By Richard Miller
Copyright 1985, CFW Enterprises, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.
Based on the combat experience of a master kung-fu fighter, this style of praying mantis enshrines the martial spirit of old China, a spirit forged by the rapid, shifting, angular footwork of the mantis man who proves his skill in kung-fu with a flash of fists.
The scene: it's set in Shantung province in the early days of thye 20th century. A martial artist of the province, one Chiang Hua Long, has resolved to modify the seven star praying mantis system of which he is a master.
The decision is neither the whim of an amateur nor the deluded dream of a dlettante. In an age when the term kung-fu signifies one's skill in combat, Chiang Hua Long is a famed and feared kung-fu fighter. His praying mantis (tang lang chuan in Chinese) is directly descended fro the fourth generation disciples of Wang Lang—the martial genius who founded chi hsing (seven star) tang lang chuan in the last days of the Ming dynasty.
The History and Evolution of Eight Step Praying Mantis
Chiang Hua Long's decision to reshape seven star praying mantis came late in his life and followed years of contemplation. Chiang's innovations were based on his abundant combat experience: It was knowledge gained from a lifetime of rigorous practice and a relentless analysis of the techniques used by the many enemies he had met in battle. Chiang was a mature and exceptional martial artist who played a major role in the natural evolution of kung-fu by bringing his intelligence to bear on the ever-changing nature of martial art.
The four basic arm techniqes of chi hsing praying mantis were ko, lo, tsai, and kua. The arm and hand positions of these four basic techniques are rather angular in nature, with the limbs bent at elbow and wrist. Indeed, the arm positions in chi hsing praying manitis resembled the structure of the three-sectional staff.
Chiang altered these traditional mantis arm techniques. Two of Chiang's friends, Wang Chung Chin and Chen San Den, were masters of the tong bei chuan and paqua chang systems, respectively. Tong bei and paqua contain long arm techniques which employ a more extended, straighter arm than the seven star style. Chiang Hua Long incorporated long arm techniques from these styles to supplement his mantis arm tactics.
In the technical sequence above, Black attempts to execute a right hand punch (1). Sifu Sun, however, steps forward with his right leg and intercepts the attack, controlling the opponent's elbow with his left hand while slamming a punch to Black's midsection (2). Sun then attacks high with a two-finger strike to Black's eyes (3). Sun then steps in, slamming his right arm into Black's throat (4). Sun now steps completely behind Black, bringing his left arm to Black's throat (5); Sun steps out with his right foot while bending Black backwards, which drops Black to the ground, leaving Sun in position to deliver the coup de grace with a right punch (6).
The characteristic and well-known step of seven star praying mantis is ma ho san, the "monkey step." This mobile jump-type step is executed with all of the practitioner's weight resting on the rear leg. Chiang elaborated on the seven star style's reliance on the monkey step, devising eight special steps which give his style its name of eight step praying mantis (pa pu tang lang). Additionally, Chiang had learned the value of low level leg technique from his own combat experience and added several ground fighting techniques to the style's repertoire.
Since Chiang created eight step praying mantis late in his life he taught the style to few individuals. One of these disciples was Fong Huan Yi. Little is known of Fong, save that he was an excellent kung-fu man who continued to fight with success into his old age. What is known of Fong, however, directly concerns the continuation of the eight step method.
Fong was commissioned to teach a young boy, one Wei Hsiao Tang, by the boy's father, who was a student under the master.
Wei Hsiao Tang began his training under Fong at the age of sixteen. Wei lived with the master and received extensive training, learning the complete eight step system. After eight years of training, Wei, then twenty-four, left Fong and taught in the Chinese army. After his tenure with the army Wei traveled to Korea where he achieved notoriety—notoriety arising from an incident that perhaps ended in the deaths of two and the disruption of his own life.
Wei was strolling down a street when his attention was diverted by a nearby altercation. Realizing that one of his countrymen (a Chinese merchant) was being set upon by some of the natives, Wei rushed to the merchant's aid. In the ensuing brawl Wei drove off numerous opponents—who then combined forces and proceeded to chase Wei through the streets. A Korean newspaper later recounting the event stated that Wei had fought as many as 50 people—and that he was responsible for several deaths. Wei was forced to adopt an assumed name and went into hiding.
Wei eventually made his way back to Shantung province, where he gave instruction in eight step praying mantis. Though Wei was a qualified sifu, by traditional standards he was an extremely young one. This raised the ire of many of his fellow practitioners, and Wei was forced to demonstrate his skill by answering their challenges. He proved himself more than equal to these tests, securing a formidable kung-fu reputation by defeating all challengers.
Wei later moved to a nearby county and finally to Shanghai, where he continued to teach his art.
With the final victory of the Communist Party in 1948, Wei fled once more to Korea, and later to Taiwan (The Republic of China). Wei Hsiao Tang taught eight step praying mantis and wu style tai chi chuan in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, until his death in 1982.
James Sun's life story reads like a kung-fu movie script—a subject Sun knows firsthand, having choreographed kung-fu fight scenes for both films and television programs in Taiwan.
Born Sun Kwong Lung, James Sun was a sickly child. When he was three years old he became so ill that a doctor of Western medicine advised his father to make preparations for his son's death. "In one day," Sun recalls, "I was taken to the hospital eight times."
Fortunately, Sun's father was intro¬duced to a man schooled in traditional Chinese medicine. This individual re¬treated to the mountains where he gath¬ered herbs, which he prepared for Sun Kwong Long—a treatment that started the boy on the road to recovery and eventual good health. The man cared for the child for two years.
When Sun was six, he began to study kung-fu. The style was eight step praying mantis, his sifu—and savior—was Wei Hsiao Tang.
