Current status: open and active. Updating.
Edited - 6-2019
Brothers in Arms
Mantis Boxing vs Supreme 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 Qīng 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. The reality is, these styles have more in common with one another than any defining uniqueness.
For the past few years I have been working intermittently on this project and from time to time come back and update these notes with more findings, and observations. I noticed similarities with praying mantis boxing and supreme ultimate boxing back in 2012 while researching texts. 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. I quickly then asked myself, ‘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. Showing they shared more in common with one another than not. 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 broad characterization of tàijíquán they are thrown together in nowadays. From my research, it has been hard to locate any evidence of the term in relation to these 2 families and their boxing systems, prior to the second half of the 19th century when the Wu brothers wrote about it.
The Wu’s studied with Yang Lu Chan, patriarch of the Yang family, who had trained with the Chen family but used his own combination of 37 techniques later known as Yang style tàijíquán. I’ve been able to trace thanks to the translations of other researchers that speak Chinese, that the Wu’s later studied with Yang’s son after he passed away. Eventually they separated into their own style, and from all outward appearances, then began branding it as tàijíquán, or Supreme Ultimate Boxing.
One can quickly surmise that if the Wu’s called it such, that the grandson to the founder of the Yang family’s boxing system, Yang Cheng Fu, who incidentally is the most influential in the spread and recognition of tàijíquán in the world today, would lay claim to that name since the Wu’s learned from his family.
From there, the Chen family catching wind to this, could certainly take notice and say, well how can you be the Supreme Ultimate Boxing, if Yang Lu Chan learned from us. Thus, they all took on the name/moniker of tàijíquán.
Regardless of the chicken and the egg argument, the fact remains that the keywords used by tàijíquán share many common terms/principles with tánglángquán, speaking to a larger overriding argument that there was more in common with all styles of Chinese boxing as a whole, rather than differences. The following are examples of the crossover between these two arts:
Includes the primary keywords listed above, sub-principles listed in the tàijíquán manuals, and some tánglángquán correlating evidence.
Hook (Gōu 勾)
A predominant tool in tánglángquán and the first keyword, yet absent from the keywords in tàijíquán. However, it is still used in tàijíquán, and seen in techniques such as strum pipa, single whip, and snake creeps down. Hook, is also listed within sub-principles in tàijíquán manuals. Similar usage in application of ‘single whip’ vs ‘slant chop’, the initiation of pluck, requires a grab, or a hook. Hooking was not unique in Chinese boxing, and is quite prevalent in many of the various ‘styles’ from the region, including numerous shuai jiao applications. It would be more difficult to explain why ‘hooking’ wouldn’t exist, rather than why it does.
Pluck (Cǎi 採)
The ‘pluck’ principle is not only present in Chinese arts, but exists in styles from around the globe. In wrestling styles of the west it is commonly referred to as a ‘snap down’, but the arm variation of pluck, while included in the Chinese variant, exists in the west as a separate method known as a ‘drag’. This keyword runs strong in tánglángquán, and tàijíquán and it used heavily in conjunction with hooking, or splitting.
Enter (Jìn 進)
To enter as in a doorway. To advance. This keyword is shared between both tánglángquán, and tàijíquán, and other styles as well. The entire premise with xíngyìquán (mind intent boxing 形意拳) for example, is to go forth and blast someone with full intent. The concept of advancing in xíngyìquán is more in line with tánglángquán. Within tàijíquán, we see the concept of yielding and retreating displayed more prominently in their framework. I would attribute this less to any sort of superior approach, and more to do with the framers incorporation of taoist, or Chinese philosophical beliefs in general, into the tàijíquán agenda. The concept of Enter is straight forward - go in. Do not dally. Press the attack into the opponent to overwhelm them.
Lean (Kào 靠)
Both ‘styles’ work inside and outside of the clinch. Whenever we’re engaged in this range, we should be leaning forward to prevent easy takedowns, or being uprooted with minimal effort. The lean principle can be applied this way, but…it’s true measure is within the application of throwing techniques such as crashing tide, or white crane spreads wings. In both praying mantis boxing, and supreme ultimate boxing, the designer of the framework for these arts that later became known as the keywords, sought to convey significant value to this character and its importance.
Connect (Zhān 粘) | Cling (Nián 黏)
[In process] - Correlation between - Connect/Cling found in tánglángquán vs Stick/Adhere/Connect/Follow within tàijíquán. The significance of sticking.
Adhere (Tiē 貼)
Any grappling based art, or hand-to-hand combat system that includes grappling, whether on the ground, or stand-up, would be remiss not to include such a principle. This is further supported by this character being prominently listed in both tánglángquán and tàijíquán which use grappling and clinch work in their application. Tiē, is an emphasis on sticking, but closer in than the aforementioned sticking highlighted in both arts with Zhān, and Nián.
Elbow (Zhǒu 肘)
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.
The two styles share their kicking strategy in common. 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 xíngyìquán. This move shows up repeatedly in tánglángquán forms such as Tou Tao (White Ape Steals Peach).
The use of the 'chopping fist' shows up in both styles. This appears to have been Yang Lu Chan’s primary offensive attack/bridge. I suspect, based on the expression and representation in the original Chen style form, known as Cannon Fist that this is similar. This attack method is used repeatedly in styles of Chinese boxing found in the north and south, to include, but not limited to praying mantis boxing. Other stylessets relying heavily on this include - gongliquan, lianbuquan, tongbei, changquan, choy li fut, etc.
The Beng Quan (Crushing Fist) is used predominantly in both mantis boxing and Yang’s mianquan (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 crossover here is expected to be heavy. I will name them as they come to mind, but given the prevalence of the Mongol influence in the north, and the wrestling techniques of the Steppe peoples permeating the local cultures, it is likely this will be one of the strongest areas of similarity. Many of the movements even date back to Qi Jiguang’s unarmed boxing set used to train troops in the Ming dynasty.
Snake Creeps Down is the same move/attack as found in tánglángquán’s piercing hook method.
Single whip in tàijíquán is the same method known as slant chop in tánglángquán.
to be continued
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.
Tánglángquán, 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 split into multiple lines as did tàijíquán, except each branch with a multitude of varying forms, rather than a single representation, further diluting the art.
Tàijíquán, was also transformed into the health practice commonly known as Tai Chi today and was used for physical education. This took place in the early 1900’s; spearheaded by Yang Cheng Fu. It was excellent for all ages, and those who could not perform high impact exercise thus keeping it fairly intact through the ages.
Tàijíquán had already been split into different family lines (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu Hao, and finally Sun). It 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.
Praying 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 focus one’s studies on mantis boxing, or another style. In Jin Woo, practitioners performed sets at a faster, and more athletic pace, to a fault; as this later became a standard by which your ‘art’ was judged, versus 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.
Yantai, Shandong, China. Birthplace of Tánglángquán
Chen family village. Henan, China. Birthplace of Tàijíquán
Dai family biaoju company. Xingyiquan Region
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
Brennan, Paul. 2013. EXPLAINING TAIJI PRINCIPLES 楊班侯 attributed to Yang Banhou [circa 1875] - https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2013/09/14/explaining-taiji-principles-taiji-fa-shuo/