Research Notes: To Dissect a Mantis

Notes for Chapter 8

A summarized re-written history of Mantis Boxing

The following takes all of the data collected this past winter from my timeline research (people, places, events, catastrophes, wars, rebellions, etc), as well as the mantis family tree, and assembles it into a condensed re-write of a more grounded history for mantis boxing. This is a brief overview notating some discoveries and answering questions, as there were many. For the purposes here, I removed mythical backstories and unsubstantiated people. Beginning instead with verified living representatives/associates.

Here are a few of the questions I hoped to answer in my research on Praying Mantis Boxing.

  1. The records are foggy prior to the 1800’s on the history of Mantis Boxing. Did mantis exist prior to this period?

  2. If so, why did the 4th generation, fresh out of catastrophe on an epic scale, and the Boxer Uprisings, suddenly start branding vanilla Mantis Boxing with other names - Plum Blossom, Supreme Ultimate, Seven Star? Other Chinese boxing arts did not see this same anomaly, yet it was prevalent in Yantai. Did this happen later as we went to the 5th generation in the first half of the 20th century?

  3. Why are the forms inconsistent with each line of Mantis? If they existed as part of Liang Xuexiang’s art, why did the next generation change them?

  4. Why then for the next century were practitioners so meticulous about keeping these forms intact, with little to no disruption?

  5. Why was Li San Jian credited as a Praying Mantis Boxer, when there is no evidence that he ever practiced the ‘style’.

  6. Why did his descendant, Wang Rong Sheng, who, by using dates and events, did not learn Mantis from Li San Jian, and clearly learned mantis boxing from his friends, (Jiang, Song, Hao) ‘students’ of Liang Xuexiang, end up as a major representative of the style? Especially when he did not have the pedigree the other’s shared?

  7. There is a recognizable crossover with meihuaquan in tanglangquan. What is the significance of the plum blossom symbolism and the prevalence with its use? Is there a link to meihuaquan, a style spreading through marketplaces in the northern provinces leading up to the Boxer Uprisings, yet adamantly against the violence and attacks on soldiers, missionaries, civilians, and property, such as churches and railways?

  8. Jiang created and named a form in honor of the boxers connected with the rebellion - ‘Righteous and Harmonious Fist’. Was Jiang connected to the Boxer Uprising, or just angry at western encroachment and abuses like many in Shandong?

  9. Why is 6 Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing so different from the other lines?

Begin…

A man by the name of Li Bingxiao (李秉霄, 1713-1813), becomes known for his fighting skills in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. He supposedly uses technique(s) that hook with two hands. As he gets older, he’s nicknamed - ‘2 hooks, Li’, or ‘2nd Elder of the Hook’. There is scant evidence of his backstory, but what has been carried down the lineage tree, is suspiciously close to the the Confucius origin story. Confucius being highly revered in China for centuries, and originating in the same province - Shandong. Li teaches a student named Zhao Zhu.

Note: 6 Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing Segway

At this point there is an oral note in the lineage charts that Wei San (De Lin), accredited founder of the 6 Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing line, met and sparred with Li Bingxiao.

“They could not best one another, but Wei San took some of Li Bingxiao’s methods.”

Thus begins the historical record of 6 Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing. Wei San’s background was in Liuhequan (6 Harmony Boxing), aka Xingyiquan. The oldest form in this line of mantis is known as ‘Duan Chui’ - referred to in English as ‘short strikes’, but more appropriately it means - ‘to hammer a weak point, or to beat a weak point or fault with one’s fists’. This form is known to be the creation of Wei San’s student Lin Shichun, who was a bodyguard for the Ding family for a large portion of his career.

[Side note - this form is quite possibly the oldest representation of Xingyiquan in a form.]

The form known as ‘short strikes’, is the only form in this line at the time, and has zero mantis hooks within. Something the practitioners of this line seem well aware of as it varies from their other forms. I will continue this further down as we get to the branching of mantis.

