu (福裕) (1203-1275), to improve Shaolin martial arts. However, most legends place Wang Lang in the late Ming Dynasty.

Features: The mantis is a long and narrow predatory insect. While heavily armoured, it is not built to withstand forces from perpendicular directions.

Consequently, its fighting style involves the use of whip-like/circular motions to deflect direct attacks, which it follows up with precise attacks to the opponent’s vital spots. These traits have been subsumed into the Northern Praying Mantis style, under the rubric of “removing something” (blocking to create a gap) and “adding something” (rapid attack).

One of the most distinctive features of Northern Praying Mantis is the “praying mantis hook” (螳螂勾; pinyin: tángláng gōu): a hook made of one to three fingers directing force in a whip-like manner.

The hook may be used to divert force (blocking) or to attack critical spots (eyes or acupuncture points). These are particularly useful in combination, for example using the force imparted from a block to power an attack.

Northern Praying Master

So if the enemy punches with the right hand, a Northern Praying Mantis practitioner might hook outwards with the left hand (shifting the body to the left) and use the turning force to attack the enemy’s neck with a right hook. Alternately, he/she might divert downwards with the left hook and rebound with the left wrist stump to jaw/nose/throat. Northern Praying Mantis is especially famous for its speed and continuous attacks. Another prominent feature of the style is its complex footwork, borrowed from Monkey Kung Fu.

History of Praying Mantis: Praying Mantis is arguably one of the most well known animal styles of Kung Fu. As the name suggests, the style takes it forms from the fighting prowess of the Praying Mantis insect. The history of the Praying Mantis style dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) in the Gimore County in the Shantung Province. It was developed by Wang Lang who had held an interest in the martial arts from an early age and became renowned for his martial knowledge.

Four Generals of Song

In a bid to test his martial skill, Wang Lang ventured to the Shaolin Temple in the Lao Shan mountains to challenge the monks of Shaolin. When he arrived at the Temple he came across several Taoist monks in the main plaza practising their boxing skills. Wang Lang issued his first challenge to one of the monks but received no response. When Wang continued his challenge, the monk agreed to let him fight a lower level student. Wang fought hard against the student but was defeated. He returned home with his tail between his legs and knew that he’d have to train a lot harder to match the might and skill of the famed Shaolin.

Two years later Wang returned to the Shaolin Temple to once again test his skills. He was in far better physical shape than he had been during his previous trip and was once again matched against a student of the Temple. This time Wang won the bout and fought his way through the ranks of Shaolin until he eventually stood toe-to-toe with the head abbot. Wang fought at the height of his skill but was soundly beaten by the abbot. In pain from his fight with the abbot, Wang rested against a tree by the Lao Shan mountains. It was here that he spotted two insects fighting – a cicada and a much smaller praying mantis.

Wang Lang Statue

He observed carefully as the mantis used its long arms and quick movements to defeat its much larger opponent. In awe of the mantis, Wang took the insect home and built a cage for it. He studied the insect’s every movement and used a pair of chopsticks to battle with the mantis to see how it would react to various strikes and thrusts. Wang took these techniques and incorporated them into his own training. With these new techniques he once again ventured to the Shaolin Temple to test his newfound skills.

The monks recognised Wang and allowed him to fight. He fought the head abbot again and was successful, stunning the monks with his newfound skills. Indeed the monks were so impressed that they forced Wang to stay at the temple until he imparted to them the knowledge of his new techniques. Wang, however, had different ideas and escaped the Temple during the night. Wang returned home to continue his training, concentrating now on the development of his footwork, test his newfound skills. He studied various animals and decided to incorporate the footwork of the monkey into his style.

Wang would spend the rest of his life finely tuning his praying mantis style to the point that it became regarded as one of the most effective and fierce Kung Fu styles of its era. Today praying mantis masters continue to refine the art to keep it just as effective. The praying mantis system would separate into two major factions: Northern and Southern.

