Praying Mantis Kung Fu

The Original Praying Mantis Forms History

By Jon Funk

Note: the Chinese terms in this article are in expressed in Manderin.

History tells us that Wang’s praying mantis was taught as a higher level kung fu art to the monks of Shaolin for a number of generations. As time went on improvements were introduced by the monks and the system continued to develop.

A traveling Taoist, Sheng Xiao Dao Ren, stopped by the Shaolin temple and observed the monks practicing a style of kung fu that looked jerky and without much power. He asked for a friendly match and quickly lost to a junior monk. He thought this must have been a fluke so he asked to spar with a senior monk. Again he lost and was thrown to the ground. When he pick himself up he asked what martial art they were studing. The monks explained the kung fu style they were practicing was called praying mantis.

Sheng Xiao Dao Ren stayed on at the Shaolin temple and learned the entire praying mantis art from the monks. After mastering the skills of this effective style he left the temple and began his travels again. Sheng only taught one student , Lee San Jian. After Lee learned the art of praying mantis he established a caravan guarding service. As a result of his reputation (of nobody being able to beat him) he was nicknamed The "Lee The Lightning Fist" by the local bandits.

As Lee grew older he retired from the caravan guarding business and looked for a successor to the praying mantis art that had served him so well. Traveling, he arrived in Fusham and met with a local champion called Wang Rong Sheng. Lee asked for a demonstration of Wang’s skills. Upon seeing his performance Lee remarked that this exhibition of kung fu ability should have not have qualified him to be a champion.

Wang was upset by these comments and challenged Lee to fight. Wang attacked, however, whenever he came at Lee, he seemed to disappear. Lee appeared to effortlessly evade any attack Wang could throw at him. At this point Wang decided that he was facing considerable skill and he humbly asked to be Lee’s student.

As Wang was from a wealthy family he was able devote much of his time to learning all his teacher had to share and therefore developed the art of praying mantis to a high level. After several years Wang accepted a student called Fan Xu Dong.

Nicknamed the giant and the broadsword, Fan was a large individual weighing over 300 pounds. Known as Giant Fan, he gain notoriety for an incident involving a pair of bulls. As Fan was crossing a farmer’s field he was confronted by two angry bulls. As the bulls charged, Fan kicked the first one and palm struck the second one. Both bulls died and the farmer, although not happy with the death of his livestock, accepted the explanation. Word of this incident soon spread and generated some fame for Fan. He also gained even more of a reputation when he travelled to Russia where he won a challenge match.

Fan hand wrote five volumes called the "Shaolin Authentic." One book was on herbalogy, another was the Luo Han Gong (Monk martial art), the others were on the principles and concepts of northern praying mantis kung fu. These five books were later hand copied in Hong Kong by Huang Han Xuen. The original illustrations and calligraphy on Luo Han Gong by Fan Xu Dong was reproduced in one of Huang’s books in which he added photographs to depict the movements.

In 1918, Fan was asked to come to Shanghai to be an instructor in the newly reorganized Ching Wu Athletic Association. He declined, however, he sent one of his students, Luo Guang Yu.

Luo, who was 20 years old at the time, started teaching in 1918 at the Ching Wu headquarters in Shanghai as one of the four main instructors. At the same time his kung fu brother Yang Gin Shang also came to Shanghai to teach, but soon returned to Shantung. Luo, being somewhat shy, kept to himself so unfortunately the others at the Ching Wu did not get to know him. Because of his shy nature, the other martial artists in Shanghai mistakenly thought he was rather aloof.

In 1929 one of Luo’s students, Ma Cheng Xin won a national championship in a sparring division conducted in Shanghai. From this success Luo gained respect from his fellow Shanghai teaching colleagues. This helped solve some of the problems his reputation for being a snob created.

Luo, a big man of almost 200 lbs, was well known at the Ching Wu for his dedicated practice of praying mantis. Each day he would perform each of the forms in the northern praying mantis system. Luo, a master of the iron palm skill, was a big proponent of sparring practice. At this time in China’s history sparring was not a prominent aspect of kung fu systems. Most northern kung fu systems used the two man choreographed fighting sets to practice their fighting skills. Northern praying mantis also uses the two man choreographed fighting sets, but Luo also encouraged free sparring practice as well. When Luo sparred with his students, however, he would not attack, but only defend, as he was afraid that his iron palm skills might inadvertently hurt his sparring partner.