Resume…

Zhao Zhu (1764-1847), becomes a teacher himself. He teaches his sons, and a student Liang Xuexiang (1810-1895) as he grows up. Liang goes on to serve in the military, and becomes a famous biaoshi (security-escort master) & boxer; one with a reputation and record that makes him a well known fighter in his province. His nickname is ‘iron fist’.

Li Bingxiao’s and then Zhao’s techniques are passed on from Liang Xuexiang’s hands, to include his own influences, to a new generation (4th) of boxers that includes his son. With the exception of the last, the teaching of many of his students takes place while Liang is in his late 60’s during a major famine preceded by 3 years of drought. 9.5 to 13 million people died in the region during these 3 to 6 years.

At the time of joining Liang, all of these men were accomplished, proficient fighters before meeting their ‘teacher’. This student/teacher relation appears to be more of a mentor/client relationship. Liang would show them some techniques, while they would protect him, and his family in his old age during extremely violent times. His counterpart, Li Sanjian, did the same with his two students when visiting a friend in Yantai during this same period. His students - Wang Rongsheng, and Hao Shunchang,

Note: Li Sanjian was credited with starting the line known as Seven Star Praying Mantis Boxing. Most people are now in agreement that this is false, and a way for Wang Rong Sheng to pay respect to his teacher, a branding advantage, or otherwise. Li never did mantis boxing, and while it is possible he knew, or knew of Liang, there is no indication he learned mantis from Liang, and was a more famous fighter by all accounts than Liang.

Liang Xuexiang, and Li Sanjian were both renowned escort-masters that ran dart bureaus ( biaoju ) in their lifetime. While they were likely still quite capable at defending themselves, they saw the writing on the wall in violent and chaotic times and circled the wagons so to speak. Calling on younger, more capable fighters to assist them.

These fighter’s benefited from this relationship as well. It would afterall, be an honor to claim these famous veterans as their teacher. The younger generation benefited from this arrangement as much as the old.

The fighters under Liang Xuexiang add, now Liang’s, techniques (these hooking methods) to their own fighting skills. They are all rough and tumble fighters that have gone through multiple ‘mass droughts/famines’, rebellions, and grew up in a region full of strife. Their home province of Shandong, has a reputation in China for producing tough, hardy people, especially boxers. It is a significant region in the history of the nation, where rebellions, bandits, invasions, and catastrophe have all left their mark.

The 4th Generation prior to ‘Mantis’

Style Notes:

Luohanquan, or Arhat Boxing, is a term developed in the early nineteen hundreds by boxers of the time attempting to revise history and accredit their martial arts to Bhudda. Stripping this away, it points to a general ‘Chinese boxing’ style of the Qing era that comprised of many common techniques that were not particular to any one ‘style’. Without the ability to label them, anything not clearly defined, usually gets called luohanquan.

Changquan, or Long fist is a more modern term used to classify the large body of ‘styles’, or more appropriately, boxing methods of the northern Chinese provinces. This can include lesser known styles as well as techniques shared in Hong Quan, Meihuaquan, Tongbei, Tanglang, Ying Zhua, Taijiquan, etc.

Hou Quan, or Monkey Boxing, is by all accounts one of the older ‘systems’ in the north. As evidenced by mention of it in Qi Jiguang’s book he wrote, in which he takes survey of the local martial arts in 1560 during the Ming dynasty. 300 years prior to the lives of these boxers.

Ditang, or Ground Boxing, is still alive in Shandong to this day. Evidence is lacking from General Qi’s book, but it is apparent it predates or at the least, runs concurrent with mantis boxing.

Liuhequan (6 Harmony Boxing), aka Xingyiquan is a style born from the Muslim population in northern China, and eventually was adopted by the Dai family as the fighting methods for their biaoju company and the guards under their employ. This is relevant to mantis boxing as it is the primary influence behind the 6 Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing line.

  • Jiang Hualong - luohanquan, hou quan (monkey boxing)

  • Song Zide - luohanquan, hou quan (monkey boxing)

  • Hao Lianru - luohanquan

  • Sun Yuanchang - ?

  • Wang Rongsheng - changquan (long fist) + ditang quan (Ground Boxing) + whatever Li Sanjian taught him. Although that relationship was similar to Liang and his disciples.

