Last week a friend of mine (thanks Gudrun) sent me a photograph she took of a praying mantis (order Mantodea). The mantis is a curious insect. It appears fragile and even prayerful, but it is more fierce than it looks.
The picture got me thinking about the various styles of Kung Fu, and how many of the martial arts grew out of observation of the creatures around us. So I went in search of the history of Praying Mantis Kung Fu.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) in China, martial arts had drifted into two groups, with the first group consisting of practical techniques used by soldiers, while the second group transformed into a performance art. Many new styles were developed during the Ming Dynasty, including Praying Mantis Kung Fu.
By this time, the famous Shaolin temple had started taking secular students, including a small man named Wang Lang. Lang struggled with the Lohan Kung Fu taught there at the time, and in sparring his fellow students always beat him. One day after a rough practice, he sat under a tree to rest and spotted a praying mantis fighting a larger cicada. Even though the mantis was smaller, it won the fight and inspired Lang to copy its movements.
Lang captured a few mantises and studied them to develop new techniques. Although he couldn't beat the best monks at the temple, his skill improved so much it caught the attention of one of the master monks. The master helped Lang improve his new style, especially the footwork, some of which they borrowed from Monkey Kung Fu.
With the master's blessing, Lang left the monastery and travelled throughout China learning various arts, which he incorporated into his Mantis style. Eventually, he returned to the monastery to teach, and his style became very popular.
A Taoist priest, Sheng Xiao, visited the Shaolin temple and was amazed at the new style, but shocked that the monks weren't studying their traditional Lohan Kung Fu. The Shaolin Abbot was in a tricky position--he wanted to support the new Mantis style, but he didn't want the old Lohan style to die out. So he made a deal with Xiao. In return for teaching him the new style, Xiao would agree to spread Mantis Kung Fu in his travels.
Thus an entire system of martial arts grew out of a meeting between an insect and a frustrated but hard-working young student, along with the help of a Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest.
(Mantis picture courtesy of Gudrun. The picture of the Shaolin temple is from the New York Post. The history is from THE ART OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU by Wong Kiew Kit.)