Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Taiji Mantis Kung Fu

Below is an article that appeared at Monkey Steals Peach. The full post may be read here.

The History of Taiji Mantis Boxing in Yantai 烟台太极螳螂拳史

by Zhou Zhen Dong, translated by Will Wain-Williams & Wang Chao

Mantis boxing, which orginates from Eastern China, is a kung fu system which has distinctive characteristics and is famous both within China and overseas. With its distinctive characteristics it has attracted many experienced members of the martial arts world. Through hard training and dedication throughout the generations, mantis boxing has been refined and developed.

Wang Lang and Mantis 王朗 与 螳螂拳

When talking about mantis boxing, many people may be reminded of Wang Lang and his historic legend. In the story, Wang Lang is a handsome and skilful Wushu hero. He was defeated in a duel with a master of Tongbei called Han Tong. Wang Lang was disappointed and set to training himself for a rematch.

He came across a praying mantis defending itself against a small bird. The mantis avoided the birds attack with great skill and body movement. Wang Lang had a talent for observation and realised the mantis’ movements could be studied and related to martial arts. Through several years of observation he created the unique style of mantis boxing. After creating the style, many people came to challenge Wang Lang and all were defeated. But this is all legend, what about the real history?

According to the Wushu dictionary published in 1985, Wang Lang was born around the end of Ming and beginning of Qing dynasty in Jimo district. At that time Jimo was under the administration of Laiyang County, so people also called Wang Lang “Laiyi”. According to this source, Wang Lang was a leading member in a revolutionary movement to overthrow the Manchu invaders, who started the Qing, and restore the Ming dynasty. After failing in the revolution, Wang Lang retreated to the Laoshan mountains.

The existence of Wang Lang seems to be true, but how much contribution did he make to mantis boxing? According to my master (Zhang Kai Tang), through decades of combat he created “the mantis form” and applied it successfully building a strong reputation.  However he didn’t create the entire system, only the “mantis form”, which was the beginning of the system. It seems the person who really created the system of mantis can’t be confirmed by any sources. Wang Lang can however be a figure the followers of mantis can admire and respect.

Li Bing Xiao and Zhao Zhu 李秉霄 与 赵珠

According the Laiyang History Annals, Li Bing Xiao accompanied his father in the south. There, a man in prison had fallen sick, so a prison guard requested a doctor. Li Bing Xiao was a very good doctor, so he went to read the thief’s pulse and treat him. After recovering, the thief ran away in the night.

Several months later, Li Bing Xiao was at home alone when the thief arrived suddenly at his home and thanked him for saving his life. They talked for a while and the thief agreed to teach him kung fu. Li Bing Xiao was talented and learnt quickly. After that the thief left and was never seen again.

The thief in this story was the first master of mantis boxing as remembered by all the successive generations. Who he was, and where he learnt mantis boxing is a mystery; only the name “heroic thief” has remained.

Li Bing Xiao, also known as “Li Er Gou” (Li 2 hooks), is the second master listed in the genealogy. His life is also full of amazing tales. During his youth, Li Bing Xiao was a scholar.

However he failed the imperial exam and then fled to live in the mountains in recluse. His circle of friends was all swordsmen and Li Bing Xiao was fond of travelling around. However he never used his real name in public. It was said Li Bing Xiao was highly criticial of society and he cared nothing for the outside world. He was regarded a sage. His unique life had a great influence on the development of mantis boxing.

Zhao Zhu, also known as Qi Lu was the third master. According to Laiyang History Annals, Zhao Zhu was Li Bing Xiao’s best disciple. One time he was lying in bed when a thief broke in. Zhao Zhu merely waved his arm in the air and the thief collapsed on the floor. Surely this level of kung fu would be admired by everybody.

Zhao Zhu was taught by Li Bing Xiao and trained himself every day. After several years he had mastered the entire system. One winter he escorted his master to the river ferry to return home for Chinese New Year. At the river bank Master Li said to Zhao Zhu “I have taught you everything, the only thing left is Qing Gong (light body skills)”. With that jumped onto the thin ice and within seconds had run across the entire river! Li Bing Xiao’s internal power was incredible, so we can find mantis boxing is also a great internal system.

Unfortunately, Li Bing Xiao never returned to teach the skill as he got ill and died. The skill “flying like a swallow” was never passed on, only this story to leave us to dream.

Liang Xue Xiang 梁学香

According to the Laiyang History Annals, Liang Xue Xiang was the fourth master of mantis boxing. Liang was physically short and thin, but his movements were fast and powerful.

Once he asked his students to get an “eight immortals table”, and he went underneath the table and started performing his kung fu, his long clothes never even got tangled up. During a competition he killed a man with a single blow and gained the name “Liang the hammer”.

In other aspects he was physically weak however. His father often criticised him as he couldn’t even carry a sack of rice or do farm work in his youth. From this we can make the conclusion that the power required in kung fu is different to the power required for physical labour. This is internal and external power.

Liang Xue Xiang worked as a bodyguard escorting good s caravans to the north. After one particularly dangerous battle, he decided to quit. That time he was escorting caskets of silver. They got as far as Cangzhou in Hebei province. The time was late so they hitched up at a local inn. Suddenly a group of about thirty or forty armed robbers gathered. Liang grabbed a long plank of wood and fought the off in the yard. The scene was a mess and so noisy nobody could hear a thing. Suddenly Liang’s plank of wood got hacked up, so he had to fight them barehanded. The robbers eventually fled and Liang and his team left Cangzhou. During the fight, Liang had got injured in his right eye and became blinded. Since then he got the nickname “One eyed Liang”.

After that event, Liang gave up his job and took his experience back to his hometown of Haiyang to teach mantis boxing. Master Liang was the first master to document mantis boxing in writing.

In his old days his disciple Jiang Hua Long had a house built for him. Liang went to see the house and said “this isn’t well built at all!” Jiang disagreed, claiming he had used the best materials. Liang didn’t say anything; he just struck a wall with his hip and made a huge crack down the wall! (This house is in a small village in Haiyang and the crack can still be seen to this day.)

His good condition didn’t last forever, one autumn after practicing the form Luan Jie, he sat on a chair, closed his eyes and died.

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