  • Ding Zicheng - luohanquan (family art), xingyiquan/liuhe.

Four of the above mentioned fighters, all opened schools after the boxer rebellion and taught others. One of these boxers, Wang Rongsheng, goes on to teach two people. A disciple named Fan Xudong (silk merchant), and Wang’s own son. Prior to this, or during, Wang became good friends with Liang’s disciples and they share knowledge with one another. All adopting the common name of ‘Praying Mantis Boxing’. They have all survived harrowing times up until this point.

6 Harmony Praying Mantis continued…

It is not until the 3rd generation of this line (and 5th with the main line), that ‘mantis hooks’ show up, along with more forms. Ding Zicheng grew up under the tutelage of Lin Shichun, and learned his methods/bodyguard techniques. As we travel into the 20th century, Ding becomes good friends with one of Jiang Hualong’s students - Cao Zuohou, a 5th generation mantis practitioner, now branded as plum blossom style mantis. The two go on to share students with one another, and it is noted that their followers could come and go to either school. This is where we begin to see the additional 6 Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing forms, and post Boxer Uprisings, and well into the ‘martial arts for physical education’ stage.

Resume Main Line…

Each one of Liang Xuexiang’s students, as well as Wang Rong Sheng, goes on to brand their own version of mantis (seven star, plum blossom, and supreme ultimate), drawing into question the legitimacy of the existence of a ‘praying mantis boxing’ prior to this generation.

This is evidenced by - the only commonality among all of their arts are forms with shared names, in addition to the branding move known as ‘mantis catches cicada’ (engarde with hooks), and the hooking techniques - seize leg, twisting hook, piercing hooks, lifting hook.

Nothing unique per se, as these hooking techniques (without the extra, and impractical curled fingers) exist in Shuai Jiao records. Perhaps unique to this area at the time, or unique in the setups to initiate the moves, or the follow-ups if the move is countered. This last part would be of particular interest to other fighters. The forms, vary from each line at this point, or perhaps were mutated in the generation to follow.

Note: assuming the style existed prior to these boxers, or more specifically the forms, and the methods of the mantis were Liang Xuexiang’s and his teachers before him, why would these boxers change the forms? People have been incredibly adept at keeping these forms intact for the past 100+ years. Why would these boxers all change them?

Without supporting evidence to the contrary, it is difficult to accept that the name Praying Mantis Boxing, existed prior to this point. It appears more likely that it was created by this 4th generation of friends in the early 1900’s post Boxer Uprising. Well after Liang Xuexiang, and Li Sanjian are deceased. Did these younger boxers/friends, brand their stuff ‘mantis boxing’ as a group, based on the techniques from Li Bingxiao they now have in common?

This would explain how:

  1. They have different names of their mantis. Each was able to keep an individual identity because they all had their own techniques unique to themselves. The ‘mantis’ techniques of Li Bingxiao are added to this, and we end up with labels to signify the difference - seven star, supreme ultimate, plum blossom.

  2. Why the forms are inconsistent in each line (they share names of forms, but beyond that, never have more than 2 lineages with consistent forms). If the forms were handed down for generations prior, they would be sacred and undisturbed, not changed by Jiang, Hao, and Wang. Liuhe tanglangquan (6 Harmony Praying Mantis Boxing) is a good example of this. The second generation of 6 harmony style (Lin Shichun) created a form known as Duan Chui (the only form until after the 3rd generation). Duan Chui still exists to this day, relatively undisturbed. Practitioners of all other lines of mantis since then, have been very adept at keeping these forms well intact with minimal changes. Making it all the more improbable that the 4th generation would all of a sudden change the forms as they saw fit. Unless…there were no forms prior, or forms were considered insignificant and not revered.

