Note: the Chinese terms in this article are in expressed in Cantonese.
Three hundred and fifty years ago, Wong Long, the founder of the northern praying mantis style of kung fu , decided after learning the shaolin fighting system that he needed to make improvements. Wong, who was opposed to the Manchurian takeover of China, had joined the shaolin temple in Hanon province to learn kung fu in order to become a skilled fighter. He felt that mastering the renowned fighting ability of the shaolin monks would allow him to become an officer in the rebel army fighting the Manchurians. Unknowingly, he was to begin a process for generations of eclectic thought.
In the meantime, due to a traitorous rebel army general, those in opposition to the Manchurians lost their bid to overthrow the Ching, and restore the Ming dynasty. The shaolin temple became a sanctuary for the remaining rebels. It was the combination of the shaolin temple’s autonomous nature, as well as its reputation as a refuge for rebels that began to cause concern for the new ruling Manchurians.
This concern built to a point where the emperor ordered the shaolin temple burned and the monks killed. Afterward, Wong Long and the other surviving monks of the temple rescued their teacher and fled to the mountains. There they became nomads travelling from province to province to escape detection. Once they felt that it was safe, Wong and his fellow monks resettled in the Shan Tung province mountains where they continued to pursue their religious studies as well as the development of their kung fu skills. When their teacher passed away, Wong and his senior brother monk Feng, became the leaders of their group.
Over time, Wong Long became adept at the shaolin fighting skills. However, he could not best his senior brother, monk Feng, in sparring practice. This bothered Wong. He felt that his skills were not good enough and he brooded over his perceived shortcoming. At about this time his senior brother monk decided, as was the custom of shaolin monks, to travel throughout China for a period of three years. Knowing that Wong felt badly over the fact that Feng was a better kung fu practitioner, he told Wong that when he returned they would spar again and see if Wong had improved.
It was Wong’s custom to train and practice his shaolin kung fu skills in a meadow near the temple. One day after practicing with his sword, he sat down to study his books on Buddhism. He was interrupted by a noise nearby on the ground. Two insects were engaged in a duel, a praying mantis attacking a cicada. Within moments the praying mantis had killed the cicada and, holding it in its strong forearms, began eating. Wong was intrigued by the fierce attributes of the praying mantis insect. He was impressed by the way it had moved in and out and used it’s forearms to trap and draw in its prey.
Since his losses in sparring to monk Feng, Wong had been driven by a desire to improve his shaolin kung fu skills. Wong took what today is viewed as an eclectic step. He saw in the fierce insect’s predatory ability a way to improve his own combat adeptness. Wong used a small stick and played with the praying mantis, observing how it used its skills as a predator to escape harm.
Within a few days of examining the praying mantis insect’s methods of combat, he began to synthesize them into human terms. He classified the arm movements into twelve character principles: kou (hook), lou (grasp), t’sai (strike), kwa (upward block), tiao (hook), chin (advance), peng (recede), ta (strike first), chan (contact), nien (cling), tieh (tag), and k’ao (lean).
To complete his new approach he needed to add strength to the foot work. He accomplished this by observing the monkeys of China. He adopted their extremely efficient movements into a method of footwork that complemented his praying mantis hand skills. This addition gave his new style a quickness and agility never before available to him. He now felt that he had improved on his shaolin kung fu skills.
At this point Wong felt that he had a superior system based on solid principles, so he decided to overlay them on a group of techniques from seventeen other styles. They are: 1) chen kuen technique by Tai Jo, 2) ton boi kuen technique by Hon Tong, 3) mein feng technique by Chen Yun, 4) dune kuen technique by Won Yuen, 5) dune da technique by Mah Jaik, 6) hau kuen technique by Shuin Hong, 7) kau sun dune da technique by Wong Chien 8) mien jueng technique by Mien Sai, 9) koi sow tong kuen technique by Gow Soing, 10) sut gung ngang bung technique by Wy Duk, 11) kou lou t’sai technique by Liu Hsing, 12) gwon lau gwoon yee technique by Tam Fong, 13) gim la dit fait technique by Yen Ching, 14) yin yang guet technique by Lum Chong, 15) chut sai lin guen technique by Man Gum, 16) wa lai fou choi technique by Tsai Lein, and 17) gwan choi yup jak technique by Ung Gwon.
This gave Wong seventeen techniques to utilize with his new approach. The amalgamation of skills from outside traditional kung fu systems set the stage for future generations to add their own contributions while staying within the original concepts developed by Wong Long. Other additions to the northern praying mantis style have included the shaolin law hon gong breathing exercises, iron palm, and northern style weapons. Since the new approach did not rely on brute strength it was considered to have a mutuality of both hard and soft tactics.
