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In 1972, I first heard about the Shaolin Temple and kung fu during the David Carradine starring, TV pilot episode of Kung Fu. I love animals and was moved when Master Kan said, “From the crane we learn grace and self-control. The snake teaches us suppleness and rhythmic endurance. The praying mantis teaches us speed and patience. From the tiger we learn tenacity and power. And from the dragon we learn to ride the wind.”

I wondered if I could learn kung fu from watching animals too?

Praying Mantis Kung Fu

praying mantis kung fu
Mantis I captured in winter season

When I was sixteen, my doctor said I’d be dead in five years due to the deadly disease cystic fibrosis. Weeks later I saw a Bruce Lee film that inspired me to learn kung fu and chi gong, a path that saved my life and influenced me to walk across America in 1986.  While working toward an entomology degree at Cornell University, for my undergrad thesis project, I decided to mix education with my passion for martial arts.

At the time I was studying Okinawan goju-ryu karate and knew little about animal styles. According to Shaolin lore, circa 1656 A.D., while Shaolin monk Wang Lung, spurned by a recent combative loss, was studying his Buddhist texts, he heard a praying mantis attacking a cricket. Awed by how easy the mantis defeated its prey, he began prodding the mantis with a piece of straw and observed how the insect jumped back and forth to escape harm, used its front legs to parry it away, then grasped and crushed the straw.

After years of observation, Wang created the 13 Arm and Hand Movements of the Mantis. My goal was to re-create 17th century Chinese history using 1978 camera equipment.

praying mantis kung fu
Mantis vs. Crow
Photo Credit: H. Maldonado. 1970. Z. Vgl. Physio 68: 60-71.

There’s 2400 species of mantis in the world and they’ve become popular cultural mythological figures.

In France, people assert the mantis could point a lost child home. Africans say they can bring back the dead and bring good luck to anyone they land on. Europeans believe they were reverent to god because they appear to be praying and in Arab cultures the mantis was thought to point toward Mecca. American folklore claims that mantids blind men and kill horses.

Feeling a little lost myself, I too was hoping that the mantis could bring me luck as I was praying for a decent grade.

Recreate the Origin of Praying Mantis Kung Fu History

praying mantis kung fu
Mantis vs. Cat - 1984
Photo Credit: News Gazette, Champaign, Illinois.

Between 1978-79, I raised European mantis, a two-inch long pale green insect, then like Wang, used a piece of straw to provoke aggressive behavior. I also filmed them fighting other predacious insects as well as male-male, female-female, and male-female mantis fights. After logging 200 hours of videotape and using slow motion playback, I identified 10 stereotypical repertoires of behavioral patterns that mantids employed during attack, defense and provocation. I next created how one could copy those behavioral patterns.

In animal style kung fu, one becomes the animal. Tiger stylists slash with clawed hands, monkey specialists run around on all fours, rolling, flipping and aping monkey facial antics and screams. To be a mantis I stood with a slightly bent legs, back straight, and shaped my arms like jackknives to mimic its highly adapted raptorial (grabbing) forelegs.

Whether for self defense, improving health or wishing to be one with nature, each of the aforementioned artists had their reasons for studying the various animal fighting behaviors. My reason was to recreate the origin of praying mantis kung fu history, and prove that one could learn kung fu from an animal, do a novel thesis project and graduate from college. But had I really successfully recreated martial arts history?

Praying Mantis Stance

praying mantis kung fu
Craig in Mantis Stance
Photo Credit: Monique Ozimkowskl, Laura Blomgren

Four months later I was a graduate student studying rice pest management at National Taiwan University. Each new student did a seminar to the entomology department’s grad students and faculty. I presented my Cornell research. With the help of a friend, who acted like several predatory insects, I demonstrated what the mantis taught me.

My friend extended his arms straight out in front of his body to mimic a predacious stink bug’s long protruding piercing mouthparts that it uses like a sharp battering ram to puncture its pray. In my mantis stance and like a mantis, I sidestep, used my forearms to parry his arms away, jabbed my arms straight out to push him back then grabbed his neck with my curled down hands and pulled him toward me. As man against man, he attacked with rapid punches and I used my mantis postured arms and footwork to block, parry or avoid each punch, then lashed out, grabbed his neck and fake snapped it.

I explained that when confronted by large attackers, a mantis raises its arms high and spreads its wings to look bigger, and then will either strike at the attacker or push it away. I also demonstrated a mantis strategy used if its prey is out of reach. By slowly swaying their body side to side like a leaf, it hides the effect of their moving shadow, which disguises their forward body movement. In this way they can get within striking distance of the prey without moving their legs.

A Mantis Specialist

praying mantis kung fu
xinem, Flickr CC License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/christinestephens/9394074541/

A year later, I’m working on a kung fu soap opera for China Television (CTV) as a Persian magician helping the hero avoid evil Manchu assassins by using praying mantis kung fu. The show’s fight choreographer was a mantis specialist. I was excited to share my research with him. I showed him the movements and when he asked who’s my teacher, I told him the insect.

He sneered saying, “Show me.” By then, I had put the 10 movements into a sequence. He grinned and said, “You crudely performed the first 10 techniques of Wang Lang’s original 13 movements. You’re the American Wang Lang.” I joked not knowing the other movements because Wang used the five inch long Chinese mantis, the European one was too small to see everything clearly.

It was confirmation proving that whatever the founder saw, his observations could be repeated by others. The mantis showed me what he taught Wang Lung.

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