The Kung Fu Bug

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.

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    re: first video link

    Lotsa head slappin’. I did read the comments, though, and took one commenter’s advice to view the “Part 2 of 2” video to see how powerful those open-hand blows can really be… and was thoroughly impressed with the breaking demonstrations.

    There’s breaking in taekwondo and hapkido as well, but I’m not sure how much of it is about “short power.” TKD’s striking surfaces, for breaking (“kyeok-pa” in Korean) are usually the “knife edge” of the hand, the knuckles of the fist, the side of the fist, and occasionally the front edge of the hand (so-called “ridge hand”– good for strikes to the throat).


    Posted July 23, 2007 at 7:23 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Kevin,

    Make no mistake — the appearance of harmless “slappin'” is misleading indeed. Bear in mind that the guys in the video are training, not trying to kill each other.

    Southern “short power” is startlingly effective; when new students get a taste of it for the first time it seems like magic to them.

    The breaking of objects is not any part of the training (at least not in my own SPM training, or any that I know about); it is just tossed in there to look cool for the video. It’s trivial to break things once you have the mojo working. The hard part is dealing with a skillful opponent.

    Posted July 23, 2007 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    So when’re you gonna slap up a vid of you guys at your kwoon?


    Posted July 23, 2007 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Probably never, though you never know. If you like, though, you can see my Hung Ga sigung, Master Yee Chi Wai, doing the Gung Ji Fook Fu Kuen (one of our introductory forms) here.

    Posted July 23, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink