Praying Mantis Kung Fu (Tang Lang 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
The southern branch of praying
mantis kung 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.
It is generally conceded that the founder of T'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
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 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 mantis kung fu styles is the use of the 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 of northern 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 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 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
In the purest form, northern mantis kung fu 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 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 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 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.
On this list, forms 1 through 5 are basic, 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
If Northern Praying Mantis is the epitome of popularized, widely
dispersed kung fu, then the true southern counterpart must be the most
secretive. It was developed as a style by the Hakka Chinese, considered to
be outsiders by the other indigenous peoples of Kwangsi province, and the
need for personal defense was indeed great. Little is known surrounding
the origins, but the style evidences elements of Lamaistic training, and
close adherence to Yin/Yang philosophy. Practitioners are skilled in Dim
Mak (death-touch techniques, using non-apparent attack modes) and healing
arts. Two schools developed, these being the Chu and Chow, and both share
so much in common as to use the same name for the method, "Bamboo
The secrecy surrounding Bamboo Forest Praying Mantis is replete with
myths and legends, largely initiated and propagated by the practitioners
themselves. Becoming a student is extremely demanding and involves nothing
less than being adopted by the master and pledging one's life to him. Even
family ties are second to attitude and mental readiness in choosing the
Unlike the northern schools, southern mantis rarely emphasizes one type
of technique; the mantis hook is employed, but so are numerous other
trapping and controlling maneuvers. The typical closed fist of other
styles is absent from the southern sect, which instead favors the mantis
fist, a modification of the leopard punch, but concentrating all of the
striking force through a single finger. Stances are low to moderate, but
firmly anchored to the ground. There is tremendous use of the knees,
elbows and low, powerful kicks. There are few feints or distraction
strikes; everything is designed for 100% power output, and is, thus,
There is reason to believe that at least some of the Southern method
was a direct result to ward off a political oppression during the mid-19th
century, which is further reinforced by the secret society nature of the
sect. Bamboo Forest employs fighting philosophies common to Wing Chun and
White Eyebrow kung fu, and there is stylistic evidence to support the idea
that strong exchange of information has occurred between these schools.
You will find style specific basic technique here along with 2-person drills and forms.
This video is essentially what we had on our CD-ROMs and is now available for free! For basic gung fu technique,
check out our Training Section.
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