Brothers in Arms
Mantis Boxing vs Ultimate Boxing
Although Táng láng quán (praying mantis boxing 螳螂拳), and Tài jí quán (Supreme Ultimate Boxing 太极拳) have very different purposes in today's world, they share so much in common as fighting arts from the Qing dynasty, China, that I believe they are intertwined in history.
Shared techniques, principles, and geographic location all hint to a broader cross-pollination of Chinese boxing techniques in this time period, and region.
For the past few years I have been working intermittently on this project. I noticed similarities back in 2012 while researching texts on mantis boxing and supreme ultimate boxing. At the time, I was doing an article on one of the keywords of mantis boxing - Kao (Lean), and I recalled the 13 characters of tàijíquán had the same keyword.
I decided to do a character comparison between supreme ultimate boxing and mantis boxing, and see if it was the same 'kao'. Sure enough, they were the same character. If these were the same, were their other commonalities?
This lead to further research and comparisons, and soon I had a series of principles and sub-principles that drew a solid link between the two styles. The English translations people use can vary, but the Chinese character is found to be the same for each style.
Below is a work in progress but it is far enough along that I can share it.
Note: when I refer to Taijiquan, I am referring to my background in Yang style Cotton Boxing. The name was changed in the late 19th or early 20th century when the practice shifted to fitness/health, from practical fighting art.
The original names of Chen, and Yang family styles (see below), were very different than the common vernacular they are thrown together in nowadays.
Use the color coding to match up commonalities in the defining principles of each system as handed down from generation to generation:
肘 - Elbow (Zhou)
One of the core forms of mantis boxing is known as 8 Elbows, or Ba Zhou. The use of elbows is highly prevalent in Mantis Boxing. This correlates to the emphasis placed on the ‘elbow strike’ in tàijíquán in it’s prime principles.
勾 - Hook - (Gou)
Used in tàijíquán, and listed within sub-principles in tàijíquán manuals. Primary principle in mantis boxing. Similar usage in application of ‘single whip’ vs ‘slant chop’, the initiation of pluck, requires a hook, etc.
The two styles share kicks in common, along with striking/blocking combinations. Some of the kicks found in both styles are the ‘heel kick’, ‘toe kick’, and ‘cross kick’.
Striking & Blocking
The two styles share common striking attacks and counters.
‘Deflect, Parry, Punch’ from supreme ultimate boxing is found in Mantis forms as well.
Both styles depend on an upper block combined with a counter strike down the middle; known as ‘bend bow shoot tiger in tàijíquán, or ‘pao quan’ in xingyiquan. This move shows up in forms such as Tou Tao in tanglangquan.
The use of the 'chopping fist' shows up in both styles. This was Yang Lu Chan’s primary offensive attack, and it used repeatedly in styles of Chinese boxing found in the north. To include mantis boxing. I suspect, based on the expression and representation in the original Chen style form, known as Cannon Fist that this is similar.
The Beng Quan (Crushing Fist) is used predominantly in both mantis boxing and Yang’s cotton boxing. This attack is commonly found in mantis boxing forms, such as Beng Bu, Lan Jie, Ba Zhou, and Tou Tao, and more.
White Snake Spits Tongue is also a shared attack in both systems. Parry and counter-strike to the eyes, or throat.
The two styles took very different paths as time passed, yet originated with a similar intent. Yang tàijíquán was very condensed; using one form to house the entire system of 37 applications.
Mantis Boxing, on the other hand, had 2 or 3 original forms (allegedly), and later became bloated as more and more forms were piled on. The system eventually split into multiple lines, each with varying forms, further diluting the art.
Tai Ji Quan, was transformed into the health practice commonly known as Tai Chi today. This took place in the early 1900’s, and was used for physical education. It was excellent for all ages, and those who could not perform high impact exercise.
Tàijíquán had already been split into different family lines (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu Hao, Sun), and split again post-transformation from fighting to fitness. The original Chen family style (Cannon Boxing), and Yang family style (Cotton Boxing), were combative and extremely condensed. See my article on ‘The Dirty History of Tai Chi’ for more details, and a bibliography of sources.
Mantis boxing, was also absorbed into the national movement for better health and fitness. Jin Woo, Nanqing Guo Shu Institute are examples, but with a different methodology. They added pre-requisite forms known as fundamentals training prior to being able to study mantis boxing. They performed sets at a faster, and more athletic pace; to a fault as this later became a standard by which your art was judged vs the original combative intent.
In the end, it saved neither from becoming obsolete, broken, and losing their teeth. Lucky for us, the forms, and the keywords/principles survived; making reassembling the arts still possible.
Below are maps to show the provinces in China where these styles originate. Eastern Henan Province, Shandong, and Hebei province.
As Douglas Wile points out in his book - ‘Lost Tai-Chi Classics of the Late Ch'ing Dynasty’,
“the Yellow River basin was a hotbed for martial arts training and fighting. Many famous boxers emerged from this region and went on to be accredited with founding of their own fighting systems.”
Crossover of techniques and principles that work, or the use of a technique that defeated another opponent, would surely be picked up and used among anyone in the know.
The common use of bēng quán (crushing fist 崩拳), pào quán (cannon punch 炮拳), and pī quán (chopping fist 劈拳) in Xing Yi Quan, Tang Lang Quan, and multiple family styles of Tai Ji Quan offers a clear example of this cross-pollination of techniques.
Research Bibliography and Character Sources:
Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan - Fu Zhongwen, translated by Louis Swaim 1999, North Atlantic Books
The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan, Yang Chengfu, translated by Louis Swaim, 2005, North Atlantic Books