Note: the Chinese terms in this article are in expressed in Cantonese.
Northern praying mantis kung fu has, since its birth 350 years ago, maintained its eclectic roots. Each generation has added a measure of improvement to the system without altering the original concepts that make it such an efficient fighting art.
Wong Long began the process with the development of the twelve character principles. This does not mean twelve separate principles, but rather refers to the actual twelve written Chinese characters that describe the concepts Wong Long organized from his observations of the praying mantis insect.
The first three characters kou (hook), lou (grasp), and t’sai (strike) refer to the way that the praying mantis would deflect, grasp, and strike an attacker. For Wong this could be accomplished in human terms by deflecting a hand strike, and using the mantis hook to hold on to the arm. The next two actions, the grasp and strike, are more or less executed together. The grasp would facilitate a trapping action at the opponent’s elbow. By grabbing the elbow, the praying mantis practitioner would have momentary control of the opponent’s body and could execute a strike without much chance of being counterattacked. From the praying mantis insect Wong discovered a method of attack and counterattack that did not rely on brute strength, but rather on skill and timing. He further discovered the concept of controlling an opponent by trapping at the elbow with a grab.
The next character kwa (upward block) by itself is a simple defensive action. Put with a hand technique, however, it becomes part of a concept that advocates a simultaneous block (more like a deflection) and strike. As Wong observed, the praying mantis insect would catch its prey and strike at the same time. From this Wong deduced that it was more efficient to deflect the opponent’s attack while striking simultaneously causing greater impact and damage to the opponent. This concept effectively uses part of the opponent’s striking power against him, thus requiring less strength and more of the use of skill on the part of the praying mantis practitioner.
Tiao (a mantis hook not followed by lou) is another technique that Wong found in the praying mantis insect’s fighting arsenal. If the insect could not go directly in to attack after grabbing its opponent, then it would continue to hold on, perhaps even pulling back, and launch into a second attack to strike at its intended prey. Wong saw in this a grasping type hand technique that was quicker than the five finger grip used in the Shaolin systems he was familiar with. This highly effective grabbing method uses the last three fingers to begin the grabbing action. The forefinger and thumb follow up and complete the action. This grab is extremely quick and allows the grabbing of an opponent’s arm efficiently whether the opponent’s arm is in motion or not. Wong further discovered that this praying mantis hook creates a stable hand position to use as a strike. The outside part of the wrist can hit a vulnerable part of the opponent with devastating force.
The two characters chen (advance) and peng (recede) refer to the way that the praying mantis insect moved in and out of harm’s way. When Wong poked the insect with a straw, the insect responded by catching the straw, moving back just enough to be out of range, and then moving in again to effect an attack. From this experience Wong learned that there is a line between two opponents that the praying mantis partitioner will not cross unless he is striking at his opponent. Called the reaction distance line, this position is where the opponent cannot move in to strike the praying mantis practitioner without being neutralized.
Within a certain distance range, no one can react as fast as one can act. It is therefore necessary to be far enough away from an opponent to have enough time to react to an attack. If inside past the reaction distance line, then the praying mantis practitioner needs to be doing one of two actions: moving outside the reaction distance range or striking the opponent. The ability to be able to judge the correct distance is what Wong learned from the praying mantis insect. He further discovered that it only takes short quick shuffling footwork to accomplish this.
Wong learned and applied the praying mantis insect’s concept of advancing and receding to gain an advantage over an opponent. For example, when the opponent moves toward the praying mantis practitioner, then he can move back a corresponding amount. By and large moving back should only be necessary once. Then, however, a counterattack is likely to be the next alternative. A direct attack or counterattack can also take place when the praying mantis partitioner moves forward toward the opponent. Using a stop hit he can neutralize the opponent’s attack without needing to move forward or back. It will depend on the opponent and situation as to what motion tactic is necessary. Thus the praying mantis practitioner has the option of moving back, in, or staying in place while still being effective.