Luo had two favorite forms: a hand set called Tang Lang Tou Tau, and the three section staff weapon set. The hand set is an excellent form for teaching quick fighting skills. It is performed with speed and the combinations of techniques that develop useful flowing combat tactics. His favorite weapon set was the three section staff set which is made up of practical techniques that effectively teach how to utilize this difficult weapon in combat situations.

Luo also was quite fond of the straight sword form Tzu Wu Jien (High Noon Sword) This form is considered the top straight sword set in the northern praying mantis system. It is not a form with a lot of fancy looking movements, however, it is a challenging set to master. When Luo lived in Hong Kong he was fond of walking in the trails around the city and often used a walking stick to practice some of the movements of Tzu Wu Jien as he made his way.

Luo taught northern praying mantis in Shanghai until he traveled south to Hong Kong. During his teaching career he produced 21 graduate students and taught for the Hong Kong Ching Wu until his return to Shanghai.

Luo proved he was a loyal student to his master, Fan Xu Dong, and demonstrated this by helping to support his teacher in his old age. In 1944 Luo returned to Shanghai and died there the same year at the age of 56. He is buried in the Shantung cemetery in Shanghai. He was survived by his wife, four sons and two daughters.

Huang Han Xuen (Wong Hon Fun in Cantonese), one of 21 graduate students of Luo Guang Yu, began his northern praying mantis teaching career at the age of 18 years in Macau in 1932. He taught for over 40 years and retired at the age of 57. He passed away at age 61 in 1974.

Huang was considered a perfectionist by his students and they often told of his strong temper when students didn’t perform up to his expectations. In 1933 Huang was sent by his teacher, Luo Guang Yu, to Wuhan, Szechaun province to teach in the Ching Wu branch located there. Before heading to Wuhan, Huang participated in the closed door ceremony to become Luo’s closed door disciple. Prior to the ceremony he spent three intensive days learning from Luo. Huang often spoke of this experience as "the time when studying for these 3 days with his sifu was like practicing for three years on his own."

In Wuhan, Huang, had to overcome a number of teaching obstacles. He first had to deal with the language barrier and to add to that, most of his students were stronger and taller (Huang was 5’ 7" and 160 lbs). In addition , Huang, was replacing a popular long time teacher. It was Huang’s knowledge and teaching skills that soon overcame the problems he initially faced and later he was appointed the chief instructor for broadsword training for the local military.

In 1937 Huang went back to Hong Kong due to the Japanese invasion of China. There he took up teaching for the Ching Wu. Later, Huang open his own school called the Hon Fan Athletic School. He also taught in a number of high schools and benevolent societies. Huang believed that a student could achieve satisfactory proficiency in the northern praying mantis system in six years and after another two years of instructor apprenticeship could achieve graduate status.

Huang, also published a series of books on northern praying mantis kung fu. Beginning in 1946 he published the first of some thirty volumes which succeeded in documenting the northern praying mantis system. The books featured forms, descriptions of principles and concepts, fighting tactics, and history. There is a complete set of Huang’s northern praying mantis kung fu books on display at Harvard university.

The form Beng Bu, common to all northern praying mantis styles, was published by Huang in 1947 featuring his teacher, Luo Guang Yu, in the majority of the photographs. Since Huang was a traditional medical practitioner he taught his students these skills and he published a book of herbal recipes and descriptions on how to do bone setting.

Huang Han Xuen taught for forty years and had many students that graduated from his praying mantis kung fu school. In a commemorative book published by his students in his honor there is a list of all of Huang’s graduates. If anyone sites they are a graduate of Huang and his name is not present then they are not considered to be accurate in their claim.

One of Huang Han Xuen’s graduates, Al Cheng, immigrated to Canada in 1977. In 1979, after completing his education in Canada, he opened his own kung fu school teaching praying mantis in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Prior to immigrating to Canada Al Cheng won a Hong Kong full contact fighting championship in his weight class in 1977.

Joining Al Cheng’s kung fu school in 1979 as one of his first students was Jon Funk. Later, a graduate of Al Cheng, Funk opened his own praying mantis kung fu school in Vancouver, B.C. where he continues to teach the northern praying mantis kung fu system.

