Northern Shaolin Monks
北少林寺 in Henan province
Northern Praying Mantis Kung-Fu
-by Master Ilya Profatilov
Many legends and stories have been told by Chinese Praying Mantis Kung Fu masters about its origins and its founder Wang Lang. However, among these stories, some facts can be considered real, but most of them are a result of legendary oral tradition, passed from generation to generation by disciples and practitioners of Praying Mantis Kung Fu.
First, I would like to introduce my translation of the earliest and the most interesting versions of the story and then compare them with some random historical facts in order to find a rather obscure truth about the origins of Praying Mantis Kung Fu.
The Legend Described by the Grandmaster of Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Boxing of the Great Ultimate Hao Henlu (1887-1945/50?) in chapter 9 of his unpublished manuscript written in 1926 and entitled "Discourse about Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Boxing of the Great Ultimate" (First English translation by Ilya Profatilov)
"If one talks about Praying Mantis Boxing then one must know that its founder and patriarch was someone, named Wang Lang. However it is unknown when exactly he lived and what kind of family he came from but certainly his family was not wealthy. Wang Lang was famous for his passion for martial arts and was an outstanding person. He traveled a lot around the Empire Under Heaven (China), studied different styles of boxing and had many friends skillful in martial arts.
Once, during the mid-autumn festival Wang Lang went hiking to Lao Shan mountains. He looked at the magnificent cliffs above and boundless rivers below and felt astonished by this mighty vastness. When out of curiosity he decided to climb even higher, following the curvy and steep path going up the mountains, Wang Lang suddenly heard the quiet sound of a bell ringing somewhere nearby. Walking along the path Wang Lang soon reached an ancient temple, abode of hermits and decided to enter in order to get some food and water. The first thing he saw were Taoist monks practicing the art of boxing in the main plaza of the temple. Wang Lang counted about sixty positions and styles that he had never seen before. Then Wang Lang asked the Taoist monks a question but was not regarded with an answer, he asked again but the answer was just a silence randomly interrupted by the sounds of their movements. Finally, Wang Lang decided to attract the attention of one of the practitioners by pulling his arm. The monk became angry seeing a great boldness of this uninvited guest and lack of etiquette and jumped on Wang Lang with clinched fists, ready to punish him. However the monk was immediately knocked down by Wang Lang's quick response. A dozen of monks ran to help their religious brother but all failed. Monks started yelling and called the abbot. When the abbot came Wang Lang explained to him the situation that he just wanted to ask for food and water and did not have any bad intent. Abbot replied: "All these are my disciples and monks and I am strongly ashamed by their failure, would you please indulge me with a just fight?" Wang Lang agreed but lost the fight. Then Wang Lang realized the depth of the abbot's martial skills and immediately left the temple.
Wang Lang went deep in the woods and decided to rest, he laid down and started thinking about his unsuccessful fight and the reasons why he lost it. Suddenly he saw two white praying mantises on the tree branch. One of them was holding a fly in his front legs and the other tried to take away the prey. During the fight one mantis was attacking and another would jump from side to side, ducking and counter-attacking with the lightning speed. Wang Lang concentrated his entire mind on this fight and suddenly realized the hidden principals of outstanding flexibility and agility of praying mantis' attacks, counter-attacks and moves. Then he immediately returned to the Taoist temple and started a fight with the abbot. As soon as the venerable abbot saw that hand techniques of Wang Lang were noticeably different from the last time they had fought and also had a feeling that this fight would be won by Wang Lang, the abbot asked about the source of such a technique, but Wang Lang continued fighting in complete silence. After a while the abbot asked again but did not get an answer. Only when Wang Lang won the fight, did he tell the abbot the reason of his success. The abbot immediately sent his disciples to the woods to catch about ten pairs of praying mantises. When the insects were delivered the abbot put them on the table and set them to fight each other. In this manner Wang Lang and the abbot spent quite a long time learning movements and tactical positions of the praying mantises, engaged in deadly fights.