Ta, (to strike first) was the praying mantis insect’s strongest attribute. If the first strike is successful, then further fighting can be unnecessary. The insect’s speed and timing would overcome its prey’s ability to mount a defence. Wong saw in the praying mantis insect the skill he knew would give him an advantage. Striking first meant that if the opponent was outside of the reaction distance line, then Wong would employ a stop hit to counterattack an opponent’s initial move. If the opponent was not attacking then Wong decided that he could use either a direct attack or an indirect attack to strike first. The expression used by praying mantis practitioners is: “aim high to strike low,” exemplifies the skill of striking first. It means that the praying mantis partitioner will use a fake to get inside the reaction distance line and strike first.
Chen (contact) and nein (cling) are two skills that Wong learned from the insect that helped develop the valuable trapping tactics in praying mantis kung fu. The ability to make contact, and from that use sensitivity to the opponent’s actions is what makes the praying mantis insect such a strong predator. As the insect would grasp its prey it could feel how its’ intended victim would react, giving the praying mantis insect a decided advantage. Wong saw that when he developed the trapping skills of the praying mantis he could have the same advantage as the insect, an ability to sense how an opponent is going to react. The concept of nein (cling) is what the insect utilized to keep in contact so as to employ its sensitivity skills. Grabbing within trapping tactics is the method that Wong used to help keep in contact and cling. In addition, Wong learned how to feel his opponent’s movements by utilizing the nein (cling) concept. Instead of resisting the attack he would flow with it and redirect to accomplish a position of attack or counterattack.
Teih (tag) and k’ao (lean) are skills the praying mantis insect used to catch its prey and pull it off balance. From this Wong Long synthesized that if he could catch his opponent, and in doing so create an imbalance, he could execute a throwing action. Much of the throws he developed are based on catching and then pulling an opponent into an unbalanced position as a follow-up tactic. One aspect that the praying mantis practitioner attempts to do in executing a throw is employing “top spin.” This skill will see the opponent end up in an awkward position in the fall from the throw, causing injury to the head area, or possibly dislocating the shoulder joint.
The eclectic process of praying mantis kung fu was furthered by Wong including in his new system the use of internal strength for power in the techniques. Called body power, praying mantis kung fu practitioners need not be big, youthful, or strong to have devastating powerful techniques. It is necessary, however, to be in good health and fit, which comes from regular training. Once a fit body is achieved, and strong basics are learned then the sophisticated aspect of the internal type power can be mastered.
The basics of the body power that Wong used are: balance, coordination, and suppleness. Balance gives the praying mantis practitioner the opportunity to create mobility and stability, both crucial to the development of body power. Coordination is essential for body power to work. This begins with a balanced position and a total linking of the legs, waist, and upper body. For example, as movement is initiated to create body power in a hand technique, the power starts from the ground in the legs and is amplified by the waist. The hips are positioned to help in a torquing action that, with body linked action, sends the waist- generated power out and through the arm. All of this needs a supple muscular environment to work.
The use of body power gave Wong a style that can be described as an internally oriented system. In fact it has a mutuality of hard and soft tactics. Called the eight hard ways and the twelve soft ways, they serve to describe concepts that work in situations that require a praying mantis practitioner to use either a strength-oriented approach or a tactic that utilizes more of a internal-oriented movement. If, for example, an opponent attacks, the praying mantis partitioner has two options: overcoming the opponent’s size and strength (with a hard-way technique), or dissipating the opponent’s attack (with a soft-way approach) followed by striking a vulnerable spot. Using a hard-way tactic does not mean brute strength, but rather a combination of skill and strength, such as an arm pull and a hammer fist to the back of the opponent’s neck. A soft-way technique does not seek to overpower the attacker, but rather to avoid and strike a vulnerable target such as the throat to incapacitate the attacker without an undue use of undue strength.
Wong Long’s praying mantis kung fu system has stood the test of time. Its eclectic beginnings have served to help it adapt to the requirements of the day. The principles and concepts that worked in China’s battlefields will work on today’s modern streets. The historical roots and traditions help keep the system focused around its main premise: “if a tactic works we can use it”. From iron palm to the intricate weapon sets, praying mantis is a three-hundred-and-fifty year old style that is still effective today.