Wong Long

Northern style is characterised by traditional low Shaolin stances, leaping kicks and long hand techniques. Northern praying mantis is further broken into four main styles. As legend has it, four of Wang Lang’s disciples sought to break away from Wang’s original system, claiming to have superior innovations of their own.

Wang granted their wishes on the condition that each disciple name his individualised system after the markings on the back of a personally captured mantis. Thus the following styles were born: Yin-Yang (Tai Ji); Plum Blossom (Mei Hua); 7 Stars (Qi Xing); and Spotless or Bare (Kwong Pan). Southern style is characterised by upright stances, hand forms and close range techniques. The exact origin of Southern style praying mantis is unsure, though it is believe to have been derived from the Shaolin system of the Northern mantis and refined by the Hakka tribe of Kwangs province in Southern China. Like the Northern style, the Southern style is divided into four branches: Chu Gar, Chou (Chow) Gar, Iron Ox and Bamboo Forest. KFS

Origins: There are many legends surrounding the creation of Northern Praying Mantis boxing. One legend attributes the creation of Mantis fist to the Song Dynasty when Abbot Fu Ju (福居), a legendary persona of the historical Abbot Fu Yu (福裕) (1203-1275), supposedly invited Wang Lang (王朗) and seventeen other masters to come and improve the martial arts of Shaolin.

The Abbot recorded all of the techniques in a manual called the Mishou (祕手 – “Secret Hands”) and later passed it onto the Taoist priest Shen Xiao. This manual supposedly disappeared until the Qianlong reign era when it was published under the name “Arhat exercising merit short strike illustrated manuscript” (Chinese: 罗汉行功短打; pinyin: Luohan Xinggong Duan Da). Some sources place the folk manuscript’s publication on the “sixteenth day of the third month of the spring of 1794”. The manual records Wang Lang “absorbed and equalized all previous techniques” learned from the 17 other masters.

The 18 Masters Invited to Shaolin

# Name Technique Master
1 Chang Quan Long-range Boxing Emperor Taizu
2 Tonbei Through the Back Han Tong
3 Chan Feng Wrap Around and Seal Zhang En
4 Duanda Close-range Strikes Ma Ji
5 Keshou Tongquan Blocking Hands and Following Through Fist Jin Xiang
6 Gou Lou Cai Shou Hooking, Scooping and Grabbing Hands Liu Xing
7 Zhanna Diefa Methods of Sticking, Grabbing, and Falling Yan Qing
8 Duan Quan Short Boxing Wen Yuan
9 Hou Quan Monkey Boxing Sun Heng
10 Mien Quan Cotton Fist Mien Shen
11 Shuailue Yingbeng Throwing-Grabbing and Hard Crashing Huai De
12 Gunlou Guaner Ducking, Leaking and Passing through the Ears Tan Fang
13 Yuanyang Jiao Mandarin ducks kicking technique Lin Chong
14 Qishi Lianquan Seven Postures of Continuous Fist Strikes Meng Su
15 Kunlu Zhenru Hand Binding and Grabbing Yang Gun
16 Woli Paochui Explosive Strikes into the Hollow Body Parts Cui Lian
17 Kao Shou Close Range Hand Techniques Huang You
17 Tanglang Praying Mantis Wang Lang

A full one third of the masters listed all come from fictional novels. Yan Qing (#7) and Lin Chong (#13) come from the Water Margin and Emperor Taizu (#1), Han Tong (#2), Zhang En (#3) and Huai De (#11) come from the Fei Long Quan Zhuan (飞龙全传 – “The Complete Flying Dragon Biography”).

Another legend connected to the Song Dynasty states Wang Lang participated in a Lei tai contest in the capital city of Kaifeng and was defeated by General Han Tong (韩通), the founder of Tongbeiquan. After leaving the fighting arena, he saw a brave praying mantis attacking the wheels of oncoming carts with its “broadsword-like” arms, Mantis fist was born shortly thereafter. However, most legends place Wang Ming living in the late Ming Dynasty.