Then the two masters developed a new, secret technique of boxing which was significantly different from other ones. Later Wang Lang said to the abbot: "Even though you and I developed a new style of boxing, we should not forget the cause and the source of our knowledge. If the praying mantis while striving for food and existence did not reveal us its secrets, we would never develop this new style." The abbot replied: "You are right! In order to perpetuate the memory of the source, we shall call this style "The Gates of Praying Mantis" (Tang Lang Men). Wang Lang and the abbot developed twelve characters - guiding principles of the praying mantis fighting technique: Zhan (contacting), Nian (sticking), bang (linking), tie (pressing), Lai (intruding), Jiao (provoking), Shun (moving along), Song (sending), Ti (lifting), Na (grabbing), Feng (blocking), Bi (locking). Also they developed formal sets of praying mantis technique, such as: Beng Bu (crushing step), Lan Jie (obstruction), Ba Zhou (eight elbows), Mei Hua Lu (plum blossom technique) and Bai Yuan Tou Tao (white ape steals the peach). However, this new style for a long time was a privilege of the Taoist monks of the Lao Shan Taoist religious community and it was kept as a part of the secret Taoist doctrine and closed to lay people. Wang Lang, for the rest of his days, lived in the Taoist temple practicing self cultivation, developing Praying Mantis boxing and following the way of the Tao..."
The Legend Described by the Grandmaster of Six Harmonies Praying Mantis Boxing Ding Zicheng (1880-1956) and first recorded by his disciple Grandmaster Chen Yuntao (1906-1978) in his unpublished materials entitled "Brief Discourse about Praying Mantis Boxing" (First English translation by Ilya Profatilov)
..."During the Song Dynasty, the famous founder of Tong Bei Boxing style, Han Tong, had a fight with someone named Wang Lang. After several unsuccessful attempts to win, Wang Lang lost the fight. Feeling psychologically depressed, Wang Lang ran away until he reached a swampy ground covered with reeds where Wang Lang fell onto the deep grass suffering torments from bitter thoughts about his failure. Suddenly Wang Lang noticed a poisonous snake which raised its head and slithered directly towards a praying mantis that towered aloft the grass and leaves. As soon as the poisonous snake reached the praying mantis it stopped still and motionless in an attempt to hypnotize the insect. The praying mantis lifted its front hook like legs with its razor sharp spikes and waited for the snake to attack. The snake attacked ferociously with the invisible head strike. But the praying mantis used one of his hooks to catch snake's tongue and then counter-attacked with another hook to the eye of the snake. The snake made a pitiful attempt to escape but just writhed helplessly. After seeing this fight and under its strong impression Wang Lang reached enlightenment and developed the hand techniques of Praying Mantis Boxing and finally defeated Han Tong"...
螳螂拳 Tong Long Kuen
(Tang Lang Quan)
Praying Mantis Fist
The Legend Described by the Grand Master of Eight Steps Praying Mantis Boxing Wei Xiaotang (1901-1984) in his unpublished book entitled "The Secret Bookcase of Practical Praying Mantis Boxing" (First English translation by Ilya Profatilov)
The founder of Praying Mantis Boxing was Wang Lang from Ji Mo county of Shan Dong province. However, Wang Lang also had a Taoist sobriquet Ye You Shan Ren. Wang Lang was the smartest and the most talented child in the family and from an early age he had started to have a great interest in martial arts, but could not find a good teacher.
Once Wang Lang heard about a certain Taoist master called Yu Hua Zhen Ren, well known as an outstanding expert in martial arts. Wang Lang went to Lao Shan mountains were the venerable Taoist master lived in the Temple of the Supreme Purity (Shang Qing Gong). Wang Lang became a disciple of the Taoist master and during several years under the guidance of the Taoist master, Wang Lang learned the technique of the Taoist boxing style Tai Gong Quan. After the completion of his studies, Wang Lang, following his teacher's advice, went around China to visit other great masters of martial arts in order to perfect his own skills. During his travels Wang Lang reached Shao Lin monastery were he was defeated in fights with the monks. In sorrow, Wang Lang left the monastery. He was walking through the woods when he decided to take a short rest under a willow tree. Suddenly, Wang Lang heard a strange noise, lifted his head and saw a praying mantis catching a cicada. Astonished by the skills of the insect, Wang Lang caught the praying mantis and returned back to Lao Shan Mountains where over a period of a few years he watched praying mantis movements - fighting and teasing it with a small branch.