Northern praying mantis kung fu, as taught by Lou Guang Yu, is made up of the following branches of praying mantis: Chi Xieng (Seven Star style), Mei Hua (Plum Flower style), Guang Bang (Shinny Board style) Chang Chuan (Long Fist style), and Fan Che (Chariot style). The style, as Luo Guang Yu taught it, is made up of 50% Chi Xieng (Seven Star style), 30% Mei Hua (Plum Flower style), and 20% Guang Bang (Shinny Board style). The praying mantis style, Guang Bang (Shinny Board style) is the root style of both the Chang Chuan (Long Fist style) and the Fan Che (Chariot style). Forms from each branch of praying mantis were adopted into the northern praying mantis system as taught by Luo Guang Yu. Each form teaches a somewhat different aspect of northern praying mantis.

Historically it is considered that the different praying mantis systems were created by the monk students of Wang Lang. Each monk student put a different emphasis on the forms and approaches of the style because of different desires and body types. The taoist, Sheng Xiao Dao Ren had the opportunity to learn these different praying mantis systems from the shaolin monks and pass them on.

>From the Chi Xieng (Seven Star style) are forms such as Beng Bu (Crushing Step), Shyh Ba Sou (Eighteen Old Men), Duo Gang (Cocealing the Hard), Tang Lang Chu Dong (Praying Mantis Exits the Cave), Tang Lang Tou Tau (Praying Mantis Steals the Peach), and Mei Hua Shou (Plum Flower Hand). Beng Bu is the foundation form of northern praying mantis. It contains the twelve character principles that Wang Lang used to formulate the original praying mantis system. Most branches of northern praying mantis recognize that Beng Bu was the first form created by Wang Lang.

Learning Beng Bu and the two-man version will give one a basic understanding of northern praying mantis kung fu. Shyh Ba Sou is a form that helps learn ambidextrous skills. The form Duo Gang offers skill in joint locking. The two forms Tang Lang Chu Dong and Tang Lang Tou Tau are excellent fighting skill development sets. They can both be performed with speed and fighting intent. Mei Hua Shou is a form with a diverse number of techniques. Practicing this form increases the combination of techniques available in different scenarios.

Mei Hua (Plum Flower style) contributes a number of forms to the northern praying mantis kung fu system: Mei Hua Chuan (Plum Flower Fist) and the Yi Lu Jai Yaw, Er Lu Jai Yaw, and San Lu Jai Yaw (1st, 2nd, and 3rd Route Essence). The form, Mei Hua Chuan utilizes quick back and forth movement with both a defend and attack component to them. The Yi Lu Jai Yaw, Er Lu Jai Yaw, and San Lu Jai Yaw sets are a family of three forms that have a wide variety of technique combinations that are thought to be a good representation of the northern praying mantis system.

>From the Guang Bang (Shinny Board style) come the forms Mei Hua Luo (Plum, Flower Falling), Da Gia Shyh (Big Gesture Form), and Xiou Gia Shyh (Small Gesture Form). Mei Hwa Luo, is an excellent form to learn a combination of joint attacks, trapping and throws. The forms Da Gia Shyh and Xiou Gia Shyh teach such skills as sweeps and repetitive attacking methods.

>From Chang Chuan (Long Fist style) come the fist forms, Cha Chuey (Piercing Fist), and Syh Lu Bun Da (Four Direction Fist). Cha Chuey, is considered a fist form to teach powerful techniques. The two man version of this set is especially good at developing the trapping and counter trapping of northern praying mantis. Syh Lu Bun Da, on the other hand is a long range fist set and teaches some elaborate kicking skills.

There are two fist forms from the Fan Che (Chariot style), called Da Fan Che (Big Chariot ) and Xiao Fan Che (Little Chariot). Both of these sets contain large arm swinging movements and this aspect differs them somewhat from most of the other northern praying mantis forms.

The northern praying mantis kung fu style is a complete system with over 80 forms. There are empty hand forms, weapons forms, two-person empty hand and weapon sets, one three-person empty hand form, one three-person weapons form (straight sword, broadsword and spear), a breathing set called Luo Han Gong (Monk martial art), iron palm, and a drunken form called Juey Luo Han Chuan (Drunken Monk).

Northern praying mantis kung fu teachers have, with each successive generation, added to the development of the system. As the social conditions change so then can the training emphasis. In its beginning northern praying mantis was a battlefield oriented art, however, today the emphasis can be on more on modern day street practicality.

What makes the system so effective as a fighting art is the use of a guiding set of concepts and principles. Rather than a specific set of confining rules that dictate the fighting method, northern praying mantis has a more flexible approach.

In each situation, the approach and size of an opponent sets up the northern praying mantis practitioner’s decision on various fighting strategies. Whether it is long rang, middle range, grappling range, or ground fighting the concepts of the praying mantis style can be applied making quite it adaptable to any fighting environment.