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From the Brink of Extinction

by John Chang

If not for one man, a unique and powerful style of Kung Fu would have vanished into extinction, forever unknown to future martial artists. Born in Shandong Province on July 31, 1901, Wei Hsiao Tang was destined to determine the fate of a truly fascinating new style of Kung Fu that would become known as 8 Step Praying Mantis—but not before facing the harrowing events of his time that would threaten to claim his life on more than one occasion.

The young Wei Hsiao Tang began his journey into the world of Kung Fu at age 16 when his father asked Feng Huan-Yi to teach his son Kung Fu. Contrary to today’s popular myths, Grandmaster Feng was not a famous martial artist, but simply the owner of a local Chinese medicine shop. Yet, Grandmaster Feng was a talented and accomplished martial artist who had enjoyed the unique privilege of studying a brand new style of Kung Fu developed by his Kung Fu brother, the better-known Plum Blossom Praying Mantis Master Chiang Hua Long.

Like most Praying Mantis styles, Plum Blossom Praying Mantis emphasizes external Kung Fu. In the later years of his life, Master Chiang became fascinated with the internal principles underlying all Kung Fu, and believed Praying Mantis techniques combined with internal principles would create a uniquely powerful style of Kung Fu. He learned much about internal Kung Fu principles from his fellow masters, Wang Zhong Qing, master of Bagua, and Chen De Shan, master of Hsing-Yi and Tong-Bei. Together, these three masters developed a new style that would become known as 8 Step Praying Mantis.

To this day, 8 Step remains one of the most unique Praying Mantis styles in existence. Visibly distinct from most Praying Mantis styles, 8 Step Praying Mantis has far fewer techniques and forms, and seldom sports the telltale mantis hand. Like many internal styles of Kung Fu, 8 Step Praying Mantis forms are often performed slowly and deliberately, emphasizing precision over speed. This combination of internal principles with traditional Praying Mantis techniques makes 8 Step Praying Mantis not only unique, but a rare and valuable bridge uniting internal and external styles of Kung Fu.

At age 20, the young Wei Hsiao Tang finished his formal training under Grandmaster Feng and began formally teaching 8 Step Praying Mantis. Little is known about the fate of Grandmaster Feng, although some believe he went on to become a Taoist monk for the remainder of his life. The young Wei continued to grow and learn as a martial artist, befriending 7-Star Praying Mantis Master Luo Guang Yu and Tai Chi Grandmaster Wu Jing To. Yet, Grandmaster Wei would refer only to Grandmaster Feng as his shifu. His dedication to Grandmaster Feng and to 8 Step Praying Mantis was forever unwavering.

The war-torn China of the 1920’s guaranteed that skilled martial artists were always in demand. As warlords and bandits ravaged the country, leaving unending tragedy and destruction in their wake, local governments organized to defend their territories. Like many Kung Fu experts, Grandmaster Wei was hired to train soldiers in the local army to defend against the ever-present threat of besiegement.

In the 1930’s, Grandmaster Wei returned to teaching 8 Step Praying Mantis to non-military students in Shanghai at the Shanghai-Shandong Physical Education Academy. Yet, the 1930’s were no less dangerous than the 1920’s, as Grandmaster Wei found out during a visit to Korea in 1931. Already in control of Korea, the Japanese Empire was searching for a reason to justify invading China to expand its control over East Asia. Some Koreans were sympathetic to the Japanese and would often stir up trouble between local Koreans and the Chinese living in Korea to provoke a violent response from the Chinese. While traveling in Korea, Grandmaster Wei was present when a Chinese man became the target of an angry mob. Grandmaster Wei pleaded for the mob to leave the man in peace, but quickly became a target of the mob himself. When a cable car full of angry Korean onlookers began chasing him, Grandmaster Wei knew he could not face all of his attackers at the same time. He fought off his attackers by running away until he could face only one attacker at a time. When Grandmaster Wei found himself cornered by a man with a large hook-like weapon, he had no choice but to fight off multiple attackers at once. In the end, Grandmaster Wei recounted to his friends that he had escaped with his life after killing 3 men, badly wounded another, and inflicting further damage to some number of more fortunate attackers. Unfortunately for China, 1931 also saw the Japanese invasion of Inner Manchuria and the beginning of Japanese tyranny in China.