Soon Wang Lang reached enlightenment and developed Praying Mantis Boxing, its theory about twelve character guiding principles, theory of eight hard and twelve soft techniques. Also Wang Lang borrowed the best techniques from seventeen styles of boxing and incorporated them into Praying Mantis Boxing along with the monkey steps or legs movements. When the new style was fully developed in all aspects, Wang Lang transmitted its techniques and theories to his best disciples, Yu Zhou Dao Ren and Shen Xiao Dao Ren. It is said that later Wang Lang took part in the rebellion of secret societies against the Manchurian invasion. However, all Wang Lang's troops were killed and only he escaped. When Wang Lang returned to the Lao Shan mountains, Manchurian soldiers had already been there. Wang Lang and his Taoist teacher Yu Hua Zhen Ren left Lao Shan and went to Kun Lun Shan Mountain were Wang Lang continued self-cultivation and lived as a hermit until the end of his days".
The famed Northern Shao Lin Temple
北少林寺 in Henan province
The legend told by the Grandmaster of Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Boxing by Li Kunshan (1894-1976) and recorded by his disciple Li Hongjie. (First English translation by Ilya Profatilov)
"The founder of Praying Mantis Boxing was Wang Lang. Wang Lang was born and grew up in the Long Bao village in Ji Mo county of Shan Dong province. The village's richest landlord, Wang Man Tang, was famous for his compassion and love for all villagers and Wang Lang was the only son. Therefore, all the parental love and care of Wang Man Tang was directed towards his son's education in the best Confucian tradition. And it was easy to do primarily because of the outstanding talents of Wang Lang. When Wang Lang completed a course of Confucian classics and reached a high level of proficiency in the art of poetry, his father, in order to develop a well-rounded personality in his son, invited a master of martial arts to teach Wang Lang. However, the process of his son's education was interrupted by the invasion of Manchurian troops. All Wang Lang's relatives died in the just fight against the Manchurians and he being mortally wounded was thrown into the river. But Wang Lang was lucky, because soon he was rescued by a wondering Buddhist monk of the Shao Lin monastery, Tong Chan Shang Ren. Tong Chan Shang Ren carried Wang Lang all the way to Shao Lin monastery, where he was taken care of by the monks skillful in herbal medicine. In a short period of time, Wang Lang was cured and become a part of the Buddhist Sangha (Buddhist monk's religious community and brotherhood).
After seven years of living in the monastery, Wang Lang learned the art of Shao Lin Boxing and defeated all the monks except the head monk who was the best warrior-monk of the monastery. Once, feeling disappointed in him-self, Wang Lang wondered into a nearby forest when suddenly he heard the sharp, loud sounds made by cicada somewhere on the tree. Wang Lang came closer and saw a praying mantis which caught the cicada with its front legs. At this exact moment Wang Lang reached enlightenment, caught the praying mantis and returned to the monastery. Then he found a quiet place in one of the side yards took a stick and started to attack the insect. As soon as the praying mantis saw a new enemy it grabbed the stick and gnawed through it. Over many days Wang Lang studied the front leg movements of the praying mantis, its attack and defense techniques and started to develop his own style of boxing based on the praying mantis. However, Wang Lang was not satisfied by the way the insect walked and decided to adopt the walking techniques of the big ape. Moreover, Wang Lang decided to incorporate seventeen different fighting techniques of the seventeen styles he learned in the monastery. After a few years Wang Lang completed the creation of a new style and called it Praying Mantis Boxing. Then he defeated the head monk and the head monk called the abbot. The abbot was surprised to see such a great and promising new style of boxing and sent Wang Lang to travel around China to visit famous masters of martial arts and to further develop Praying Mantis Boxing. Wang Lang visited many masters but nobody could defeat him in a just fight. Wang Lang spent the rest of his days in Lao Shan Mountains in Shan Dong province, where he passed his Praying Mantis style to the Taoist master Shen Xiao Dao Ren."
...The Supreme monk
of Shao Lin monastery
Fu Ju invited eighteen
masters of eighteen schools
of martial arts to visit
Shao Lin monastery...
There are also a few other legends which basically describe the same story and the most common of them is a story especially popular among the practitioners of the Luo Guangyu's (1888-1944) branch of Seven Star Praying Mantis Boxing, which is widely spread in Hong Kong and in the US. It can be found in any book, article or web page about Seven Star Praying Mantis. This story has been told by Grand Master Luo Guangyu and later recorded by his famous disciples Zhao Zhimin and Huang Hanxun and its contents is close to the legend told by Grand Master Li Kun Shan.
Now I will analyze all the stories and compare them with some random historical data. It is impossible to tell exactly when Wang Lang lived but there are two main periods of Chinese history which are most commonly said to be the time when Wang Lang developed Praying Mantis Boxing: Song (960-1279) Dynasty and the end of Ming (1368-1644), beginning of Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. However, most likely, Wang Lang lived (if he ever existed) at the beginning of the Northern Song Dynasty (969-1126) dynasties, primarily because of the existence of one source, independent from Praying Mantis Boxing traditional history. This source is two books that survived the fire when Shao Lin monastery was burned down by Chinese militarists (warlords) in 1928. The first is "Records of Shao Lin Monastery" and the second is "Records about Shao Lin Boxing". Both books contain the same data about significant events which took place in the monastery at the beginning of Song Dynasty.
It is said in the "Records of Shao Lin monastery": "...The Supreme monk of Shao Lin monastery Fu Ju invited eighteen masters of eighteen schools of martial arts to visit Shao Lin monastery in order to perform their skills and to teach Shao Lin monks for three years, to absorb the best from each master and combine this experience into manuals about Shao Lin Boxing..." In the hand written copy of the "Records about Shao Lin Boxing" it is said: "...During the Song Dynasty the abbot of the monastery was the great monk Fu Ju, his virtue was high and his reputation significant, he perceived Buddha, martial arts, medicine and literary culture, his name was known everywhere between the borders of the Heaven and the Seas. In order to improve the martial skills of the monks' brotherhood, he invited great masters of eighteen martial art schools to come to Shao Shi (Shao Shi is the place were Shao Lin monastery is located).
There were two goals: the first was to teach monks the martial arts and the second was to perform their arts, to learn from each others' strong points in order to offset each others' weaknesses..." What masters and what styles of boxing did the abbot Fu Ju invite to the monastery?
In the Praying Mantis Boxing Manual (Tanglang Quanpu) recorded the late 1700s, the unknown author provides a list of masters and styles of boxing that abbot Fu Ju invited to the monastery:
1. In the beginning there was "Long-range Boxing" (Chang Quan) style of emperor Tai Zu.
2. "Through the Back" (Tongbei) boxing of Master Han Tong's considered parental.
3. Hand technique "Rap Around and Seal" (Chan Feng) of Master Zhang En is especially profound.
4. "Close-range Strikes" (Duanda) boxing of Master Ma Ji is the most remarkable.
5. It is impossible to come close to Master Huang You who knows the "Close Range Hand Techniques" (Kao Shou).
6. The technique "Blocking Hands and Following Trough Fist" (Keshou Tongquan) of Master Jin Xiang;.
7. The hand techniques of "Hooking, Scooping and Grabbing Hands" (Gou Lou Cai Shou) of Master Liu Xing.
8. The "Methods of Sticking, Grabbing, and Falling" (Zhanna Diefa) of Master Yan Qing.
9. The "Short Boxing"(Duan Quan) of Master Wen Yuan is the most extraordinary.
10. The style "Monkey Boxing" (Hou Quan) of Master Sun Heng is also flourishing.
11. The "Cotton Fist"(Mien Quan) techniques of Master Mien Shen is lightning fast.
12. The "Throwing-Grabbing and Hard Crashing" (Shuailue Yingbeng) techniques by Master Huai De.
13. The technique of "Ducking, Leaking and Passing through the Ears" (Gunlou Guaner) of Master Tan Fang.
14. The strongest leg kicking technique is "Mandarin ducks kick " (Yuanyang Jiao) of Master Lin Chong.
15. The "Seven Postures of Continuous Fist Strikes" (Qishi Lianquan) techniques by Master Meng Su.
16. "Hand Binding and Grabbing" (Kunlu Zhenru) techniques of Master Yang Gun attack instantly.
17. The techniques of "Explosive Strikes into the Hollow Parts of the Body" (Woli Paochui) by Master Cui Lian.
18. "Praying Mantis" (Tanglang) boxing of Master Wang Lang absorbed and equalized all previous techniques.
One of the Shaolin monastery books provides the same list and ends it with the concluding passage, "All these were gathered and brought together by Chan (Zen) Master Fu Ju from Shaolin monastery."