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Internal Mantis

by John Chang

When thinking about internal Kung Fu, the styles that usually come to mind are Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-Yi. Traditionally, most styles of Praying Mantis are classified as “external” and “hard” styles. Traditional 8 Step Praying Mantis was deliberately created to bring internal principles into a Praying Mantis style. Born out of a marriage between Plum Blossom Praying Mantis, Bagua, Hsing-Yi, and Tong-Bei, 8 Step Praying Mantis today represents a truly internal Praying Mantis style that preserves many Praying Mantis applications and techniques while focusing largely on internal principles and power.

In the nineteenth century, Chiang Hua Long, master of Plum Blossom Praying Mantis, spent most of his life studying this powerful style. Toward the end of his life, Chiang Hua Long became fascinated with the internal principles of Bagua, Hsing-Yi, and Tong-Bei, learning extensively from his contemporaries, Wang Zhong Qing, master of Bagua, and Chen De Shan, master of Hsing-Yi and Tong-Bei. Together, these three masters created 8 Step Praying Mantis in the early twentieth century. Five years after the creation of 8 Step, at the age of 16, the young Wei Hsaio Tang began studying 8 Step Praying Mantis under Feng Huan-Yi, the top 8 Step student who studied under Chiang Hua Long. Today, students of traditional 8 Step Praying Mantis all trace their lineage through Grandmaster Wei Hsaio Tang.

When I studied 8 Step Praying Mantis under Grandmaster Wei, he exhibited extraordinary skill in the internal martial arts. I can recall Grandmaster Wei asking his most senior students to block his punch. He would throw a very slow and relaxed punch toward them. One of the senior students could block the punch only every once in a while while the other student never blocked it successfully. The punch would move so slowly that the students had ample time to try several blocks before Grandmaster Wei’s fist would finally reach its target. Still, they could not move his arm with their blocks. Muscle had very little to do with Grandmaster Wei’s power, as Grandmaster Wei was in his seventies and his students were in their twenties.

Even today, I am unaware of anyone within the 8 Step community who has reached Grandmaster Wei’s level of skill in the internal martial arts. Shifu Vincent Chen, arguably one of the most knowledgeable leaders in the 8 Step Praying Mantis community today, readily admits that he is still aspiring to equal Grandmaster Wei’s abilities.

The emphasis on internal arts makes 8 Step Praying Mantis visibly distinct from other styles of Praying Mantis. Practitioners of other Praying Mantis styles will immediately notice a number of differences when watching an 8 Step form. For example, the tell-tale mantis hand is used much less frequently. The mantis hand itself is very relaxed with tension only in the smallest finger and ring finger, the two fingers used for gripping. Stances in 8 Step are often higher than in other Praying Mantis styles. Bagua stylists will also clearly recognize some of their own steps in some 8 Step forms.

Wang Shujin, Master of Bagua and Hsing-YiGrandmaster Wei
Photos: Wang Shujin, Master of Bagua and Hsing-Yi, followed by Grandmaster Wei demonstrating the Tiger Set stance in 8-Step Praying Mantis, 8-Step's primary "fighting stance."

Another noticeable difference in 8 Step forms is speed—or the lack thereof. Practitioners of other Praying Mantis styles may be surprised to see how slowly 8 Step students often practice their forms. Although speed is clearly a virtue in any martial art, students of 8 Step practice slowly to make sure they are precisely executing the numerous subtleties of each technique. As they perfect the subtleties of each move at slow speeds, they become increasingly able to speed up without losing precision. Eventually, students perform 8 Step forms a little more slowly than most external styles, with sudden increases in speed at the moments when a technique in the form should release power. These sudden increases in speed allow the student to feel whether or not the technique generated internal power. Without much practice at slower speeds, the student’s techniques would never generate significant internal power.

Monkey footwork in 8 Step is less noticeable than in other Praying Mantis styles. Although 8 Step has less leaping than other Praying Mantis styles, 8 Step still retains the original spirit of monkey footwork for mobility, controlling distance, changing the angle of attack, and ground fighting.

Another byproduct of 8 Step’s focus on internal arts is the limited number of techniques. To apply internal principles and derive internal power from each technique, 8 Step students must precisely practice each technique with great attention to detail. My own beginning students often spend months simply learning the straight punch and a few stances, because of the numerous subtle movements that must be brought together to produce internal power. The attention to detail given to each technique makes it impractical to learn a large number of techniques. More external Praying Mantis styles offer a much greater variety of techniques than 8 Step.

Those of us who practice 8 Step find it very difficult to perform the forms of other Praying Mantis styles. Aside from the immediately visible differences from external Praying Mantis styles, 8 Step includes many subtle movements and internal principles that create fundamental differences in basic movements that might otherwise appear similar on the outside. For example, internal power is derived more from jing than muscular strength, which requires a precise alignment of bones and joints. Mastering this precise alignment explains, at least in part, how Grandmaster Wei in his 70’s was able to prevent students in their 20’s from blocking his slowly extended punch. All styles of Praying Mantis use jing to varying degrees, but many reserve jing only for the most advanced students. Students of 8 Step must work on jing from a very early stage, or they risk never truly understanding the fundamentals of the style. An 8 Step student who has learned to practice forms slowly, derive power from jing, and pay great attention to each detailed movement, will find it difficult to shift to a more external Praying Mantis style that emphasizes muscular strength, conditioning, speed, and a wider variety of techniques.

I believe that 8 Step Praying Mantis enriches the larger world of Praying Mantis Kung Fu by extending that world to include a truly formidable internal style worthy of mention alongside better-known internal styles such as Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-Yi. Many styles of Praying Mantis have already gained noteworthy recognition among external Kung Fu stylists of all kinds. My hope is that 8 Step Praying Mantis will grow and one day win the same recognition among internal Kung Fu stylists as well, helping to further elevate the entire Praying Mantis family.

© Copyright 2005 John Chang. All rights reserved.