As the Japanese Empire kindled war against the Chinese in Korea, the Russians had already occupied Outer Manchuria for over half a century. To the Russians, a Chinese life held little value, as Grandmaster Wei discovered for himself when traveling in the region. When a Russian soldier began pushing Grandmaster Wei, his first reaction was simply to move back and avoid confrontation. When he found himself being pushed into a dark alley, he knew he had no choice but to defend himself. As the Russian soldier pushed him, he struck the soldier where he knew the blow would directly wound the soldier’s lungs. When the soldier immediately began coughing up blood, Grandmaster Wei ran as fast as he could. He never knew if the Russian soldier survived or not.

In 1937, nearly five years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, China unofficially declared war on the invading Empire of Japan, one of the first major wars that would later boil over into World War II. Like many Chinese men of his time, Grandmaster Wei found himself fighting against not only the Japanese army, but also the Chinese Communist Party’s Red Army led by Mao Tse-Tung. By 1945, the Japanese had been defeated, but not the Red Army. Grandmaster Wei fought with the Nationalist Army against the Red Army until 1948, when he was captured by Red Army soldiers, tied to a tree by his hands, and beaten mercilessly until he was believed dead. Grandmaster Wei later told his students that he held his chi in the dan tien to support himself through the ordeal. When nightfall came, Grandmaster Wei managed to untie himself and flee.

Having narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Red Army, Grandmaster Wei fled to nearby Korea, leaving behind a wife and son, never knowing when or if he might see them again. Over the course of the following year, the Red Army inflicted over 1.5 million casualties on the Nationalist Army, largely using seized armaments abandoned by the Japanese after their defeat in 1945. By 1950, the Chinese Communist Party had won the war and the Nationalist Army had retreated to the island known today as Taiwan.

As with many Chinese nationalists, Grandmaster Wei rejoined his compatriots in Taiwan, where he would live out the rest of his life. In Taiwan, Grandmaster Wei hoped to be reunited with his family. Although reunited with a nephew, he did not find his wife and son in Taiwan, and was left to wonder about their fate.

Grandmaster Wei went on to live a peaceful life, working as a cook until he had enough money to invest in a restaurant, which provided him with his primary source of income for the remainder of his life. Grandmaster Wei resumed teaching 8 Step Praying Mantis at National Taiwan University’s Kung Fu Club and in the public park that has since become a place of legend to today’s 8 Step Praying Mantis students. Yet, he seldom charged his students money, demanding only loyalty and respect for his senior students as payment.

As the Cultural Revolution swept through mainland China from 1965 until Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, Kung Fu was seen as a symbol of China’s oppressive past. Martial artists were rounded up, “reeducated,” tortured, and sometimes even killed for their knowledge of Kung Fu. To this day, there are no known students of Grandmaster Wei’s from mainland China who continued the 8 Step Praying Mantis lineage.

In the 1980’s, at over 80 years of age, Grandmaster Wei continued to pass the knowledge of 8 Step Praying Mantis down to his students by teaching in the park every morning. Even at 80 years old, Grandmaster Wei demonstrated remarkable skills. In an amazing display of his mastery of internal Kung Fu principles, he would extend a punch in slow motion toward his most senior students, who would attempt to block the punch many times before the punch finally reached its target completely unhindered by the student’s frantic attempts. Grandmaster Wei also routinely sparred with any new student who had prior martial arts training. Most were in prime condition in their 20’s, and some were already accomplished martial artists who had won championships. It seldom took Grandmaster Wei more than 2 or 3 techniques to defeat his opponent, and his movements were always slow, deliberate, and fluid.