  3. This would explain how, and why Li Sanjian gets an honorary accreditation for a style he never did. It wasn’t a ‘style’. It was a handful of techniques that Wang Rongshengs’ friends showed him. Wang never studied with Liang Xuexiang, as evidenced by the fact that he took the mantis moniker, yet still claimed Li Sanjian (a non-mantis boxer) with his art. If Wang had studied with Liang, and then changed his forms, and never gave credit, it would be incredibly disrespectful, and dishonorable. His ‘friends’ would certainly take issue with this. Instead, this handful of methods from Liang, made it easy to blend in with the other things he already knew and learned. Wang keeps his ‘teacher’ because there is no pure ‘line’ to be loyal to.

  4. Identifies why one of Wang Rong Sheng’s descendents gets selected to represent ‘mantis’ in Jin Wu. Wang wasn’t ‘true mantis’ under the Li Bingxiao -> Zhao Zhu -> Liang Xuexiang line, so why would one of his students be picked to represent the mantis style for such a major endeavor in the south? If it really mattered? Why not one of the ‘true heirs’ - Jiang, Song, Sun, or Hao’s students? These boxers even had schools at the time.

  5. Finally, it explains why it was so easy for a 3rd generation descendant of Liuhe/xingyiquan to blend ‘mantis’ techniques that he learned from a 5th gen mantis practitioner, with his style 6 harmony. Combining a few techniques using the foundation taught to him by Lin Shichun. Ding Zhicheng wasn’t learning an extensive ‘system’, merely some techniques unique to these mantis boxers at the time, but certainly not unique in all of China, or the world.

What about the forms?

The forms did not matter. They were not cemented in place. They were certainly not sacred. The techniques within them were common to ‘styles’ of Chinese boxing, and Shuai Jiao in the region during that part of the Qing dynasty. The curled finger mantis hooks expressed within the forms, are not necessary for the techniques to work, and often confuse observers/practitioners on the true intent of the move. If anything, they prevent the actual moves from working properly due to aesthetic stylization being placed above practicality.

What about the keywords? Aren’t they unique? Do they not define it as ‘mantis’?

No. Also a part of the common boxing vernacular of the time. They offered nothing unique that isn’t found in Cotton Boxing and other fighter’s systems. Why a few of the 12 keywords, and a plethora of techniques are shared with taijiquan. The mantis keywords that are not also primary taijiquan principles, are listed in other texts as supplemental to the primary 13 keywords. You can see a comparison in this working document Praying Mantis Boxing vs. Supreme Ultimate Boxing.

In Summation

As we would find in BJJ today with someone using the infamous ‘spider guard’ - we have Li Bingxiao using his ‘double hooks’, aka - mantis takedowns that caused him to stand out. To have an edge.

His methods only allowed to exist as a ‘style’, because of a unique set of circumstances in history. Occuring at the end of an era of combat, and the beginning of an era of wuxia, and physical education.

Having seen and studied a wide range of Chinese boxing forms, provides me with a unique vantage point to be able to compare forms from various Chinese boxing systems north and south. The following are the moves unique to ‘mantis forms’ that I have not seen in the other styles, but does not mean they do not exist as my knowledge/experience is certainly no where near all encompassing -

  1. Seize leg (one variation)

  2. Wicked knee

  3. Hanging Hooks

  4. Twisting Hooks

  5. Pierce hooks (Edit: I later realized this is a shared application with one of the moves in Yang taijiquan’s)

  6. Possibly the ‘kicking legs’ method.

All of the above methods are easily shared with competent experienced fighters/martial artists. Simple, easy to grasp methods. Akin to what fighters would be learning, rather than convoluted systems of 70, 80, or 100’s of techniques/moves. Take each ‘boxing set’ at face value as a fighter’s ‘system’, and consider for a moment how unlikely it would be to collect those in times of chaotic strife...

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Arriving full circle -

We need not be bogged down by the chains of the past - politics, lineage, forms, etc. Take the best, discard the rest.

Mantis Boxing - an arsenal of hands, elbows; knees, kicks; throws and locks from Chinese boxing. We have the keywords to define it, and learn by. We have the roots. We honor them in our practice and continuation of the art.

Randy Brown

MISSION - To empower you through real martial arts training. Provide you a welcoming atmosphere to train in a safe manner with good people that you can trust.