Repositioning Standards in Traditional Praying Mantis
Kai Uwe Pel
Having dedicated almost twenty five years of my life to traditional Seven Star Praying Mantis, I feel extremely privileged as it has become an inseparable part of my life, providing me with many good friends, many good experiences, and an education in the traditional combative arts. On top of that it has given me many opportunities to visit and research other quality traditional Mantis schools and systems, meet world class Mantis masters and students, exchange and participate with the global Mantis community, and learn what true 'traditional praying mantis' is. Over the years however I have also witnessed a gradual de-evolution from predominately traditional Mantis to ‘watered down’ versions commonly seen today. It is in this regard that I have reached the stark conclusion that the standards set by the old masters have deteriorated to unacceptable levels.
The culprit lies in a flagging commitment to maintaining the highest levels of applied excellence and quality. In the real world (including traditional Mantis), applied performance is the only true measure of success. If individuals simply go through the motions and put in a half assed effort, they will get half assed results in return - garbage in garbage out as the maxim goes. More often than not people become complacent in their training and loose perspective, eventually leading to mediocrity and an overall “watering down affect” upon the integrity of traditional kung fu systems, as well as the higher standards excellence the past masters established before us.
In this piece entitled, a Repositioning of Standards in Traditional Praying Mantis, I would like to underscore the importance of maintaining an overall commitment to achieving the highest standards of excellence and quality in everything you do, and in particular Mantis. I will specifically highlight some traditional perspectives as well as shifting phenomenon occurring in the traditional Mantis world as related to concepts of tradition, the internet, performance videos, belts & certificates, and the meaning of forms.
If you find yourself becoming complacent, give yourself a kick in the Mantis ass, challenge yourself and your peers, and raise those standards to the next level. All successful individuals regardless of profession understand and practice this operandi.
2. Meaning of Tradition
For people practicing PM under a high quality traditional teacher, the entire notion of what is ‘traditional’ and the standards expected of them are very clear. But for those not so lucky it can be rather elusive. Preferring to stay away from troublesome definitive explanations attempting to pin point the exact merits of a traditional system based on historical documents, oral history, timelines, lineages, and technical systems, I will rather highlight a few key underlying concepts and themes of traditional Mantis. In short, traditional Mantis is combative, is dedication, is comprehensive, and is a commitment to excellence.
2.1 Traditional is Combative
Traditional Mantis is 110% combat oriented designed for one reason and one reason only – fighting (some individuals prefer the term ‘self defence’ as it does not elicit the same kind negative images). Of course there are other personal as well as health giving benefits from studying, but Mantis was not designed for the purpose of simple exercise or self realization. If you are not learning how to fight you are not learning traditional Mantis. All too often I see people loosing sight of this in their training, where they just go through the motions lacking focus, power, speed, precision, and most importantly intent. This results in an overall watering down effect and inhibits your ability to achieve fighting proficiency. Engaging in any kind of training exercise that lacks combative focus and intent is a bastardization of traditional Mantis.
Another notion within this precept is the idea of being system specific. That is if you are going to label yourself traditional Mantis, you better know how to fight using the strategies and techniques generally employed within the Mantis system. It is a real travesty to see PM individuals revert to kickboxing basics under the pretence that it is Mantis. This is not Mantis skill.
2.2 Traditional is Dedication
Traditional Mantis is NOT a part time endeavour one participates in two or three times a week. It is training seven days a week, it is focussed, it is intense, and it is quality training where one pushes their mind and bodies to the limits and beyond. If you are an individual who grimaces at the thought of that lactic acid burn, one who chooses to cut out the last three repetitions because it hurts to much, finds the idea of fighting too controversial, and/or lack the overall motivation to push yourself to and train everyday, then unfortunately you are not dedicated by traditional standards. Anything less is regarded simply as extracurricular and/or leisure time.
Often individuals will make poor excuses that modern life styles do not permit enough time during the day to adequately train. But I would argue in its simplest terms that dedication today is no different than it was three hundred years ago. Everyone works, and when you are not working you are training. Very much similar to the concept of a high performance professional athlete - if you want to achieve superior performance in your area of expertise, you must make sacrifices, and you must train day in day out at a level of physical and mental intensity superior to anyone else. Look in the mirror and realistically ask yourself, am I a dedicated practitioner by traditional standards?
2.3 Traditional is Comprehensive
Traditional Mantis training is pragmatic, and progressive. Pragmatic in the sense that it is practical, realistic, no none-sense, hard nosed, common sense combat training covering most scenarios. There are no mystical secrets in Mantis – only hard work and intelligent training with an experienced teacher. If your teacher tells you there is secret knowledge then they are full of themselves, possibly insecure, possibly elitist, and/or more than likely just hiding their own lack of knowledge or ability to fight (dong shou).
Traditional is progressive in the sense that training advances in a very logical yet rigorous manner from a series of controlled fundamentals movements providing the students with theoretical building blocks (i.e. strength, flexibility, coordination, speed, body mechanics, determination, power, single motions, combinations, forms training, two man drills, base applications), advancing through a series of progressive stages designed to increasingly build, enhance, and apply the students fundamental base (i.e. increasing intensity and reaction training, increasing use of applied body mechanics and variations in applications and combinations, and the increasing use of applied speed/power/focus, etc…), with the eventual goal of building a high performance free fighting Mantis athlete. These examples cited are by no means exhaustive in traditional Mantis training, while in fact an entire piece could be dedicated to detailing the process.
If you feel your training is not preparing you properly or adequately for a street fight then your need to reassess your commitment to the program, or the nature of the program itself. Unfortunately there are many so called teachers out there who either do not care, have not received the full transmission of knowledge, or who have chosen to water down the learning process in order market traditional kung fu to the general public. If teachers accelerate the process to quickly, and/or completely miss out on developing key attributes, this will drastically inhibit the students ability to achieve combat proficiency by the traditional standards, while weakening the overall integrity of the system.
2.4 Traditional is Commitment to Higher Standards
Traditional Mantis is about commitment to maintaining the highest standards of excellence in everything you do. It requires you to break out of the shell of mediocrity and push your cognitive and physical abilities to the next level and beyond. Not only with regards to achieving your potential in Mantis fighting, but also in making yourself a better person and upholding key values of respect, integrity, responsibility, honour, pride, passion, self discipline, and learning. In the real world this is what separates the successful human beings from the mediocre ones, and in the past this is what separated the true masters from the wannabe’s. More often than not this tends to be a sticking point for many ‘teachers’ as they do not continually strive meet new standards in applied performance, nor are they truly committed to providing their students with the best quality education in the Mantis combative arts.
As a final disclaimer there is a lot more one could say about what is and isn’t traditional Mantis, but I feel these simple common sense concepts cover the bulk of such. Moreover the above concepts should be viewed as an all or nothing endeavour, and would argue that inadequacies or a lack of commitment in any of the above automatically negate your illusion of being traditional.
3. Belts & Certificates – The World of Empty Recognition
Belts and certificates denoting the accumulation of theoretical knowledge or achievements of some designated level of martial proficiency have absolutely no place in the traditional training hall, and never will. Truly dedicated practitioners remain focussed on one goal and one goal only – applied personal performance. Superficial revenue generating, newbie motivating, ego enhancing pieces of paper to hang on student’s walls, as well as status oriented sashes to tie around the waists insecure masters are virtually meaningless in the real world of fighting performance. It is always amusing to hear individuals introducing themselves as 9th degree red sashes, or whatever magic marker color scheme they have, as if it is some internationally recognized standard of Chinese combat proficiency. When was the last time you saw dedicated professional athletes and coaches adopting status oriented belts, certificates, and levels? The bottom line is, the only way to realistically assess your ability in a traditional martial art is to engage yourself in an applied no holds barred fight. As disheartening and controversial as this sounds, there will continue to remain an unverifiable and perhaps delusional gap between your combat proficiency and your designated belt level. This gap of inconsistency further promotes the watering down affect I mentioned earlier on the integrity of traditional systems.