At nine, Sun became Wei's formal disciple. At thirteen, Sifu Wei, as Sun remembers, "began to teach me how to fight." Sun trained for five more years with Wei, learning the complete eight step system as well as wu style tai chi chuan.
One quickly gets the impression that the fighting spirit, the ancient life force of kung-fu, resides within Sun. He was trained by a master steeped in the tradition of a past era—an era when kung-fu was neither an art form nor a health exercise but one's skill in combat.
Sadly for Sun, the "protective" equipment which Sifu Wei utilized was also from a past era: a wet towel wrapped around the fist leaves something to be desired. Pulling a false tooth from the front of his mouth, Sun grins and explains, "I have good memories of my teacher."
In 1969, at eighteen, Sun Kwong Long entered the Taiwan Inter-University Kung-Fu Competition—and went on to become a four time champion of this full-contact event. At the time Sun was also assisting his sifu in giving instruction and training students on his own. Later Sun taught kung-fu to the Republic of China's army.
Sun emigrated from Taiwan to the US in order to teach and propagate the complete eight step system in America. He believes that unless kung-fu is taught openly, withholding no technique or "secret," the art could very well perish.
One opinion of kung-fu that Sun is determined to change with his teaching—and he makes no attempt to conceal his irritation with this opinion—is the notion that kung-fu is useless in a real fight.
"I can train people to use their kung-fu," Sun says flatly, his eyes narrowing. "The reason some people can't use it effectively is because there are people teaching kung-fu who don't know how to fight with kung-fu!"
His eight step style, Sun stresses, is unconcerned with the "prettiness" or "flowery" techniques that non-Chinese stylists claim is kung-fu's chief characteristic. Practicality, Sun observes proudly, is pa pu tang lang's sole perspective.
The Eight Stepping Patterns
As indicated by the style's name, eight step praying mantis places a premium on footwork (pu in Chinese). Chiang Hua Long emphasized two major types of step in his system, calling them tung pu and ching pu.
Tung pu and ching pu each contain eight different stepping patterns. These varied steps train the student to successfully approach—or evade—an enemy. Sharp, direct changes of angle characterize these stepping movements, allowing the pa pu practitioner to quickly reach his enemy's vulnerable targets.
The eight stepping patterns contained in tungpu are pa pu, chuan pu, tie pu, ru huan pu, nua pu, tuan ta pu, hsing pu, and tuo pu. The eight ching pu stepping patterns are called hung pu, san chiao pu, fung hsing pu, mei hua pu, liu tsun pu, chi pu, paqua pu, and chiu pu.
The eight stepping patterns in both tung pu and ching pu are arranged in a progression, which commences with a two step pattern and culminates in a pattern composed of nine steps. Accordingly, the final nine step patterns contains the style's most advanced footwork.
Sifu James Sun, an eight step praying mantis master from Taiwan, has recently arrived in the US and is currently teaching eight step method in San Francisco, California. Sun points out that the arm and hand techniques practiced in combination with the various stepping patterns are not fixed in order. Indeed, many different techniques may be applied with the steps; they are all interchangeable. For example, the last stepping pattern of the ching pu progression, chiu pu, is created out of the seven preceding patterns. Chiu pu is executed in an improvisational manner. This free pattern's purpose is to allow the pa pu practitioner to move all the way behind his enemy, where the practitioner ends the encounter with a throw or incapacitating technique.
Spring Power and Tactical Doctrine
Like all kung-fu systems, eight step praying mantis emphasizes total use of the body. Eight step incorporates training that develops what the Chinese describe as "spring power." Sun observes of spring power that it is a type of strength that all humans possess at birth—but that this power must be developed if it is to be fully used.
Spring power begins in the feet; it is developed and made manifest in an S-like undulation or ripple of the body. An ascending wave of power builds up in the feet, travels through the knees to the waist, and then flows out through the arms in an unfurling forward motion.
Along with total body use the eight step method's philosophy and tactical doctrine rest on eight cardinal points:
- Continuous movement with each technique giving birth to the next;
- Close with the enemy using the long hand, then destroy the enemy at close range with the short hand;
- Attack high to open the low area, attack low to open the high area (for example an attack to the head forces the enemy to defend high, centering his attention to that area, while exposing his low area to attack);
- When attacking left defend the right, when attacking right defend the left;
- Attack and defend simultaneously, since all actions are neither exclusively offensive nor defensive—even though one of these qualities predominates in an action, it always contains the potential of its opposite—reversing is the way of the Tao;
- Action must be natural and reflexive—don't think, act;
- Stay relaxed and change the stepping pattern;
- In action there is stillness, in stillness there is action. Before there is action myriad possibilities exist; when one is still the potential is unseen. When one acts there is commitment; action manifests potential, and within one there is stillness.
James Sun, like the changing steps of pa pu tang lang, is taking a different angle in his teaching in America: "I think a good way to teach students is to start with self-defense and then later teach the additional training." Sun believes that his students should quickly learn about hitting an opponent—and about being hit. Certainly there is a stark reality to feeling the actual impact of a blow, which no amount of forms training can ever teach one.
Students of Sun with less than two months of training can engage in contact training with protective equipment Sun fully expects his students to successfully compete in full-contact tournaments within two years. His students repeatedly practice the fast mantis footwork in combination with fist and palm attacks to their partner's exposed areas.
In time, students will receive the eight forms of the system in addition to step training. These forms consist of lines one through six of tzai yao, shao fan che ("little rolling wheel"), and da fan che ("big rolling wheel"). These eight forms, like all the components of eight step praying mantis kung-fu, are practical and geared towards usage. Usage—or fighting to put it bluntly—is the heart of the eight step praying mantis system. One should have no doubts that fighting supremacy was the goal at which Chiang Hua Long's kung-fu was aimed.
By Richard Miller
Copyright 1985, CFW Enterprises, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.