I haven’t written about martial arts much lately, but I thought I’d like to give readers a glimpse of a kung-fu style they may not have heard about: Southern Praying Mantis.
Although I have devoted myself pretty much exclusively to Hung Gar for the past twenty-five years or so, the sifu I studied with when I began my kung-fu education back at the end of 1975, Master William Chung, had been trained in both Lam Sai Wing Hung Gar and Kwong Sai Jook Loom Praying Mantis. His Praying Mantis sifu was the famous Gin Foon Mark, and in addition to making sure that we had a solid foundation in the Hung system, Master Chung saw to it that we learned some Praying Mantis as well.
Like most Southern Chinese systems (including, of course, Hung Gar), Southern Praying Mantis (SPM) relies mostly on strong hand techniques, rooted stances, low kicks, and what is known in the business as “short” power. What that term refers to is the ability to deliver full power when the hand is already close to, or even in contact with, the opponent’s body. This in turn means that once a block is made, or the practitioner gains control of an opponent’s arm with his forearm “bridge”, it is not necessary then to draw his own hand back to in order to make a powerful strike. In this way striking can flow smoothly from blocking, with no time lost; once you have forced open a path to the opponent’s body you can seize it at once.
The key to this short power in SPM lies in having your feet rooted to the ground, and in generating torque through the midsection that can flow in turn through the arms to the target. Control of the breath is essential, as is “opening” and “closing” the upper body. When closing, the elbows and shoulders tend to draw together, the waist pulls back slightly, the breath sinks earthward, and the palms rotate so as to face upward. In opening, the shoulders pull back, the hips and waist drive forward, and the palms turn downward.
The other fundamental skill in SPM is “sticking”. What this means is that once the forearm bridge makes contact with the opponent’s arm, preserving the contact enables the practitioner not only to read the opponent’s intention with great speed and accuracy, but also, by interpreting subtle shifts of the opponent’s weight and direction, to move in such a way as to control and redirect the attacker’s arms, creating small openings that one can then drive through with short-range power. The hands work together fluidly so that when one takes control of an opponent’s arm, it will often pass control to the other hand so that the original blocking hand can get “on top”, or can get through to the body.
SPM is purely a fighting art; it does not, unlike many other systems, including Hung Gar, contain any elements (at least as far as I know) that are there for purely aesthetic reasons. It is an outstanding close-quarters fighting system, and although I’ve chosen to focus on the Hung style, I still practice the SPM I know, not least because it comes in handy when I need to sneak one in on my most advanced students and training brothers, some of whom are getting awfully good these days.
If you’d like to see some of this stuff, there are quite a few videos online. Here is a good look at some of the kinds of hand techniques I’ve mentioned (just ignore the silly music, and the swaggering tone generally), and here is some very old footage of Master Mark himself, making mincemeat of a Choy Li Fut expert.