Grandmaster Wei was overjoyed when he received a letter from his long-lost son after nearly 40 years since fleeing China. He and his son sought to be reunited in Hong Kong, but the vicious politics of his time had one last tragedy to visit upon him. The mainland Chinese and Taiwanese bureaucracies—perpetually fighting one another over travel visas, routes, and destinations—denied Grandmaster Wei and his son the necessary approvals to make their reunion possible.

In all the decades that Grandmaster Wei lived in Taiwan, he never re-married. He was even known never to have dated another woman, remaining ever faithful to his wife, whose fate in mainland China he never knew. After decades of mourning the loss of his family, his hopes of ever recovering the life he once knew had been renewed only to be dashed yet again.

On Sunday, March 11, 1984, Grandmaster Wei taught his students in the park as always. One student remembered Grandmaster Wei demonstrating the application of a Tai Chi technique next to a park bench. “I was lucky the bench was there to stop me from getting thrown down even further,” recounted the student. The next day, Grandmaster Wei was found dead at the age of 83. It was a surprise to all of his students who knew him to be in great health, even throwing young men in the park a day earlier. Some believe that he lost the will to live after losing his son for the second time. Others believe his health had gradually declined. Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Today, Grandmaster Wei’s tomb lies next to his long-time friend and Kung Fu brother, Zhang Hsiangsan, master of Six Harmonies Praying Mantis. Grandmaster Wei’s students visit his tomb every year to pay their respects. To his students, Grandmaster Wei will forever be remembered for his incredible mastery of martial arts and the gift he has passed along to the world of Kung Fu: the unique style of 8 Step Praying Mantis, which would have been lost forever if not for his lifetime of dedication.

Yet, his students also remember him for the kind and honest man he was. “Grandmaster Wei was a true gentleman,” remembered Shifu Lin Chun-Fu at a recent gathering of Grandmaster Wei’s former students. “He didn’t smoke or gamble, and rarely drank.”

“Teacher treated us like his own family,” added Shifu Zao, another of Grandmaster Wei’s former students. “We were poor students when we learned from him. He even gave us money for new clothes when he saw us wearing ragged clothing. He would cook meals for us when we visited his house. One of his students even stayed with Grandmaster Wei for a few days when he had trouble with his family. We treated him not only as our teacher, but as a father—not like today, when the relationship between shifu and student is so often built on money.”

“In the early 1960’s, I had a clash with the local gangsters,” remembered Shifu Vincent Chen. “They threatened to burn my house down and kill my family. Most of my friends were scared and stayed away from us. They didn’t want any trouble. While everyone else avoided us, Grandmaster Wei actually came to my house and sat at the front door for several days to protect us.”

Some of Grandmaster Wei’s students went on to become well recognized in the West, including Master Adam Hsu and Master Su Yu-Chang. Others, like Shifu Vincent Chen, have gained wide repute in Taiwan for their skills using 8 Step Praying Mantis. Still others continue to pass along the 8 Step Praying Mantis tradition to a new generation of students. Shifu Zuo Xian Fu continues teaching 8 Step Praying Mantis in Taipei. In the U.S., Shifu Wu Er Li teaches 8 Step in Houston, Texas. And, in California, Shifu Lin Chun-Fu and I lead groups of private students.

Although 8 Step Praying Mantis remains a relatively rare style of Kung Fu, its future is sound in the hands of Grandmaster Wei’s loyal students. Over the years, each of us has continued to learn, each emphasizing different aspects of Grandmaster Wei’s teachings. Today, we have recently begun to bring all of our interpretations of Grandmaster Wei’s teachings back together again to create a standardized set of teachings that most faithfully represents the full instruction we all received from Grandmaster Wei. While we all readily admit that no one of us has the skill that Grandmaster Wei had, together we are forming a more complete picture of the unique and powerful style of Kung Fu he imparted to us. Together, we are determined to ensure not only that 8 Step Praying Mantis survives, but that the next generation of students remembers and appreciates the sacrifices and character of the man whose life was dedicated to passing a very special style of Kung Fu on to future generations.

© Copyright 2005 John Chang. All rights reserved.