The Mantis School of martial arts originates from the Jiaodong Peninsula, and the name “Mantis” has been used to describe this form of Chinese martial arts since the mid-Qing Dynasty, circa the eighteenth century CE. What was being called before was lost in time, and we cannot tell for sure if there was such a school before that time. That said, many of the core ideas can be seen in some martial arts treatises dated back to Ming dynasty, circa the sixteenth century CE.
What sets the Mantis School apart from other schools of Chinese martial arts is that the Mantis emphasizes on being practical and “all encompassing”, i.e. the system covers the full range of melee combat, from far to close, and all angles as well. Take for example, some martial art schools would focus on the mid-range on the central line with straight punches, whereas the Mantis would go both straight and sideways with circular movements and strikes continuously. We would also close in from kicking to grappling or wrestling and go back to kicks again if the distance gets further apart. To put it in another way, there is no fix way in our methods; how one acts and reacts depends entirely on the situation. The system is about exploiting the flow of action to your advantage.
There are many branches within the Mantis School. While I cannot speak for others, as our school teaches and combines the Plum Blossom and the Six Harmonies styles, I will give a brief introduction to these two particular styles in the following.
The Plum Blossom Mantis
While it is usually known as the Plum Blossom Mantis, its full name is Plum Blossom Taichi Mantis when a thorough discussion is warranted. The name encapsulates two core ideas. First and foremost, the Plum Blossom style emphasizes on continuous movements in an aggressive flow. Every movement, whether in offence or defence, is followed by another, and every five movements together constitute a set or a “petal”; five “petals” then make up the plum blossom flower metaphor. Thus, the idea of Plum Blossom is that of an ever going revolution, where one keeps exploiting the gaps and openings for their advantage and does not pull back and break contact util the fight has ended. To make this idea easier to understand for the Western audience, we can think of it as the Ouroboros with five bumps.
This leads us to the concept of Taichi (or Taiji). While Taichi in ordinary parlance refers to the Style of Taichi as a separate school, the idea of Taichi is prevalent among Chinese martial arts, as it is also an important element in the Chinese culture. Like the idea of Plum Blossom or the Ouroboros, the symbol of Taichi symbolizes the continuous flow of actions in a circular way. Within the cycle of Taichi, there are two staggering and alternating motions, the so-called Ying and Yang. Ying and Yang themselves have no particular meaning, mystical or otherwise; they are mere shorthands for everything that has two alternating and staggering opposites: front and back, left and right, up and down, solid and hollow, stiff and tender, inside and outside, etc.
Movements are circular instead of straight and direct, because, while straight and direct actions (e.g. in striking) can be fast, they are easy to spot, move away from, or defence against, unless you do not expect such a move altogether. Furthermore, they lack the natural mechanisms for truly continuous flow, as: 1) you would need pull back your arm to perform another straight punch; 2) the force is spent whenever a strike has reached its end point in the straight line, while the circular motion allows the force to move into another revolution to keep going and/or change direction.
Now adding Ying and Yang to the equation. Suppose your right come into contact with the opponent’s left, and he has avoided your punch by either a block or a parry, many people would pull back their punches and try again. The Mantis system, on the other hand, with its emphasis of the flow, does not pull back; rather, it demands its practitioners to keep applying pressure with their hands against the opponent’s. If the right strike is blocked with enough forward pushing force, then one should “absorb” such force by directing it backward, while at the same time extend and attack with the other side, or go with the same side again, as such a redirection would change the opponent’s focus and expectations, and thereby creating gaps, openings, and more importantly, leverageable positions. These ideas are essential, and we will come back to them later.
The Six Harmonies Mantis
Six Harmonies is a generic term in the Chinese nomenclature for “all encompassing”, and the six being: up and down, left and right, front and back. Within the Mantis traditions, Six Harmonies is used more specifically to describe the synchronization of the spontaneous thought process and body movement, and thus, it is subdivided into the Inner Three Harmonies and the Outer Three Harmonies. The Inner Three being: mind and intent, intent and breathe, breathe and force. The Outer Three: hands and feet, elbows and knees, shoulders and hips. All six interrelationships combined together become one thing: the Six Harmonies.
This Mantis branch builds on the Plum Blossom style and extends its theoretical depth. While the core ideas remain the same, the Plum Blossom, in its expression, is more inclined towards speed, crisp movements, and an ostentatious use of force. Six Harmonies, on the other hand, focuses even more on the circular movement with the practitioner’s whole body in order to “absorb” the opponent’s forces better and to strike from any angle with an element of surprise. As such, this style utilizes both senses of the term Six Harmonies, as discussed above; its direction is all encompassing and it uses a lot of small movements with the turning and twisting of the body parts to generate soft and hidden power, which we call the “Dark Force” (暗勁, àn jìng, lit. Dark, hidden force).
The reason behind this particular style is the fact that people act and react differently, as combatants come from all walks of life, various skill levels, and plethora styles of martial art; therefore, there is no “best” or “correct” way to respond to a situation, as it all depends on what is happening on the spot. Plum Blossom’s speed and aggression are good against people who do not react as fast or as knowledgeable, but not so effective against people who can follow the movement and mount a stiff defence. Six Harmonies, on the other hand, are better in creating openings and gaps in face of stiff defence, as it utilizes the power of the whole body in conjunction with the opponent’s forces by maintaining contact, and go at it at surprising angle. The Six Harmonies style, therefore, is considered to be the more advance system of the two, and it requires years of practice, precise to build up fast and precise on-the-spot decision making skills to be used with tremendous effects.
Our Mantis System
Since we study both the Plum Blossom and Six Harmonies styles simultaneously, it is natural for us to combine them together as one thing instead of seeing them as two separate systems. It is important to note the distinctions during training, as that would help the students understand the concepts better, but in actual usage, we do not differentiate them, in fact, one of fundamental tenets of the Mantis System is that we do not have a predetermined form: the system is simply a model that direct us to some natural courses of actions; how one acts and reacts, what techniques to be used, is to be determined by the situation.
In real combat, no one is going to stand at a fixed point to simply strike, kick, or wrestle; people move about and will try to do something that is unexpected to gain an advantage. Therefore, an effective system has to be “all encompassing”, and we do that by incorporating wrestling and grappling to make up the full system. This is the reason why the circular movement is so important to our art, as wrestling and grappling require a lot of turning and twisting, either from the body or in terms of spatial movements. The idea of the ever revolving circle, or more accurately, a sphere, and the techniques of wrestling and grappling reinforce each other seamlessly. Once a technique has created a leverageable position, one has to turn and go along with gravity to follow it through. There is nothing mystical in this art; everything is done by body mechanics, i.e. physics.
That is not to say we do not have straight and direct moves; it is just that the turns and twists are ever-present, even when we go straight and direct. This is how we maintain contact and control over the opponent’s balance. The idea is not to find ways to hit the opponent; rather, it is about following the rules of the natural laws to take initiative away from the opponent and impose your will, whether to hit or not is secondary.
To summarise, the Mantis System is an “all encompassing” system of martial art that emphasizes both intra and inter-connections, and movements in a circular manner. These concepts allow us to meld striking, kicking, wrestling, and grappling techniques together to cover all situations. Its expression can appear to be very fast, crisp, and aggressive, or soft and opaque: however it is used depends entirely on the context and the flow of the moment, as it has no set form.
We can only describe the Mantis System and its concepts in a very board stroke here. Specific details will be discussed in other articles when it is more appropriate.