4. The Zone for Kung Fu Junkies & Arm Chair Masters
The internet has provided Mantis practitioners with a wonderful tool for sharing and exchanging ideas and information across large geographic regions. It has also enabled us to make new friends and acquaintances with some very top quality individuals and practitioners. But it has also become the wasteland for kung fu junkies and arm chair masters who thoughtlessly post low quality, technically insufficient, gemeric, erroneous, and misleading pieces regarding Mantis concepts, their latest PM research findings, their favourite techniques, uploading their personal training clips, and in general publicizing their obvious lack of PM knowledge and commitment to producing quality work.
Admittedly from time to time there are some excellent posts from teachers and individuals who are obviously very knowledgeable and thoughtful; however the majority of contents tend to remain hap hazardously below average, more often than not bordering on realm of what can only be described as perhaps a temporary loss in cognitive abilities and/or virtual ignorance.
In the future I would like to encourage individuals to put more thought, care, and diligence into their postings in order to improve the overall quality of the Mantis forum. And as a reminder for those new to Mantis with a genuine interest, it would definitely be wise to seek advice and/or take up questions personally with your teacher, rather than risk the inconsistencies of the forum.
5. Perspective on Online Performance Videos
Personal performance/training videos possess merit for analyzing your own individual body mechanics and/or techniques. And although it does not replace the presence of a truly qualified and knowledgeable teacher, it can provide you with valuable supplementary feedback.
Recently however I have witnessed an alarming increase in the number of purportedly traditional Mantis video/training clips posted online. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with doing so, I remain deeply disturbed in four regards: i) the quality of execution (not cinematography), ii) the pretence under which they are posted, iii) the general online response to such clips, and iv) how it reflects upon traditional Mantis community.
5.1 Quality of Execution Does Not Meet Traditional Standards
I will apologize in advance for the use of direct language but we need to cut through all of the delusions and get down to the bottom line. The majority of video clips posted were absolute rubbish in terms of the quality of execution. The standards of traditional Mantis as passed down to us from the generations before us demanded precision execution in applied skill, speed, power, and combative intent. Anything less was not, and is not acceptable.
Possibly most disturbing have been the so called Mantis sparring clips, demonstrating picture perfectly what real traditional kung fu is NOT. No where in any of those videos did I see traces of APPLIED Mantis fighting fundamentals. Everything from intent, contact, footwork, body positioning, timing, distancing, reaction, kicking, striking, bridging, controlling, speed, power, and the entire arsenal of Mantis techniques were either none existent, or at below average levels. It was amateur kickboxing night at best. There were even video clips of Mantis combatants wearing full protective gear and executing with zero power and zero intent. Top level traditional teachers would never teach, never tolerate, and never accept this type of behaviour and/or skill in their training halls. This is so far from the original teachings. As a side however I do agree with the concept of common sense training and not maiming your kung fu brothers and sisters. This is a given.
Moving on, there were also a few below standard forms performances floating around the Mantis forum. Everything from just all-round poorly executed forms, to clips of individuals performing forms at tai ji speed in competitions. Fundamental errors and problem areas continue to surface with regards to footwork (bu fa), upper body mechanics (shen fa), and execution with regards to speed, power and intent. Footwork including stances and transition’s were NOT STRONG, meaning not precise, not low enough, not stable enough, not coordinated enough, not explosive enough, and not fast enough. If you do not have good footwork then you do not have good kung fu. The shen fa or upper body mechanics lacked precision, power, intent, fluidity, and once again was not in coordination with the lower body. Flailing arms at high speeds with uncoordinated footwork is not regarded as a sound performance. I will however in all fairness give credit as some of the performers were in fact students and not teachers. It really blows me away to think that these are the acceptable performance standards from traditional Mantis teachers nowadays.
As a disclaimer I will note that there have been a select number of video clips performed by true masters properly demonstrating various aspects of traditional Mantis skill.
5.2 Pretence of Postings – Does Not Qualify as Traditional
Posting below average video clips of supposed Mantis sparring and forms performances under the pretence that it represents traditional praying Mantis skill is absolutely absurd. The skills presented in such video’s are very far away from the original teachings of our past masters, and they would be shocked to see such a degradation of such.
