Southern Praying Mantis, An Effective Chinese Martial Art System
Many years ago, when I first started studying wing chun, I was told by the other students that the only other Chinese Martial Arts style that gave them any trouble was Southern Praying Mantis.
More recently, one of my former wing chun teachers told us that in his quest for learning more about different styles and techniques, he trained with a Hong Kong Southern Mantis sifu for several weeks full time. He described the training as extremely arduous, and it mostly consisted in form training and other hard training exercises for power and exercises to increase the strength of the “bridge arm”, which is the point of contact between your forearm and your opponent’s.
This Sifu was very sparing in his praise of other arts, schools, or instructors, but he spoke very highly of southern mantis and incorporated some of the tendon strength training into his curriculum for advanced students.
Similarities between Mantis and other hakka Kung Fu styles
When I took some private lessons in Bak Mei during the pandemic, I researched that style and found out that three styles, Bak Mei, Dragon Kung Fu, and Southern Praying Mantis were all very similar, and were considered to be “sister” styles. It was believed that the 3 founders trained with one another at the Emei mountain and exchanged techniques with one another.
I also learned that many of the bak mei hand shapes were very similar or even identical to the Wing Chun hand shapes, in particular Bong Sao, although the way these hand shapes were used was very different. While wing chun’s origin is subject to many different views, many Kung Fu scholars believe that one or more of these 3 styles may have been involved in the creation of Wing Chun.
Of the 3 arts, Southern Mantis is the only one that incorporates sticking hands, as can be seen from the first two videos above of Sifu Sapir Tal, a totally bad ass master-level instructor in Israel. Like Wing chun, Southern Mantis uses the wooden dummy, and most lineages emphasize training a much smaller number of forms than other Chinese Martial Arts.
Southern Mantis Forms
The main form is Sam bo Jin, or “three step arrow” form, depicted in the third video above, which is meant to train short power and tendon power for hand strikes. It has a striking similarity to the Sanshin form used in Okinawan Karate and Kyokushin Karate. This form involves focus on the breath to train the practitioner to focus his breath into powerful strikes.
Southern praying mantis also has Chi Gong exercises which foster relaxation, well-being, and health.
Southern Mantis, Bak Mei, and Dragon Kung Fu are all martial arts which are associated with the Hakka people of China, and are called Hakka styles. While Wing Chun is not a Hakka style, it does incorporate some elements of Hakka.
The Hakka people were similar to migrant workers or gypsies, and were often subjected to persecution by other ethnic groups in China, and were forced to develop their own fighting systems.
Praying Mantis Techniques
Southern Mantis, like Wing Chun, uses a fairly upright stance, with the arms held close to and in front of the body, and emphasizes short, fast hand strikes over kicks. The kicks that are used are always to the waist or below. Joint locks and throws are combined with the other close combat methods to make the style very effective at short range. It is considered to be very effective for street fighting.
Southern Mantis has many similarities to Wing Chun. Perhaps the main difference is that Mantis, like Bak Mei and Dragon, rarely uses the “regular” fist, instead preferring to use the phoenix eye fist, panther fist, or finger jab, and other striking techniques that concentrate the power of the strike into a small point or area. Southern Mantis also uses limb destruction strikes and is considered to be a harder style than Wing Chun.
Because of the concentration of force, extremely arduous and painful conditioning of the hands and forearms is necessary to avoid breaking or injuring your hands and wrists. As can be seen from the first video, stand up grappling is used to complement the strikes and end the fight quickly.
The combination of powerful strikes delivered to the most vulnerable points of the opponent with grappling and throws makes this system very effective for self-defense, but in addition to conditioning the hands, it is also necessary to develop balance, flexibility, and accuracy.
3 Praying Mantis Styles
The three most common lineages of Southern Mantis are Chow Gar, Chu Gar, and Iron Ox. Chow Gar is very popular in Australia, the most famous master is possibly Henry Poo-Yee, while Chu Gar was taught by Master Gin Gong-Mark for many years in the United States.
Master Mark wrote that a very young Bruce Lee trained at his school for one month, and actually did a practice spar against a junior student, which resulted in a draw. It is very possible that Bruce incorporated some techniques of Southern Mantis in his Jeet Kune Do.
Similarly to Bak Mei, schools are run in a very traditional way, with disciples instead of students, and transmission of the style is closely guarded so that only disciples who are very serious and have learned the entire mantis system, are allowed to open their own schools and teach.