Connection with General Yue Fei: As previously stated, the Water Margin bandits Lin Chong and Yan Qing, the adopted of Lu Junyi, are said to be part of the 18 master supposedly invited to Shaolin by the legendary Abbot Fuju. According to the folklore biography of Song Dynasty General Yue Fei, Lin and Lu were former students of Zhou Tong, the general’s military arts teacher.

Grand Master Lo Kwang Yu demonstrating the traditional technique of "Mantis Catching the Cicada"

One martial legend states Zhou learned Chuojiao boxing from its originator Deng Liang (邓良) and then passed it onto Yue Fei. Chuojiao is also known as the “Water Margin Outlaw style” and “Mandarin Duck Leg” (Chinese: 鴛鴦腿; pinyin: Yuānyāng Tuǐ). In the Water Margin’s twenty-ninth chapter, entitled “Wu Song, Drunk, Beats Jiang the Gate Guard Giant”, it mentions Wu Song, another of Zhou’s fictional students, using the “Jade Circle-Steps with Duck and Drake feet”. Lin Chong is listed above as being a master of “Mandarin ducks kicking technique”.

Lineage Mantis Master Yuen Man Kai openly claims Zhou taught Lin and Lu the “same school” of martial arts that was later combined with the aforementioned seventeen other schools to create Mantis fist. However, he believes Mantis fist was created during the Ming Dynasty, and was therefore influenced by these eighteen schools from the Song. He also says Lu Junyi taught Yan Qing the same martial arts as he learned from Zhou. Master Yuen further comments Zhou later taught Yue the same school and that Yue was the originator of the mantis move “Black Tiger Steeling[sic] Heart”.

Widespread styles: There are several styles of Northern Praying Mantis, the most famous of which are:

Seven Star Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 七星螳螂拳; pinyin: qÄ« xÄ«ng tángláng quán). This style is the original form of praying mantis kung fu and is widespread in the Shandong Province and surrounding areas. Luo Guangyu (羅光玉) is famous for having passed down this style to Hong Kong and other parts of Southern China, where it is still practiced today. Seven Star is considered by many as the ‘hardest’ of the Praying Mantis styles, however it still utilizes soft-hard principles and is classified as a soft-hard style.

Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 梅花螳螂拳; pinyin: méihuā tángláng quán). One of the oldest among all Northern Parying Mantis styles, it is widespread in Shandong Province, Jilin, Liaoning and South Korea. It traces its lineage directly from Li Bingxiao (b.1700s) to Zhao Zhu to Liang Xuexiang (1810-1895). Liang Xuexiang was the first master to use the name of Plum Blossom. Liang Xuexiang’s disciples, mainly Jiang Hualong, Liang Jingchuan, Sun Yuanchang, Hao Hong and Xiu Kunshan are responsible for popularization of this style in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, it heavily influenced the development of Taiji Mantis of Cui Shoushan and Wang Yushan, Taiji Plum Blossom of Hao Family, Taiji Mantis of Zhao Zhuxi and Babu Mantis of Wei Xiaotang.

Taiji Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 太極螳螂拳; pinyin: tàijí tángláng quán). Today this style is represented by two distinct lineages. The first one is that of Cui Shoushan and Wang Yushan and is based on Song Zide and Jiang Hualong’s Plum Blossom teachings in Laiyang, Shandong Province. It is popular in Laiyang, Yantai, Qingdao, Dalian, North America, Russia, France and Spain. The second lineage can be traced to Sun Yuanchang’s Blum Blossom, who was yet another disciple of Liang Xuexiang.

Northern Praying Illustrated

Its most famous progenitor is Zhao Zhu Xi, who is said to have taught (both directly and indirectly) thousands of students during his lifetime in Vietnam and Hong Kong, who have since spread to all corners of the globe. He was given the Cantonese nickname Chuk Kai, meaning “Bamboo Creek”, for a famous battle he fought with bandits at that location. This style has since become prevalent in places such as Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and North America.

Taiji Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 太極梅花螳螂拳; pinyin: tàijíméihuā tángláng quán). This style is, historically, a combination of two different lineages of Mantis: Taiji Mantis and Plum Blossom Mantis. This style is widespread in Yantai, Qingdao, Beijing, Dalian, Harbin, etc. What is now called Taiji Plum Blossom traces its lineage to Hao Lianru (郝蓮茹)—a disciple of Liang Xuexiang, his sons Hao Henglu, Hao Hengxin and his grandson Hao Bin. The later three combined both Taiji Mantis and Plum Blossom in the early 20th Century, creating the current style. Hao Lianru’s five sons have since spread the style elsewhere. This style is well-known for its large, two-handed sword, and for being somewhat ‘softer’ than Seven Star Praying Mantis.

Six Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 六合螳螂拳; pinyin: liù hé tángláng quán). Known as the ‘softest’ or most ‘internal’ of the Praying Mantis styles, Six Harmony was passed down by Ding Zhicheng (丁子成), whose students taught in Shandong Province as well as Taiwan. Six Harmony Praying Mantis has a very different curriculum, with unique routines not found in other Praying Mantis styles.

Rare styles: Other, less widespread styles include:

Eight Step Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 八步螳螂拳; pinyin: bā bù tángláng quán). This style was originally conceived by Jiang Hua Long, and was further refined by his principle disciple of the style, Feng Huanyi (馮環義), which was passed down by his disciple Wei Xiaotang (衛笑堂) in Taiwan.

Shiny Board Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 光板螳螂拳; pinyin: guāng bÇŽn tángláng quán). Also known as “flat plate” or “hidden grip” Praying Mantis.

Long Fist Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 長拳螳螂拳; pinyin: cháng quán tángláng quán). Influenced strongly by Long Fist boxing.

Throwing Hand Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 摔手梅花螳螂拳; pinyin: shuāishǒu méihuā tángláng quán). This style was passed down by Bao Guangying from Shandong Province. He taught in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

Secret Gate Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 秘門螳螂拳; pinyin: mì mén tángláng quán). This style was passed down by Zhang Dekui (張德奎) in Taiwan and is a variation of Taiji Mantis.

Seeking Leg Praying Mantis Boxing (Chinese: 探腿螳螂拳; pinyin: tàn tuǐ tángláng quán). Was passed down by Pui Chan, who immigrated to the United States.

Media: Mantis fist is usually the main antagonist’s style of choice in various forms of media.

Film: In The Tricky Master (1999), Stephen Chow’s apprentice beats an overweight card sharp in a “fixed” high-stakes poker game. When taunted, the card sharp jumps onto the playing table and defeats Chow’s deaf, cross-dressing bodyguard with a “long lost kung fu” called “Fat Mantis”, which is the “most powerful…and kills without blood.” (Note the card sharp’s shadow cast upon the wall in the shape of an overweight mantis with a big round belly.) In the end, Stephen Chow sprays the card sharp with a can of insecticide. He falls to the ground dead with his hands and legs held into the air like a bug.

Television: In Hung Hei-Gun: Decisive Battle With Praying Mantis Fists (洪熙官: 决战螳螂拳) (a.k.a. The Kung Fu Master, 1994), Donnie Yen plays the titular role of legendary martial arts hero Hung Hei-Gun. After being beaten up as a Child, Hung’s parents send him away to study Kung Fu.

He returns eight years later to find his father (who is secretly an anti-Manchu rebel leader) working as the military arms instructor for the Qing government, much to the chagrin of the local villagers. Despite his years of training, a rakish manchu Prince easily overpowers Hung with the mantis style. After the supposed death of his father, Hung faces the prince once more. When the prince shoots poisonous arrows from his sleeves, Hung twirls his staff to collect the projectiles and then flings them back. The Prince dies from his own poison arrows.

Books: Mantis is about a half-Vietnamese serial killer who murders erotic dancers because he believes his pet praying mantis tells him to do so (which is quite similar the real life case involving the “Son of Sam”). He uses this style of fighting utilizing his fingers to attack the neck veins and the eyes.