5.3 Online Reponses – Poor Traditional Representation
Equally shocking, or not, is the general air of online approval complimenting participants on their fine execution of Mantis skill. Unfortunately this very clearly highlights one of two things; a) a fundamental lack of understanding of what good traditional Mantis is, or b) politically correct face saving politeness in lieu of less than satisfactory performances.
5.4 Watering Down Effect on Traditional Mantis Community
Although I commend those individuals for their good intentions and bravery in attempting to seek constructive feedback, and/or somehow further promote greater Mantis awareness, but good intentions and poor execution are not acceptable in the real world, including traditional PM. Unfortunately such activities reflect poorly on those individuals, their schools, their teachers, and in general the greater Mantis community
6. Meaning of Meaningless Forms
Forms are a valuable intermediary training tool, but do not and can not build real applied fighting skills. This all sounds very common sense but it is surprising how many schools mistakenly, unknowingly or not, regard forms as being the highest level of achievable skill in traditional Mantis kung fu. Intentionally or not, a divergence exists. At this point it can not be stressed enough that the truly highest level of traditional Mantis kung fu is real free fighting ability using the skills and strategy the (Mantis) systems represents – not kick boxing.
As mentioned above, forms function as only one training tool amongst the many pieces of the larger puzzle in the traditional PM training curriculum. And although they do not teach us things how to fight, they do serve some intermediary purposes:
Provide students with an introduction to the basic motions of Mantis
Enable students to develop theoretical footwork, body mechanics, coordination, balance, speed, quickness, limited combinations, etc...
Act as a gauge in the early phases of development enabling teachers to measure (estimate) the dedication of the student via the progress in his/her forms (i.e. the rate of improvement has a direct relationship with the time a student inputs into their training)
Note: Once again much more could be written about the detailed function forms play in the intermediary phases of a students training, but for now the above are sufficient in highlighting some of the more obvious functions.
Unfortunately there remain a number of paper tigers out there who are capable of performing beautifully technically proficient forms, while at the same time portraying the image of being “old school” traditional, yet incapable of using Mantis to take care of themselves in a combative situation. Wushu performers tend to take the blunt of this, however there remain individuals and teachers within legitimate traditional systems who put an interesting spin on the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, acting like fierce free fighting Mantis beasts, and talking the talk, but in reality no more potent than the old “wushu” man Mr. Hide himself.
The entire issue of Over Valuing forms stems from an individuals flawed understanding and/or misconstrued attitudes towards traditional Mantis. The reasons for which are beyond this paper, but what is important is the result - a paradox shift from combat oriented training, to forms oriented training, where forms eventually end up taking on the essence of the system. This is a genuine travesty in the PM and traditional martial arts world.
Forms are beautiful to watch, but when it comes to the end of the day they are just another training tool in the Mantis curriculum. In this perspective forms should be taken for what they are, nothing more, and nothing less.
7. Closing Remarks
The intentions of this article today were not to directly attack anyone, but to rather simply highlight and bring to attention some of the deteriorating standards that exist in the traditional Mantis community, as well as provide some very classic and very specific examples. As traditional Mantis is a large part of my life, this topic in particular remains close to my heart.
Traditional Mantis is many things to many people, but its essence remains fixed, and can not be changed nor compromised. Traditional is combative, traditional is dedication, traditional is comprehensive, and traditional represents a firm commitment to maintaining only the highest standards of excellence and quality in our training. Divergence from any of these and you compromise your claims to training traditional kung fu. Yes in theory you may train a traditional system, but you do not actually train traditional. Traditional is not about talking, it is about doing. It is not about how many forms you know, but how well you can use them. It is not about superficial belts, uniforms, certificates, or competitions; it is about true dedication, true knowledge, and true performance.
I would like to make a call for all ‘masters’ who read the site to no longer accept low standards. In closing I strongly believe it is better to be forthright, honest and demanding, than to blindly accept low standards and exercise politically correct attitudes.
Kai Uwe Pel
Shanghai - dated June 8, 2004