When monk Feng returned from his three year journey, he and Wong sparred again. This time Wong won easily. He explained to his surprised elder brother about his discovery. Together they decided to call his new fighting system praying mantis. They practiced together developing and refining the new style’s theory and physical movements. When they felt that their new praying mantis style was ready, they taught it to the other shaolin monks as a higher level of kung fu.
After a few decades Wong Long passed away, and for a few generations the highly prized system of praying mantis kung fu was taught only to the monks of Shaolin. The arrival at the shaolin temple of a taoist master, called Sil Tao Yen, marked the beginning of the teaching of the praying mantis style outside the temple. When Sil first arrived at the shaolin temple he observed a fighting style he had never seen before. At first he felt it looked jerky and without power. What he failed to see was the efficient use of the waist for the generation of skill-based body power. With this effective but hard to fathom skill, the monks exhibited techniques that didn’t require the long range and muscular power-oriented tactics of hard style shaolin kung fu.
He asked the monks practicing if he could have a friendly match with one of them to see how effective their kung fu was. At first they declined; however, after he began to ridicule their art as being ineffectual, they agreed to a friendly session. When he began to spar with one of the lower level monks, he soon found himself on the ground looking up with no idea of how he got there. He jumped up and declared that it must have been an accident. He asked if a more senior monk could spar with him. He met with the same result. At this point Sil was beginning to wonder what this new type of kung fu was that had defeated him so easily. When he inquired he found that it was the praying mantis style and was only taught to the monks of shaolin as a higher form of kung fu.
This piqued Sil’s interest and he spoke to the chief abbot of the temple about this unusual art of praying mantis and the possibility of learning from the monks. After some discussion, the abbott agreed to let Sil learn. After mastering the northern based praying mantis system and leaving the temple, Sil Tao Yen taught the complete system to only one student, Li San Chen. After completing his studies with Sil, Li established a security service. For a fee he would guard a caravan of valuable goods. Li’s security service became well known throughout China for its reliability.
The local bandits dubbed Li the lightning fist as no one was able to defeat him. As Li grew older he became concerned that he had not taught the art of praying mantis to anyone. He felt that the art that had brought him so much prosperity would die out. At age sixty he decided to travel and find a worthy individual to inherit the art of praying mantis.
When Li arrived in Fusham he heard of a local champion called Wong Ywing Sun. Li met with Wong and asked him for a demonstration of the skills Wong had used to become a champion. After watching him perform, Li remarked that the techniques Wong exhibited should not have won him a championship. Wong grew angry at Li’s assessment of his kung fu skills. In fact he attacked Li, however, all he met was thin air. Li seemed to just disappear. Wong attacked again and met the same fate. Li could evade Wong at will seemingly without effort. Realizing that he faced a person of considerable skill, Wong bowed down to humble himself and asked to be accepted as Li’s student.
Wong spent the next several years learning all that his teacher had to teach him. Having been born to a wealthy family Wong had the opportunity to practice praying mantis as a recreation, developing his art to an advanced level. Wong later accepted a student called Fan Yuk Tung. Nicknamed the giant and the broadsword, Fan was a large man weighing over 300 pounds, and known in the area as Giant Fan.
Fan Yuk Tung became well known as the result of an incident with a farmer’s two bulls. One day as Fan was crossing a field the two bulls charged him. In defence he kicked the first bull and used a palm attack to strike the other bull. Both bulls perished and the farmer became angry. Fan pointed out that he had only been defending himself. The farmer reluctantly eccepted this, however, word spread about Fan’s accomplishment. He became even more famous after winning a challenge match in Russia. With his win he gained a great deal of notoriety.
Fan’s student, Lo Kwon Yuk, made a name for himself after being sent by Fan to teach as one of the first instructors of the famous Ching Mo Athletic Association. Lo’s reputation was further enhanced when one of his students won a prestigious fighting championship in China. Said to have practiced every form in the praying mantis system daily, Lo’s skill level in praying mantis was developed to a high degree.
His favourite fist set was Tong Long Tow Toe (praying mantis steals the peach). This a hand set that is performed with quickness, and is excellent for developing fighting skills. Lo was also known for his ability with iron palm, and would only spar with his student using defensive actions. He feared his iron palm ability might accidentally injure someone.
Lo taught several students to a senior level in the praying mantis system; the most famous, Wong Hon Fun, was known in Hong Kong as the “Mantis King.” Wong went on to teach several students to a high level of mastery of praying mantis kung fu. Throughout his long teaching career, Wong published over forty volumes on the northern praying mantis kung fu system. These would serve to be a guide for future generations of the northern praying mantis system
Passing away in 1973, the late Wong Hon Fun left his legacy to a number of senior students. One of them, Al Cheng, a Hong Kong full contact champion, emigrated to Canada and began teaching there in 1979. He taught for a number of years in Vancouver’s Chinatown before passing his mantle to his disciple Jon Funk.