photos by Max Kotchouro
Prior to reading these notes below, I recommend reading my research notes leading up to this point. It will help you lay context for my observations and findings.
Research Notes: To Dissect a Mantis
Research Tool: Mantis Boxing Historical Timeline
What has become abundantly clear to me through the research I’ve been undertaking on Mantis Boxing; along with the discovery and extrapolation of more and more techniques from within the forms, as well as the examination of the historical data surrounding the collapse of a dynastic period of a major civilization in world history, is the following -
Mantis boxing as we know it today, the versions of the style passed down to us for the past 120 years, is fake.
Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain. Fake is a strong word, and intentionally bombastic on my part. It carries with it a harsh connotation especially when it comes to an art that is held so dear to so many loyal followers. Present company included.
Fake, implies deception on the part of those teaching or partaking in the practice of it today. This...is anything but the truth. Without those teachers, practitioners, stewards of the art, who have carried this broken and hollow skeleton forward through time, we would not have any hope of a future for this art, or perhaps even Chinese boxing as a whole. To them, we owe everything. So what do I mean then when I use the word ‘fake’?
The idea that tanglangquan had some ‘special’ technique(s) never seen in any other Chinese boxing, or martial arts style in the world, is unrealistic, fantastical, or…fake. Almost all of the ‘real’ applications (and there are many), that come out of the forms, are absolutely amazing and effective combat methods. Methods that are alive in martial art styles today; including the remaining functional Chinese art, shuai jiao, and it’s progenitor from the Steppes peoples to the north - bokh.
A majority of the forms practiced by the various lines of praying mantis boxing were created after the turn of the 20th century. They are not combative forms. They are not even made by people who necessarily knew how to fight with mantis. This is evidenced by photographs we have of said people that began documenting the art in the first half of the 1900’s.
Note: I did not say, these practitioners could not fight. I am saying, that they did not fight with mantis. As is evidenced by the photo representations of the applications depicted in their books (see Huang Han Xun’s manuals for examples). Therefore, if some of the forms are choreographed by people that did not know how to use the moves within, then they are ‘fake’ martial arts.
If the forms contain applications common to the Chinese boxing methods of the time (1800’s), and offer nothing unique that sets the mantis ‘style’ apart, then the forms cannot be what defines mantis as being mantis. The keywords and their integration into a fighter’s combat methods could however, define what it means to be a mantis boxer.
The ‘mantis hand’ itself, is fake. This is unfortunate, as it’s rather unique and extraordinary, but it is the harsh truth. It is nothing short of branding. Marketing, as I explained at Chapman University in the Martial Arts Studies talk that I gave. The fingers curling under (as seen above) are incapable of grabbing effectively, and offer no distinct advantage in fighting. As a matter of fact, it offers a plethora of liabilities.
Unfortunately, this hand posture has confused generations of worthy and dedicated practitioners of the art. Myself included. A fleeting mirage we focused on as we have sought to unlock the applications behind this ‘Mantis Catches Cicada’ posture. Which at its core, is nothing short of - ‘engarde with the hook’ (depicted further below).
The reality of this is simple - these hooks with a hand (without the fingers curling), are common holds, ties, binds, and lifts. Think of how you would hook a leg for a knee pick. How you would hook a neck for clinch. An arm for a hold. These hooks are common to many throws, and clinches in Chinese boxing as well as other martial arts the world over. Something I began to realize and wrote about back in 2013. They are not grabbing full speed punches out of the air. This quickly becomes evident when testing our art against a 3-punch-combo from a western boxer.
Someone, at some point, took said hooks, curled the fingers, and stamped the name ‘mantis boxing’ on it. This includes other moves that have ‘faux’ hooks such as - the double hands up engarde with cat stance (mantis catches cicada seen below), curling the hands over into hooks and branding it ‘mantis’. The double rising hands that is also seen in Méihuā Quán (Plum Blossom Boxing), but without the mantis hooks exists as the opener to a mantis boxing classic known as Lan Jie (Intercept and Counter). This is a push counter takedown that is now stylized with unnecessary hooks. Something akin to performance art, rather than real fighting.
Incidentally, that opening move found in Lan Jie, is the exact opening move of the Méihuā Quán form. Minus the hooks. The closing 180 degree turn to mantis catches cicada? Also in Méihuā Quán minus the hooks. Thanks to the works of Zhang Guodong, Thomas Green Carlos Gutiérrez-García, and Ben Judkins, whose works I cited in my research on Qing dynasty totem styles, Méihuā Quán was being spread through marketplaces in Shandong and other northern provinces and heavily influenced the martial arts of the late 1800’s in China. The abundance of ‘plum blossom’ references in the mantis boxing of the turn of the 19th to 20th century cannot be ignored. An entire line of mantis was born with this moniker, forms were named after it, symbols adopted, and moves in forms were direct simulacra.
The photos above show exactly the same posture. The former is branded as ‘mantis boxing’ by using the hooks. Countless hours have been spent by myself, and other accomplished boxers/fighters trying to crack open the application of this move. Once you look at the prevalent styles in the Shandong region that influenced mantis boxing, it becomes apparent what this posture truly is - engarde w/ mantis. A way of stating - ‘we are mantis’.
When I use the work fake, it is not to insult, or demean any of us who have dedicated our lives to this art. Mantis practitioners are some of the most committed people I have met. The purpose, is to shine full light on the shadows. Exposing our weaknesses and laying bare a truth that we as mantis boxers all need to come to grips with. Our art stopped working a long time ago. We need to be focused on fixing it.
Embracing this truth so that we may turn our attention away from forms, styles, lineage, ceremony, and other superfluous distractions to what really matters - survival. We must turn to the task at hand. Restoring this dying martial art to relevance in the modern world. Making mantis boxing ‘real’ again. Setting it up to be the art it can truly be - a well rounded hand-to-hand combat system that works superbly in the clinch.